Supporters rally to give Colorado River rights
November 18, 2017
DENVER — Beneath the dim red glow of string lights at the Mercury Cafe in downtown Denver, about 25 people gathered Tuesday afternoon to rally support for a lawsuit against the state on behalf of the Colorado River.
The case, the first of its kind in the United States, has the potential to shift American environmental law by granting nature a legal standing. The suit lists the Colorado River Ecosystem as the plaintiff along with people who hope to serve as "next friends" for the river and represent its interests in court.
Five potential next friends were named in the original complaint — Deanna Meyer, Jennifer Murnan, Fred Gibson, Susan Hyatt and Will Falk — all members of the environmental group Deep Green Resistance, which states its goal is to "deprive the rich of their ability to steal from the poor and the powerful of their ability to destroy the planet."
In an amended complaint, filed on Nov. 6, Owen Lammers and John Weisheitt of Living Rivers/Colorado Riverkeepers of Moab also joined the suit as potential next friends. The organization is affiliated with international Waterkeeper Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to clean water founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Though the novel case is seeking personhood for the Colorado River ecosystem, the suit's proponents hope to use it as a launching pad for a broader rights-of-nature movement.
"For you or I to defend a river in court right now we have to show how injury to the river injured us." said Mari Margill, the associate director for the Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a rights-for-nature legal group and a legal adviser on the Colorado River case. There is a growing understanding that our environmental laws are starting in the wrong place."
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Rather than maneuvering within existing environmental law, where nature is considered property, rights-of-nature lawsuits seek to give the natural world rights to exist beyond its use to humanity. The Colorado River case asks that the court consider the river's "rights to exist, flourish, regenerate and naturally evolve," according to the complaint.
Margill and other rights of nature proponents say that our current environmental legal framework — which is based on legislation like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts — does not go far enough. They point to past court decisions that have granted legal rights to corporations, like the 2010 Citizens United case, and say nature should have that same standing.
"I've long acknowledged that what we are doing in the environmental movement has not created change," Meyer, one of the potential next friends in the lawsuit, said in a recent interview. "We see every biotic system on the planet in decline and nothing has gotten better. Until the river has rights, I don't see any change happening in the way it is being used and exploited."
At the meeting in the café in Denver on Tuesday, activists supporting the lawsuit propped up poster boards that said "The Colorado River runs through us" and "Legal standing for the Colorado River," that were made for a courthouse rally held earlier that morning. They kicked off their meeting with a slow chant praising "sacred Colorado waters" before sitting down to strategize about building support around the lawsuit.
The group is planning protests, awareness campaigns and other rights-of-nature lawsuits in an effort to open up the courts for cases defending ecosystems from environmental ills.
"The court isn't going to just give us anything," Jason Flores-Williams, the Denver-based lawyer representing Deep Green Resistance the potential next friends in the lawsuit, said at the meeting. "How we won't lose is not based on whatever will happen inside the courtroom, but what happens outside of it."
So far, the case has moved forward only a couple of steps. Flores-Williams filed the case on Sept. 25, which the state followed with a motion to dismiss on Oct. 17 on the grounds that the case does not fall under federal jurisdiction and lacked specific injuries attributable to the state.
"The complaint alleges hypothetical future injuries that are neither fairly traceable to actions of the state of Colorado, nor redressable by a declaration that the ecosystem is a 'person' capable of possessing rights," reads the motion to dismiss, which was filed by the Colorado attorney general's office.
The plaintiffs were then allowed to amend their complaint, and on Nov. 6 Flores-Williams filed a new complaint, invoking rights under the U.S. Constitution in order to keep the case in federal court.
The courthouse rally and the following rights-of-nature meeting were originally scheduled around a status hearing slated for Tuesday, but the court vacated the hearing in order to give the state time to respond to the amended complaint. Flores-Williams expects that the state will again move to dismiss the case and that a new status hearing will likely be scheduled for later this month.
Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, the case's plaintiffs plan to keep fighting against what they see as exploitation on the Colorado River and hope to inspire other to file rights of nature cases.
"Our case by itself is not going to transform the American legal system," Falk, a potential "next friend" in the case said in an interview. "People who care about the environment need to realize that one court case is not going to be a quick fix for a system that has a tradition of exploiting the natural world."
Editor's note: Aspen Journalism is covering rivers and waters in collaboration with the Glenwood Post Independent, The Aspen Times, the Vail Daily and the Summit Daily News. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.