2020 Hindsight: FLOW Sees Progress Amidst a Pandemic in Protecting the Public’s Water

In nature, there is often a long time between the planting of seeds and the ripening of fruit. In 2020, the public policy and action seeds FLOW began planting a decade ago turned into wins for the people of Michigan, public water, and the paramount value of our environment.

Most notably, on November 13, 2020, Governor Gretchen Whitmer and DNR Director Dan Eichinger initiated the process to shut down Line 5 by May of 2021. Attorney General Dana Nessel also filed a lawsuit against Enbridge to enforce the Whitmer administration’s revocation and termination under public trust law of the 1953 Easement that has allowed the company to move petroleum through antiquated pipelines under the Straits of Mackinac. Enbridge’s Line 5 combines poor design and maintenance and the company’s long track record of pollution to pose a risk of a catastrophic oil spill in the heart of the Great Lakes. FLOW’s public trust work over the last 7 years is at the center of this legal action.

The importance of this milestone cannot be overstated. The Governor has acknowledged the State of Michigan’s duty on behalf of all the people to act as trustee of the publicly owned Great Lakes waters and the lakebed below them, and to prevent any material impairment of public value.  

Listen to FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood narrate our 2020 accomplishments.

“Since FLOW’s initial public trust analysis in 2014, our State’s leaders have shifted from a belief the State has no jurisdiction and can do nothing to prevent a disaster from Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac to a recognition that Michigan not only has jurisdiction, but also a legal duty to defend our Great Lakes from a catastrophic oil spill, said FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood in reflecting on the odyssey.  “As a result of our work and the efforts of many other organizations and citizens, Governor Whitmer and DNR Director Eichinger, along with Attorney General Dana Nessel, have taken the necessary action to bring about a prompt and orderly closure of Line 5 and an end to this clear and present danger.”

FLOW continues to play a lead role in challenging Enbridge’s attempt to build a massive oil pipeline tunnel under the Straits, a project that would risk critical water and other natural resources and commit the State and the Great Lakes to crude oil pipeline infrastructure for another 99 years in the face of the climate crisis. We have filed formal legal comments raising serious issues with proposed tunnel permits, hosted educational webinars, and intervened in Public Service Commission proceedings to contest the public necessity of the tunnel and pipeline during a time when oil markets and demand are rapidly declining, oil consumption must be drastically reduced to diminish the effects of climate change, and the economy is shifting rapidly to energy efficiency, conservation, and renewable energy. 

Progress on Public Water, PFAS, and Partnerships

Victories like the Line 5 easement revocation and termination are rarely the result of the work of one person or one organization. They take strong partnerships, as well as patience. FLOW gratefully acknowledges the teamwork of many individuals ranging from frontline advocates for clean, safe, and affordable water for all to enlightened businesses looking at the vital connection between water and jobs to individuals and families supporting the common good. Together we made progress in 2020, even in the face of a global pandemic:

  • Funding Framework — FLOW worked with partners in the Water for All of Michigan project to analyze funding and financing options to address the state’s $1 billion annual water infrastructure funding gap through an equity and justice lens. This work links water infrastructure and social equity challenges within a public trust framework and creates a platform to advance FLOW’s Public Water, Public Justice model legislation
  • PFAS — FLOW worked with a broad coalition of citizens and communities affected by toxic PFAS, the so-called “forever chemicals,” as well as environmental health advocates, to support final adoption of protective health-based drinking water standards to protect Michiganders from toxic PFAS. The final standards regulate seven of the chemicals, most of them with the strongest standards in the U.S.
  • Drinking Water — FLOW joined forces with community-based Detroit organizations and other justice partners in a successful effort to persuade Governor Whitmer to reverse local utility shutoffs of water service during the coronavirus pandemic. 

We built on the environmental accomplishments of the late Michigan Governor William Milliken, whose estate provided funds to FLOW to carry on his work. In 2020, FLOW launched a Milliken internship program to recognize and train young people in water protection work, in honor of the Governor and Wife Helen Milliken’s water protection legacy. A new FLOW initiative named after the late Governor and Michigan First Lady Helen Milliken will help fund FLOW’s growing Great Lakes protection work.

FLOW also conducted extensive presentations and public education efforts throughout the year. We designed an online story map providing in-depth information on the history, current status, and profound environmental, public health, and economic impacts of the antiquated Line 5 pipelines at the Straits of Mackinac. We also unveiled a unique online groundwater story map in March. Designed to educate the public on the many ways in which groundwater is valuable and on threats to groundwater quality, the story map is a central component of FLOW’s groundwater program.

FLOW organized a June webinar with Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation to educate the public on the status and implications of a preliminary state decision approving Nestlé’s permit to increase withdrawals for commercial bottled water, and called on supporters to contact the Governor and EGLE director to deny the permit. More than 100 people registered for the event. After a baffling decision in November by the State of Michigan to dismiss the citizen-led contested case challenging the Nestlé permit, however, the opposition continues to discuss the way forward.

So in 2020 hindsight, we not only saw many of our seeds of public trust progress bear fruit, together we also planted more seeds to assure protection of the public trust for generations to come.  Your support has been, and will continue to be, all-important in our continued efforts. Thank you for our shared successes.

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