In a stunning display of collective concern, the residents of Toledo, Ohio, have banded together to protect Lake Erie in a rather unusual way: by declaring the 9,900-square-foot body of water a person.
In 2014, the previously pristine Lake Erie developed an extensive algae bloom in response to pollution. Algae blooms happen when aquatic environments are exposed to excessive levels of nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen. Those nutrients precipitate explosive algae growth, which in turn saps the oxygen supply for the rest of the body of water. When the algae grows especially thick, it also blocks out the sun that other water life depends on. As pollution becomes a more prevalent issue around bodies of water, algae blooms have spread across regions like the Gulf of Mexico and smaller lakes.
Lake Erie is a crucial source of drinking water for the Toledo area, and the algae bloom cut off that supply for around 500,000 residents. People in Toledo, four years ago, felt helpless at the state of their lake. But environmental organizers in the city came up with a solution: If they collectively voted to declare Lake Erie a person–rather like a child for whom every resident shares joint custody–the body of water could gain the same legal rights to protection that a human (or a corporation, in America) has. In a special election this week, Toledo voted overwhelmingly, by a 61% to 39% margin, to do just that.
Lake Erie’s personhood is the first designation of its kind in the U.S. to protect the environment. Residents will be able to sue polluters to pay for lake cleanup and maintenance. That does not sit easy with some local farmers, whose businesses likely contributed to pollution in the lake. So even though the measure passed, it will be an uphill battle still to protect the lake.