If a company can be granted personhood, why not a lake, especially a lake that is a primary freshwater supply. Voters in Toledo, Ohio answered that question last month, saying Lake Erie has the right “to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve” – rights normally enjoyed by a person.
The city has made the news a few times when the water coming from the 11th largest freshwater lake in the world has less than stellar. In August 2014, a super-size toxic blue-green algae bloom poisoned city’s intake, about two-and-a-half miles from shore, shutting down the water supply for most of three days and sending residents across state lines searching for potable water.
The lake has had some other problems – invasive fish taking over the habitat, for instance – but the repetitive algae problem is what really gets the attention. That and the agricultural runoff that feeds the algae. Throw in some climate warming to help things grow, and a few million people who need water to drink and bathe must look for it, sometimes in neighboring states.
The city essentially said the lake was to be celebrated and protected, in honor of its valiant efforts to serve those humans who depend on it for survival.
The vote prompted one farmer to file suit against the city, claiming the law violates his constitution right to farm, even if it means nutrient runoff from his fields flows into Lake Erie and poisons the water supply for the city’s 276,491 (in July 2017) citizens. The fifth-generation family operation, called the Drewes Farm Partnership, claims the city of Toledo cannot establish a law protecting a water supply that serves millions of people outside the city’s boundaries.
That last part is the root of the Drewes’ premise – that the lake is shared by millions of people outside the jurisdiction of Toledo. And many of those people are farmers whose operations, science has shown, contribute most of the nutrients that promote growth of the lake algae.
The law and the litigation pose an interesting question: do people living downstream of a pollution source have a right to govern the polluters’ operations. Like farmers in Lancaster and Adams counties, the producers who fill our breakfast and dinner tables are business people, trying to make a living from their trade.
Recently, the EPA, several states and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation have been pushing for farmers whose fields run off, via a broad networks of creeks and rivers, to change their processes. In Adams County, the Conservation District is staffed by folks who work daily with the county’s growers to institute ways to improve the yield and protect the water.
“I would agree that the ‘cost’ to the farmer of the BMP implementation vs. perceived value of improvements could be a deterrent,” said Adams County Watershed Specialist Joe Hallinan.
The costs, Hallinan pointed out, include actual dollars, but also the value of land taken out of production, the time, education and other non-tangible expenses.
I grew up working on farms. The work is hard, and the income, especially for those we visualize when we hear the phrase “family farm,” is often barely subsistence. Almost any farmer would tell us how important the land is to his efforts, how it’s to her benefit to be a good steward. But the bottom line … is the bottom line. We often refer to our planet as “Mother” Nature, as though she were a person, and we are beginning to realize the way we have been treating the Old Girl could stand some improvement. We will have to get used to the idea some of that improvement is going to cost real money.