Do ecosystems deserve or possess a certain amount of rights that should be legally recognized?
A nationwide environmental group calling themselves guardians of the Colorado River Basin has filed a federal lawsuit against Governor Hickenlooper on behalf of the Colorado River ecosystem that thinks the answer to that question is yes.
The suit asks the court to declare the ecosystem of the Colorado River basin a right to "exist, flourish, regenerate, be restored, and naturally evolve."
Essentially, they want the Colorado River to be declared a person so they can sue the state over how its regulated.
Why a lawsuit?
The legal filing against defendant John Hickenlooper asks the court to recognize the Colorado River's rights as those similar to a "person."
The group filing the suit believes threats to the Colorado River Ecosystem are threats to life, and therefore the river must be able to protect itself from threats to its survival.
It cites a failure on behalf of Colorado law (and therefore, Governor Hickenlooper) to stop the "degradation of the natural environment."
With that, the suit argues, certain permits and actions by the state of Colorado against the river and its ecosystem may violate those rights.
At the core of the lawsuit is the question of whether or not nature has the right to sue for its own protection.
The suit filed Tuesday argues prior case law has been recognized by the United States Supreme Court, referencing Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727 (from 1972).
The suit also cites some international cities that have been designated as "legal/living persons," and says more than three dozen municipalities in America have adopted municipal laws recognizing "legally enforceable" rights of ecosystems and nature.
We'll detail the suit and its claims in the following paragraphs.
How is the plaintiff, the Colorado River, defined?
The lawsuit lists the many flora, fauna and living species inside the river and its tributaries, as well as the birds and critters that live along its banks.
It even defines within "Colorado River" animals such as gray wolves and grizzly bears who "depend on the Colorado River Watershed for water and to sustain adequate food sources."
Essentially, in encompasses the entire river's ecosystem along its path, tributaries, and basin.
Grievances against the river
In the suit, the plaintiff (Deep Green Resistance on behalf of the Colorado River) argues climate change is worsening Colorado River droughts and threatens its very existence in the future.
It describes pollution of ground and surface water as the "decline of every major ecosystem on the continent."
The group behind the suit argues the EPA is not enough to protect and defend the river, saying environmental law fails to adequately protect the natural environment because it accepts nature and ecosystems as property, merely regulating their rate of exploitation.
This includes, the suit says, the Gold King Mine spill in August 2015, which released three million gallons of mine wastewater and 880,000 pounds of heavy metals down two of the Colorado river's tributaries, the Animas and San Juan rivers.
The suit also says Colorado takes too much water from the river, and asks the court to declare dams along the river a violation of the ecosystems' rights.
If the ecosystem is recognized as a "person" then "next friends" (a.k.a. guardians) may defend and enforce those rights on its behalf.
Who can defend the river?
Citing a planet on the "verge of total collapse," the suit asks Governor Hickenlooper to enable law and nature to form what they refer to as a sustainable relationship.
"The dominance of a culture that defines Nature as property enables its destruction," the lawsuit says.
"For the destruction to stop, institutions within the dominant culture must recognize the inherent worth of the natural communities who give us life. If American courts do not recognize the inherent worth of natural communities, the dominant culture will not change, and collapse will only intensify. American courts must recognize the legally enforceable rights of ecosystems and nature for those reasons," the legal filing states.
The Colorado River Drainage Basin is the seventh-largest in North America, covering 246,000 square miles, providing water for close to 40 million people, the lawsuit states.
Who filed the lawsuit?
The grassroots group behind the suit is called Deep Green Resistance.
It considers itself "'next friends' for, and guardians of, the Colorado River Ecosystem," describing its mission as a "worldwide, membership-based grassroots organization rooted in the truth that all life is sustained by soil, air, water, and countless natural communities of living creatures."
DGR, which formed in 2011, aims to protect these ecosystems, the suit says, because ecosystems contain life.
The Southwest Coalition of DGR filed the lawsuit for the river, made up of several Colorado and Utah-based members. A Denver lawyer represents them.
Read the entire lawsuit below.