A researcher dips his hand into the 2016 harmful algal bloom in Lake Erie - NOAA
A researcher dips his hand into the 2016 harmful algal bloom in Lake Erie. (NOAA)

TOLEDO — In a special election on Tuesday, voters in the City of Toledo approved a referendum granting Lake Erie — a source of drinking water for 12 million people in the U.S. and Canada — its own bill of rights. Succinctly labeled the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, the measure provides for the “right to a healthy environment for the residents of Toledo” and “irrevocable rights for the Lake Erie ecosystem to exist, flourish and naturally evolve.”

Affected by the passage are 35 Ohio counties extending as far south as Shelby County and including Hardin and Allen Counties. Through the measure — which requires a substantive change to Toledo’s charter — the City of Toledo and any of its individual residents can seek legal redress in Lucas County Common Pleas court for any violation of LEBOR by corporations or governments.

Impetus for the initial petition — created by Toledoans for Safe Water and influenced by similar measures promoted by Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund — arose from the 2014 crisis on the lake. At that time, a concentrated toxic algal bloom in Lake Erie’s Maumee Bay forced the City of Toledo to declare its drinking water unsafe, leaving nearly 500,000 individuals without potable water.

For supporters, LEBOR’s passage gives voice to frustrations over what they perceive as a lack of any significant change in protections for the lake and enforcement of established regulations. That failure to improve conditions, to promote a new dynamic, fosters fears of a repeat of the 2014 crisis.

Critics, on the other hand call the measure anti-business. The ag industry, in particular, is suspect of LEBOR.

“Farm Bureau members are disappointed with the results of the LEBOR vote,” Adam Sharp, executive vice president of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation said in a written statement late Tuesday. “Our concern remains that its passage means Ohio farmers, taxpayers and businesses now face the prospect of costly legal bills fighting over a measure that likely will be found unconstitutional and unenforceable.”

Proactively addressing that particular concern — the cost of litigating suits brought against those perceived to be in violation of the measure — the OFBF last week promoted ‘Right to Farm’ Ag Districts.

In sessions held in three counties, Julia Vandenbroek, director of the Putnam, Allen and Van Wert Farm Bureaus, promoted the ag districts as a potential safeguard against nuisance lawsuits arising from LEBOR.

“With this whole Lake Erie Bill of Rights thing, all my boards and myself decided we should offer a brilliant member benefit for not just our members, but for any farmers in the area about why you should sign up for an ag district for your property,” Vandenbroek said during one such session last Thursday. “I don’t know who they’re going to file lawsuits against, but we know farmers are going to be their number one target.”

While sensitive to the negative publicity intiatives like LEBOR create, Crystal Jankowski, one of the six founding members of Toledoans for Safe Water, remarked that individual farmers have little cause for concern.

“We’re concerned about industry and industrial farming runoff, the CAFOs,” Jankowski said. “This is not for mom and pop farmers. We have farmers who are on our side.”