Mar 5, 2021 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Evan Rao | Photo by Maren Greene

Should rivers have legal rights similar to those enjoyed by humans? Rivers are inanimate, possess no voice of their own, and have different needs than people. There are already a host of federal and state policies aimed at protecting rivers. Why, then, might they need legal rights?

The Magpie River, a largely free-flowing river located in northern Quebec, may help answer this question.

Currently the river only has one relatively small hydro-electric dam. Hydro-Quebec, a Canadian hydroelectric company, had extensive plans for further development. Local environmental groups and Indigenous communities tried to block these developments, but had little power or leverage to do so.

Things changed when people considered giving the river legal rights. Rooted in an Indigenous understanding of the intrinsic rights of nature, granting the Magpie River rights would give the people fighting to protect the river leverage over corporations like Hydro-Quebec.

The idea has received significant support in the local community, and with the help of the Observatory, an environmental nonprofit, the Magpie River became the first Canadian river to win legal rights this February. Canada now joins 14 other countries where rivers have been given these rights.

Nine different rights were granted in separate resolutions by both the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit and the municipal government. These include the rivers’ rights to maintain their flow, seasonal cycles, natural biodiversity, and freedom from pollution.

No river in the U.S. has such rights, though our rivers face many of the same issues.

Extreme drought in the Colorado River Basin has become the new normal in recent years, and scientists project that this will only get worse as the climate crisis deepens. In the coming decades, as water becomes more and more scarce, fights across the West will likely intensify over access. Undoubtedly, those with less power will get the short end of the stick, and existing inequalities will be exacerbated. It’s a grim future, but not yet set in stone.

Like the Magpie River in Canada, or a handful of other rivers worldwide, extensive legal rights would give those seeking to protect rivers power over exploitative industries. It would ensure that we recognize the intrinsic and priceless value of nature, and guide us into a future where all the benefits a river provides are abundant and sustainable.

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