Golden Gate University Environmental Law Journal


This article will examine two at-risk American rivers through a comparison of the different legal approaches brought by the citizens and conservation groups fighting to protect them. Through analysis of the two lawsuits, this article will highlight the flaws of the traditional approach, and introduce a novel proposal for a shift in the lens under which nature is considered in American jurisprudence.

Part I will survey the Suwannee River and a citizen suit against a poultry-packing plant accused of illegally fouling its waters through repeated violations of an EPA-issued permit governing wastewater discharges. This suit represents the congressionally-created traditional avenue to protecting a natural object when government agencies are unable or unwilling to enforce environmental regulations.

Part II will present the Colorado River and a unique suit, which builds upon dusty law review pages and an old Supreme Court Justice’s dissent in an attempt to establish juridical personhood for a river ecosystem. This case of first impression aims to establish a new legal doctrine that would significantly loosen the standing requirements for citizens seeking to sue for the protection of inanimate, natural objects—by allowing the suit to be brought in the name of the aggrieved ecosystem itself. The court’s declaration of the ecosystem as a legal person is the necessary first step towards the recognition of the ecosystem’s fundamental rights, and an ultimate remedy against the state and governor for the violation of those rights.

Part III will consummate the comparison of approaches brought by the two suits through argument positing why an evolution in the consciousness of American jurisprudence is necessary and desirable. Because the governments and laws of the United States have failed to protect the ecosystems within its jurisdiction, Nature needs a voice to litigate for its own preservation.