Mission, Vision, & Operating Principles


FLOW’s mission is to ensure the waters of the Great Lakes Basin are healthy, public, and protected for all.

Water is our common heritage. The Great Lakes watershed, which contains 20% of the available surface freshwater on the planet, is a core part of that heritage. Its water belongs to all of us and is owned by no one. 

An indispensable tool to assure the Great Lakes remain healthy, public and protected is the public trust doctrine, and this is FLOW’s foundation. Applying public trust policies to our current threats, FLOW and other partners will work together to preserve this heritage and chart a new and better course for our generation and generations to come. 

The public trust doctrine holds that certain natural resources like navigable waters are preserved in perpetuity for the benefit of the public to use and enjoy. Under the public trust, the waters of the Great Lakes Basin can never be controlled by or transferred to private interests for private purposes or gain. Our rights to use the water of the Great Lakes Basin cannot be alienated or subordinated by our governments to special private interests. Because citizens are often not aware that the public trust doctrine is part of their bundle of rights in our democracy, many of our leaders and special interests are ignoring and violating these principles.

We seek to safeguard the Great Lakes, the planet’s largest freshwater lake system, by advancing public trust solutions and cutting-edge policy work. FLOW has built key partnerships with state and regional Great Lakes groups, leveraged our expertise to influence agencies and impact state and federal legislation, and grown to be a trusted source of current information on issues affecting our freshwater seas. This work requires us to reexamine our relationship with water, asking how our actions impact water quantity and quality and ultimately how we can ensure these waters are as pure and plentiful as possible to sustain and nurture the next generations to come.

The health of the Great Lakes hangs in the balance, and citizens and leaders are looking for viable long-term policies to improve and protect these common waters. Our work is inspiring growing conversations about using the public trust as an overarching framework to ensure long-term protection of our air, water, and land resources. 


Through our work, we will achieve FLOW’s vision: A future where healthy waters sustain healthy communities in the Great Lakes Basin.

Operating Principles

FLOW’s potential and effectiveness reflect, in part, an important commitment to internally held values, which guide our operations. How we do our work is as important as what work we do. FLOW is committed to core operating principles that inform our attitudes, actions, and culture. These principles are vital for our staff, board members, volunteers, and partners.

  • We are committed to law, science, facts, and truth. We believe that multi-generational stewardship of our Great Lakes demands transparency, accountability, truth, and leadership from decision makers and citizens. We believe the integrity of our work comes from evidence-based and science-driven public trust law and policy, as well as systems thinking on the nexus among water, energy, food, and climate change.
  • We focus on empowerment for the common good and public interest. We believe the combination of education, engagement, and empowerment of citizens and decision makers about the vital importance of water will result in the multi-generational stewardship principles of the commons. We promote water literacy as a core strategy for securing accountability, long-term engagement, and ultimate stewardship protection of our Great Lakes.
  • We speak for the water. We provide a leading voice about the role of the commons and public trust law in establishing multi-generational stewardship, rights, and responsibilities for both state trustees and beneficiaries, along with an enduring and deep respect for our common waters.
  • We include all persons and succeed together. We strive to create a culture that embraces diversity and provides space for people to listen and reflect, both within FLOW and externally. We believe that equity, fairness, and environmental justice are fundamental to bringing about a sustainable water future. We proactively work to engage people who have been excluded from and discriminated against in key water policy decisions. As described in FLOW’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Policy, we believe that our success depends on securing clean, safe, and affordable water for all. This means advocating for equitable and sustainable water policies that eliminate discriminatory practices and differential community access. We tackle this work with intention—leading when asked, but otherwise raising up and supporting the voices of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) leaders. FLOW employs a similar approach in low-income, marginalized, impacted, and rural communities that lack access to clean, safe, and affordable water due to inequities in water infrastructure. We recognize the importance of partnerships and seek opportunities for effective, respectful, and inclusive collaboration.