In February voters in Toledo, Ohio went to the polls, this time with a special referendum on the ballot: whether or not to give Lake Erie personhood through a Lake Erie Bill of Rights.

The results were 61% “yes” and 38% “no”, meaning the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, and personhood for the Lake was granted.

Lake Erie (Legally) Alive

What does this mean? Essentially, now that the Lake has legal rights, the people of Toledo can act as legal guardians and those who harm or pollute the lake could be sued for it. This is amazing news for a lake that is facing so many serious threats! The initiative was inspired by the 2014 algal blooms that shut down the water supply for half a million people in Toledo.

Voters clearly remember the damage harmful algal blooms can cause, and the many ways we rely on healthy lakes for healthy communities. The character amendment now gives Lake Erie the same rights as a human being, or a corporation – and we’re so excited to see this level of legal protection coming into force!

The algae blooms are now an annual feature of life on the lake. This photo was taken in 2011. Credit: NOAA.

Taking on Big Oil

The exciting and first-of-its-kind ballot initiative won big, despite going up against some deeply pocketed corporate adversaries. It has recently been revealed that BP Oil spent over $300,000 on a campaign to influence voters to vote “no” against the referendum. Thankfully, that money spent by big oil was wasted, and local voters came out to support the historic decision to grant the Lake personhood.

The legal analysis can be complex to non-lawyers like me, but one thing is certain – the referendum showed that people who live in cities that depend on the Great Lakes for their livelihoods, drinking water and recreation care deeply about the Lakes’ health. North of the border, from our headquarters in Toronto, it was inspiring for us to watch voters show up and show their support for Lake Erie.

Ready for the Canada-Ontario plan of action

In Canada, and in Ontario, we know this love for our lakes exists as well – but are our policies reflecting that sentiment? Last year, the Canadian and Ontario government jointly released their Action Plan for restoring and protecting Lake Erie. This plan includes over 120 actions that will reduce how much phosphorus pollution goes into the lake and causes harmful algal blooms. Having a plan to follow and actions planned out is a great first step – but when will we get to work?

Both governments committed to releasing an implementation plan by February 2019 – but there is no sign of it yet. As of now the plan is simply words on paper, and with another summer soon upon us (I promise, it’s coming) we cannot afford to go another day without taking action.

Algal blooms in Lake Erie are the new normal. It’s not a matter of if we’ll have a harmful algal bloom this year, but instead a question of “how bad will it be?” That is a sad state of affairs for our lake.

Reflecting on how the people of Toledo have taken action to acknowledge and thank the lake that they rely on, I wonder – when will we step up to the plate on our side of this shared ecosystem? Time is running out to protect Lake Erie, and  we’re still spinning our tires.