Toledo to vote on granting rights to Lake Erie

The Feb. 26 vote asks voters to add a 'Lake Erie Bill of Rights' into the city's charter.

Feb. 26 vote asks voters to add a 'Lake Erie Bill of Rights' into the city's charter

Markie Miller is an organizer with Toledoans for Safe Water, the group behind the ballot initiative. (Submitted by Markie Miller)

Should Lake Erie have rights?

People in Toledo, Ohio — a city on Lake Erie about an an hour away from Windsor, Ont. — are going to be voting on that question Feb. 26.

The special vote asks voters if they would support amending the city's charter to include a new section called the "Lake Erie Bill of Rights."

"We seek to build this legal framework ... to say that Lake Erie, as an ecosystem, has the right to exist and flourish and thrive," explained Markie Miller, an organizer with Toledoans for Safe Water, which introduced the measure. "And that the citizens here in Toledo ... have the ability to step in on behalf of Lake Erie and voice concerns."

In this Aug. 3, 2014, file photo, an algae bloom covers Lake Erie near the City of Toledo water intake crib off the shore of Curtice, Ohio. (Haraz N. Ghanbari/Associated Press)

The initiative has its roots in the 2014 Toledo water crisis, when high levels of algae on Lake Erie cut off the water supply for hundreds of thousands of people in the Toledo region.

If the measure is passed, Miller says the bill of rights wouldn't cause any immediate change on its own.

"What it adds is a legal tool that we get to use," she said. "It changes the argument where we don't have to go through the regulatory changes when there is a problem ... we would have the ability to go through civil court."

If adopted, only Toledo residents would be able to take advantage of the measure and Miller readily admits that problems facing the lake go much further than the area that touches her city.

"[The Bill of Rights] doesn't give us full jurisdiction over every single activity that impacts Lake Erie," she said. "But we're talking about a dynamic system that flows; problems tend to move around."

"So, I'm not sure how that's going to pan out exactly, but we'll have the ability to at least bring up that conversation."

Miller hopes that more communities along Lake Erie will adopt similar measures.

A sample glass of Lake Erie water is photographed near the City of Toledo water intake crib on Aug. 3, 2014. (Haraz N. Ghanbari/Associated Press)

According to the Toledo Blade, a group calling itself the "Toledo Coalition for Jobs and Growth" is running radio ads against the initiative, claiming that giving rights to the lake would negatively affect jobs and the regional economy.

Miller isn't concerned by that assertion.

"If a corporation or an entity is not willing to do business here because they're afraid of our anti-pollution laws, then we as a community maybe need to take a step back and say 'is that [somebody] we want to be stabilizing our economy?'" she said. "We need to have some say."

The idea of giving a body of water rights is something Miller admits may seem unusual, but notes that other jurisdictions, such as Ecuador, already recognize the rights of nature.

"It was crazy to give women the right to vote, right?" she said. "The civil rights movement was based on expanding rights to different groups of people. All of those ideas were met with opposition, and we can look back at those times and go 'oh, that was really ridiculous that we had to fight so hard for something so obvious.'"

"I hope people see this [vote] as an empowering moment — and something that we need to do for our own survival."


Jonathan Pinto is the host of Up North, CBC Radio One's regional afternoon show for Northern Ontario and is based in Sudbury. He was formerly a reporter/editor and an associate producer at CBC Windsor. Email