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Toledo residents who approved an environmental bill of rights for Lake Erie didn’t have long to celebrate a special election victory Tuesday. Farmers who oppose the measure are fighting back, saying the new law violates their rights.

LISTEN: Voters Approve Lake Erie Bill of Rights

It Started with the 2014 Water Crisis

In August 2014, 500,000 people in Toledo and the surrounding region were told not to use their tap water for three days for drinking or cooking. Microcystin, a toxin from algae, had poisoned the city’s water distribution system.

Toledo resident, Julian Mack couldn’t believe it.

“It was like a scary movie,” he said. “It was a struggle. At that point, they were telling us not to use the water to even bathe.”

Mack remembers the FEMA trucks with water stationed at local school. His own family drove more than two hours to get cases of water.

“It became very obvious at that point in time how important water is to our everyday life,” he said.

Mack, a community activist, has since been part of a newly-formed group, Toledoans for Safe Water. The group created the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, a city charter amendment giving the lake legal rights that citizens would be able to defend in court.  

After years of legal wrangling, they finally got it on the ballot in Toledo in a February 26 special election. Mack was elated when it passed, by a vote of 61-to-39 percent.

“It was unbelievable, it was an unbelievable feeling,” Mack said.

But, Joe Cornely, spokesperson for the Ohio Farm Bureau, which opposed the measure, points out that only 9-percent of registered voters actually cast ballots.

“Well, obviously we were disappointed,” he said.

Farms Largely Blamed for Toxins in the Water

Runoff of fertilizer and manure from farms has been blamed for feeding the toxic algal blooms. Ohio has created two new laws since the 2014 algae crisis to control this problem, but it will still take many years to research and fix, according to Cornely.

“Trying to control complex problems at the ballot box is not the right way to do this,” he said.

The Lake Erie Bill of Rights grants new powers for Toledo residents to hold businesses and the government accountable for polluting the lake.

“Virtually any citizen of Toledo can claim that a farmer in any of 35 Ohio counties is doing damage to the lake, and then take them to court,” Cornely said.

Giving Lake Erie Its Own Legal Protections

Mari Margill, spokesperson for a non-profit law firm, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, which helped concerned Toledo citizens develop the Bill of Rights, says people couldn’t get the government and farmers to take action quickly enough to protect Lake Erie. That’s why they moved to imbue the lake itself with rights.

“One of the things that this has done is brought this concept of really changing how nature is treated under the law, and the need to do that in order to protect it,” Margill said.

Communities around the world have started approving Rights of Nature laws to protect the environment, and a similar bill in Grant Township, Pennsylvania is currently being litigated.

The Lake Erie bill brought swift legal action from an Ohio farmer, whose attorney called the Toledo amendment “…an unlawful and unconstitutional assault on family farms.” Margill says supporters expected this, and will be deciding how to respond.

Lake Erie’s Toxic Algae Still a Big Problem Despite Voluntary Measures