Colorado Moves to Dismiss Suit Establishing Personhood for Colorado River

Environmental activists in Colorado had been looking forward to congregating at the federal courthouse in Denver on November 14 for the first hearing of a potentially groundbreaking case. As we explained in September, the State of Colorado is being sued by the Colorado River.

The suit is modeled on similar litigation in other countries like Ecuador and India, and is meant to establish “personhood” for the river, giving it its own legal standing in the U.S. justice system. Granting such rights would mean that other natural entities, like forest or grassland ecosystems, could — using humans as their legal custodians — sue states or corporations or even individuals for violating their abilities to exist, flourish and regenerate.

When the case was filed, the representing attorney, Jason Flores-Williams, told Westword that he suspected Colorado's leadership might be more “enlightened” than that of the other six states and private companies that utilize water from the river — and that Colorado might therefore be less inclined to put up serious opposition to the suit.

That does not appear to be the case, at least from the standpoint of the Colorado Attorney General’s Office. Tuesday’s hearing was canceled after the AG’s office filed a motion to dismiss the case.

In lieu of the hearing, a group of environmental activists, some who’d traveled from the Western Slope, held a small rally in front of the district courthouse at 9 a.m. yesterday, then gathered at the Mercury Cafe to discuss strategy and hear from Flores-Williams about his next legal maneuvers.

“I’ve had a lot of time in the last few weeks, driving along the river and sleeping in the cold, thinking, 'What the hell happens if we lose?,'” said Will Falk to a room full of activists at the Merc. Falk is one of the suit’s human representatives — known in legal terms as “next friends” — and a member of the environmental group Deep Green Resistance.

In response, Flores-Williams said that neither he nor the case would go down easy.

“If we don’t put pressure on the government, it’s not just the Colorado River that will go out of existence, it’s us who will go out of existence,” he said.

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Jason Flores-Williams addresses environmental activists at the Mercury Cafe on Tuesday.
Chris Walker
He explained to Westword that he’s already addressed the AG’s motion to dismiss the case by amending the original complaint filed on behalf of the Colorado River. “We needed to show federal violations,” he told us at the meeting. The amended complaint, which he’s submitted, alleges that the Colorado River has faced due-process violations under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution and equal-protection violations under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Flores-Williams expects that the state will soon submit another motion to dismiss in response to his new complaint, and then a hearing will be set for a judge to consider the merits of the case — and whether it will move forward at all.

“But it’s not going to happen unless there’s action on the streets,” the attorney told the crowd at the Merc. “I want a platform I can engage with. So what are we doing? Give me a platform.”

The attendees, who were mostly older, seasoned environmentalists, broke up into groups to brainstorm street actions that would raise the profile of the Colorado River lawsuit. These included discussions about street theater, potential logos and slogans — “Pick your slogans and use them to death!” one woman declared — and acts of civil disobedience.

Flores-Williams listened, expressions shifting from amusement to contemplation. There were times when the usually boisterous lawyer (who’s also representing the class action lawsuit against Denver over the homeless sweeps) was conspicuously quiet; at one point he said, “I can’t advise you to do anything that would be illegal.”

Still, he urged expediency. “Don’t wait for other attorneys to do this [type of case],” he cautioned.

Flores-Williams said he’s taking personal risks with the litigation because the state could ask the judge to declare the suit frivolous, which could put Flores-Williams’s Colorado Bar membership in jeopardy or make him liable to pay the state’s attorney’s fees. “I could owe $50,000,” he said.

The risk did not seem to dissuade him. “Every step we’re taking is new territory,” he said. “But for once, we’re right there.”