Frankly My Dear, I Don't Give A Dam: Colorado River Protectionism

The Colorado River carves its way through Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, California, and Wyoming before pouring into the Gulf of California, supplying more than 20 million people with water, irrigating 2 million acres of land, and providing 4,000 megawatts of hydroelectric power.¹ One of the most significant natural resources of the American Southwest, the River has been repeatedly and contentiously divided and re-divided amongst the seven basin states, with 17% of the River and its products allocated to Arizona. Ironically, despite the increasing dependency on the Colorado River, it is what most modern-day desert dwellers take for granted. As a result, the inter-state Colorado River battleground has become yet another example of the consequences of asking too much while giving too little: it dies out.

The Central Arizona Project issued a report warning of water shortages in the coming years, leading to suggestions in the political arena regarding storage agreements and shifts in water sharing. Water professionals and environmental grassroots coalitions aim to increase runoff through cloud seeding and increasing the natural vegetation in and around the basin.² However, traditional environmental austerity and conservation measures are likely to be insufficient, as droughts and near-exponential population increases have marked southwest cities.³ In the midst of the debate, Denver lawyer Jason Flores-Williams, filed suit on behalf of the Colorado River, seeking protection by achieving personhood status on behalf of the River, allied with Deep Green Resistance as “next friends” in the litigation.

Colorado River Ecosystem v. State of Colorado addresses the exploitation of natural resources. This lawsuit is the first of its kind and seeks to set precedent that would protect other forests, rivers, lakes, and wildlife areas. Flores-Williams claims infringement by the government upon the river’s rights to “exist, flourish, regenerate, be restored and naturally evolve.”

Furthermore, in failing to recognize the River’s rights, the State will severely harm those who depend upon the river and its ecosystem.⁴ Previous judicial opinions support Flores-Williams’ assertions: “Contemporary public concern for protecting nature’s ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation.”⁵ Opponents of the case, including Colorado’s Attorney General, claimed the case to be frivolous and threatened sanctions against Flores-Williams should the suit continue.

Colorado River Ecosystem v. State of Colorado was not a frivolous suit as alleged, but rather an attempt to copy the pre-existing corporate/legal intersectionality in the name of environmental protectionism. Consider recent cases such as Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. (2014), in which the Court decided that inanimate, corporate entities may invest in and lobby for political candidates and causes, and possess religious beliefs, respectively. Corporations are also extended due process rights and equal protection under the law. These rights (and others) were previously extended only to legal persons, with corporations receiving little legal recognition but the “right to have their contracts respected by the government,”⁶ demonstrating not only the basic bestowal of personhood, but the expansion of corporate-person rights over time. While challengers of this case may scoff that a river cannot exist in the same manner as a person, such difficulty did not stop Hobby Lobby.

The complaint ultimately was dismissed with prejudice by the District Court, however Colorado River Ecosystem v. State of Colorado opened the door to environmental litigation possibilities that previously were extended solely to the cooperate realm. While experts imply that shortages are not as closely imminent as suggested, the facts stand that the current rate of consumption and destruction of the river is unsustainable. Unique measures and legal experimentation are necessary to protect natural resources such as the Colorado River.


¹ Mission 2012, Clean Water, (last visited Oct 16, 2018).

² Central Arizona Project, Issue Brief: Strategic Initiatives & Public Policy

(last visited Oct 16, 2018).


Colorado River Ecosystem v. State of Colorado (last visited Oct 16, 2018).

Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727 (1972).

⁶ Nina Totenberg, When Did Companies Become People? Excavating The Legal Evolution - NPR, (last visited Oct 16, 2018).

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