Nonhuman Animals, Human-Created Environments

Cienega_de_santa_claraKarl Coplan

Sunday’s New York Times article about the threat to the La Cienega marsh on the Mexico-US border raises interesting questions about human responsibilities to maintain human-created environments that have been occupied by natural species.  The La Cienega marsh was created by the diversion of Arizona agricultural runoff too high in salt content to be returned to the Colorado River for downstream use.  While the federal government built a desalination plant nearly two decades ago for the purpose of purifying the runoff sufficiently to return it to the Colorado, this plant has never been operable due to technical and budgetary issues, and instead, the salty runoff was diverted through a series of pipes and channels to the Sonoran desert in Mexico.  Fed by this artificial diversion, a saltwater marshland sprang up, and populated itself with Thule grass, pelicans, and endangered Yuma Clapper Rail and Desert Pupfish.

Now, the federal government is planning to activate the desalination plant to recover the saline runoff.  The desal plant will discharge into the Colorado River, satisfying US treaty obligations to maintain Colorado River flow to Mexico, and freeing up more Colorado River water for upstream domestic and agricultural use by thirsty human activities in the Southwest.  The problem is that once the saline runoff is intercepted by the desal plant, the water source for La Cienega will dry up, the thriving wetlands will stop being wet, and the endangered species habitat will disappear.  Remarkably, the environmental impact studies for the desal plant did not consider these impacts on La Cienega.

This threat to La Cienega’s existence poses an important question: to what extent does the human species, by altering the landscape and creating habitat that would not otherwise exist, assume an obligation to maintain that habitat for natural species occupying that habitat.  There is an analog at common law: the doctrine of prescriptive easements allow people to acquire interests in real property without a deed or consideration, where the landowner has permitted third parties, or even the public, to make use of the property over a period of years.  As with the doctrine of adverse possession, the prescriptive use must be open and notorious, continuous, hostile to the landowners’ claims, and continue for a specified period of years.  “Continuous use” may include regular seasonal use.

Several states have recognized prescriptive easements to beach access on the part of the general public where the public has used a traditional path to the beach over a period of years. See Severance v. Patterson, 566 F.3d 490 (5th Cir. Tex. 2009); Elmer v. Rodgers, 106 N.H. 512, 214 A.2d 750 (N.H. 1965); Reitsma v. Pascoag Reservoir & Dam, LLC, 774 A.2d 826 (R.I. 2001).  Species using La Cienega marsh as habitat, like members of the public using a path to access a beach, may not be acting in an organized or purposive manner, but courts have nevertheless recognized that longstanding traditional use by an unorganized public may ripen into a legal right to continue that use.

Prescriptive periods vary by State from as little as seven years in some cases to well over twenty five.  It would appear that La Cienega has been providing wildlife habitat for close to two decades, at least since the construction of the desalination plant that was supposed to treat the saline water.  If the Yuma Clapper Rail and Desert Pupfish could file an action in court, they just might be able to claim a prescriptive right to continue water flows that has made their habitat, and continued existence as a species, possible.  Of course, the complications of international water rights and cross border claims of prescription make such a claim problematic, as well as the circular insistence by many common law jurisdictions that a prescriptive easement be based on a pre-existing “claim of right.”  For now, the wildlife of La Cienega must rely on the efforts of environmental groups to hold both governments and their water agencies to their promise to maintain some flow to La Cienega using pumped groundwater if necessary.

One Response

  1. […] Koplan, co-director of the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic. The article can also be viewed at its original place on The Animal […]

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