The Colorado River. Photo credit: Getty Images

Should a river have the same rights as a person, or a corporation? This is the question that a Colorado lawyer and an environmental group asked a federal judge this past September. The lawsuit, which is the first of its kind, demands that the Colorado River be recognized as a person and be given the rights to defend itself against pollution and overexploitation.

The central argument of the claim rests on the idea that if corporations have rights, rivers should too. The lawsuit explains in full:

The Colorado is 60 to 70 million years old and has enabled, sustained, and allowed for human life for as long as human life has been extant in the Western United States, yet the Colorado has no rights or standing whatsoever to defend itself and ensure its existence; while a corporation that can be perfected in fifteen minutes with a credit card can own property, issue stock, open a bank account, sue or defend in litigation, form and bind contracts, claim Fourth Amendment guarantees, due process, equal protection, hold religious beliefs and perhaps most famously invest unlimited amounts of money in support of its favorite political candidate.”

The suit, filed in Federal District Court in Colorado by Jason Flores-Williams, a Denver lawyer and a coalition of environmental groups, cites the river as the plaintiff and claims the state violated the river’s right to flourish by polluting it and threatening endangered species that live along its banks and in its waterways. This first-of-its-kind lawsuit could be a game-changer for environmental law; if successful, future similar lawsuits could help curb pollution of natural environment at the behest of industry.

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The lawsuit was immediately criticized by conservative pundits and lawmakers who argued that it was ridiculous on principle. But it’s important to note that this form of legal environmental personification isn’t actually new. Court documents explain how the constitution of Ecuador has long granted rights of protection to natural landscapes. And the plaintiffs also cited other examples where nature has been given rights, including in Colombia, New Zealand and India. Citing these diverse rulings across the world, the lawsuit asked the court to grant the Colorado river “personhood” rights “to exist, flourish, regenerate, be restored, and naturally evolve.”

The Colorado river basin covers 246,000 square miles and provides water to close to 40 million people. However, scientists claim that it’s expected to shrink due to increased temperatures caused by climate change.

Mr. Flores-Williams, the lawyer representing Colorado River, explained why he believed the case to be important, in an interview with the New York Times:

Does every pebble in the world now have standing? Absolutely not, that’s ridiculous….we’re not interested in preserving pebbles...we’re interested in preserving the dynamic systems that exist in the ecosystem upon which we depend.