Litigation as an Anthropocene Response to Resource Conflict

Authors: Marnie Riddle*, University of California - Santa Cruz
Topics: Legal Geography, Agricultural Geography, Water Resources and Hydrology
Keywords: law, nitrogen, water
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/5/2019
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Marshall North, Marriott, Mezzanine Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Anthropogenic nutrient pollution affects almost every watershed in the United States, a country known – fairly or otherwise – for a litigious approach to managing resource conflicts. Excess agricultural nitrogen and phosphorus can be washed into surface waters, where they fuel hazardous algal blooms and generate dead zones of oxygen-depleted water, or percolate into groundwater, in some cases rendering it unfit to drink. Effective regulation of agricultural non-point-source pollution has been elusive. Where the claims of water users and land users conflict, and regulation is weak, some participants in the conflict will resort to civil litigation, relying on the courts to resolve what regulation has not. Among the available tools for intervening in nutrient flows, litigation might be the most quintessentially Anthropocene. Potential litigants considering options for combating nutrient pollution might look to an analogous model presented by a handful of U.S. coastal cities, who are suffering the impacts and paying the costs of climate change. Because regulation does not appear likely to solve this problem in the near future, these cities are seeking compensation from fossil fuel manufacturers using product liability and other tort law, with mixed success so far. Water users who, similarly, see little benefit from regulatory approaches can learn from climate change litigants’ successes and failures, with an eye toward the difference in scale from global to watershed-level.

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