Written by: Amie Alexander, JD/MPS Candidate, William H. Bowen School of Law

Environmental groups filed suit in the Federal District Court of Colorado on September 25, 2017 against the State of Colorado. Plaintiffs ask the Court to recognize that an ecosystem, in this case the Colorado River, is capable of possessing rights similar to a person, including rights to exist, flourish, regenerate, and naturally evolve. Plaintiffs claim without these protections, existing environmental laws will not protect the Colorado River or the communities dependent upon it. The complaint is available in its entirety here.

Environmental groups Deep Green Resistance and The Southwest Coalition, along with individual members Deanna Meyer, Jennifer Murnan, Fred Gibson, Susan Hyatt, and Will Falk seek to serve as guardians, or “next friends,” of the Colorado River Ecosystem.

The Colorado River’s water is allocated between 7 states under the Colorado River compact of 1922: Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, Arizona, and California. According to plaintiffs, it provides water for approximately 40 million people and irrigates approximately 4 million acres of cropland.

Environmental Group’s Arguments

Plaintiffs argue that ecosystems should have the right to sue for their own protections in part by pointing to Justice Breyer’s dissent in Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727 (1972), stating “Contemporary public concern for protecting nature’s ecological equilibrium should ldead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation.” Plaintiffs also point to the rights of corporations to own property, issue stock, open bank accounts, form and bind contracts, sue or defend in litigation, and claim Constitutional protections under Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 130 S. Ct. 876, 903 (2010) and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2751, 2759 (2014).

Courts and Legislators have recognized that natural entities may have standing to bring suit in New Zealand, Ecuador, Colombia, and India. Additionally, approximately three dozen municipalities in the United States have granted rights to ecosystems.

Environmental groups requested that the Court declare the Colorado River Ecosystem as a “person” capable of possessing rights which may be secured through legal enforcement. These basic rights requested include the right to exist, flourish, regenerate, be restored, and to naturally evolve. These rights would be advocated for by the DGR, which would serve as guardians or “as next friend.”

Plaintiffs specifically allege that the State of Colorado violated these rights through actions to approve permits and issue regulatory approvals regarding the river’s pollution after the 2015 Gold King Mine breach, official allocations of water allowances, and the construction and maintenance of various dams.