Author: Allison Voglesong

Dark Snow is “Not Cool” – Peter Sinclair on Climate Change and Showstoppers

Peter Sinclair is tall and brawny, and while the climate change communications expert looks like he could scale a mountain or scramble a glacier (and soon he will), he doesn’t look like a baseball player on steroids. What looks like a baseball player on steroids, he says, is climate change. While a baseball player on steroids may have an overall improved performance, like more home runs, it’s not possible to connect the steroids to any single home run.   Climate change and global warming is the same way, says Sinclair, climate change causes cumulative losses, sometimes devastating to earth and humanity.  The overall trend is that climate change contributes to weather extremes, and it is happening at a more frequent pace. But just like the ball player, it’s not practical to attribute climate change to any one specific weather event or another. Today’s cool rains, for instance, cannot disprove global warming. All you have to do is ask an insurance company’s actuary or risk analysis department. The extreme events and frequencies are rising fast.

Sinclair, a native of Midland with a family background in environment and energy activism, visited Traverse City Monday to give a presentation on global climate change issues. At lunch with Sinclair and water attorney-cum-nonprofit-policy-advisor Jim Olson, the conversation kept returning to the notion that the media and grassroots communications need to step up and drive home the reality that climate change is here, global warming is now and it is serious.

Our climate baseball player has been dosing for some time, and even if we successfully cut carbon emissions, we’ll still be dealing with the repercussions of the past, and the consequences are dire. Like addiction, the consequences of actions can take decades to subside. The actions of our past have created climate conditions contributing to significant issues, like warming average lake temperatures, making our Great Lakes more invasive species-friendly, and more apt to bloom with toxic algae. We might not see the greenhouse gasses of yesteryear, or of today, but the rippling impacts manifest in our everyday struggles. Sinclair and Olson are both acutely aware of is the invisibility of their respective fields, and the importance of bringing issues like climate change and the hydrological cycle out of hiding and into focus. FLOW’s work connects the dots between serious systemic threats like climate change to the impacts on water and the hydrologic cycle and our daily lives, and helps us understand the commons through which we must holistically address these threats.

Sinclair’s video series aim to make those kinds of connections, and his “Climate Change Crock of the Week” YouTube segments became so popular with politicians, journalists, and scientists, that now Sinclair contracts with Yale Climate Connections on a new series, “This is Not Cool.” Sinclair’s foray into the climate change video world was kick-started into gear after he was among the first to train with Al Gore in Nashville about seven years ago, an effort that has expanded globally into what is now the Climate Reality Leader Corps. The difference is Sinclair’s knack for irony, smart editing, and droll scripts that debunk the climate denial myths and translating without trivializing the science and scientists that prove climate change is indisputable.

Presently Sinclair is working with the “Dark Snow” project, a mission to Greenland led by expert climate scientists and a pro media and communications team. For two weeks, the team will weather intense sun, extreme cold, and a constant, slippery battle to get their data. Describing his experience from last year’s Greenland excursion, Sinclair says “it’s like climbing the Sleeping Bear Dunes for four hours before you can even get your first measurement… and it’s ice.”

Despite the challenges of battling the elements, they will help show the climate scientists in action and are trying to raise funds to set up a live stream from their encampment. All the ice core and surface water samples will be analyzed to measure the on-the-ground effects of climate change on Greenland’s ice sheet. The team is specifically investigating how and why dark snow is accelerating the ice melt there. Why? With causes of climate change running amok under a cloak of invisibility, it’s important to be able to identify tangible “showstopper” issues, says Sinclair. By finding out the cause of dark snow, scientists can identify a “limiting factor” that can be prevented or mitigated in a meaningful way. Rather than trying to stop the whole juggernaut of climate change, finding a lynchpin to stop the wheels of climate change from turning is just as important for avoiding critical catastrophes, like hyper-accelerated ice melt in Greenland.

At FLOW, Olson is working on gaining traction for identifying the “limiting factor” of phosphorus loading that is feeding the growing harmful algal bloom problem in the Great Lakes. Of course, climate change effects on the Lakes accelerate and increase the magnitude of the algal bloom problem. Which is why solutions for preventing further global warming is critical, too. Identifying the “showstoppers” is a critical mission for the Dark Snow project and for FLOW’s work in the Great Lakes, but these projects aren’t happening in a vacuum. Both Sinclair and Olson are studying and working on the “nexus” intersection of water, energy, agriculture, and climate change issues. Of these, issues like carbon tax regimes and price parity of renewable energy are increasingly relevant to Great Lakes water levels and Greenland’s ice sheet albedo.

As Sinclair points out, “we still have a choice” in our future, and we should choose climate change solutions like greening our energy supply and optimizing energy demand efficiency. Making small choices on a collective scale isn’t as difficult as moving – or in Sinclair’s case, climbing – mountains, and with leaders like Sinclair and Olson, solving essential, trim tab issues like dark snow and algal blooms can deliver a real home run for our shared environment and our future.

FLOW’s Transparent Open Door Fracking Program

“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” – Richard Feynman

As a non-partisan policy and education center focused on protecting the Great Lakes, FLOW undertakes projects and programs based on the demonstrated reality of problems needing resolution. Unequivocally, FLOW’s mission and sole motivation is to protect our common fresh water resources from permanent harm through education and empowerment of leaders and citizens.

Recently in several online articles, FLOW was misrepresented as an “anti-fracking” “advocacy” group. We were painted as “environmentalists” possessed by an ulterior motive to obstruct the existence of the oil and gas industry, writ large, through “backdoor” practices.

We would like to clarify for the public record that these characterizations are neither true nor reasonable. Rather, our program for local governments to address fracking impacts is an apolitical and pragmatic solution for communities who approach FLOW and voluntarily participate in the program. Our approach is based on factual information regarding the potential risks of fracking and oil and gas development, and what local governments can and cannot do. It is then up to local communities and citizens to identify their local concerns and implement the legal tools and ordinances that address those concerns.

Our method is to work transparently and in direct participation with citizens and officials involved in the issue and solution. This democratic, participatory approach to problem-solving is why we pursue both policy and education as a means of protecting the public interest and maintaining the quality and quantity of our public common waters.

Our program to address local impacts of fracking derives from our thorough and intensive legal analysis report on the topic. FLOW was prompted to investigate the impacts of fracking as it relates to freshwater consumption in the unconventional horizontal (also known as high-volume) fracking process, which in Michigan uses unprecedented volumes of water (more than 21 million gallons per frack well).

The water-intensive horizontal fracking technology we’re seeing proliferate throughout the U.S. is occurring in a vacuum of federal and state regulations, and the industry is exempt from several key water, air, land, and public health protections.

In the spirit of Feynman, we echo the sentiment that, in regards to this particular fracking technology, “reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” FLOW’s intention is to address the reality of fracking impacts as they affect nature and human health in our communities. Despite the fallacious clamoring from some sources that say we are advocates, Luddites, or otherwise in denial of modernity, we at FLOW are – and will remain to be – nonpartisan nonprofit consultants working to protect the public interest of our Great Lakes water.

FLOW Funder Park Foundation Among Growing Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement

The New York Times recently featured one of FLOW’s major funders, the Park Foundation, in an article about a group of philanthropic foundations that are collaborating to move their financial investments away from fossil fuels (divestment) in an effort to align their money with their missions to curb climate change. Among the groups involved in the Divest-Invest Philanthrophy coalition, some  moving their investments out of fossil fuels are moving into sectors such as renewable energy and sustainability ventures.

Why we care: We applaud the Park Foundation for recognizing fossil fuel divestment as a paramount strategy for ameliorating climate change. This is important to FLOW as we continue to work on policy and education programs that emphasize the “nexus” between water, energy, food, and climate change. For example, fossil fuels are a cause of climate change, which is lowering water levels on inland lakes and streams in Great Lakes (despite the temporary respite from snowfall this winter), and climate change is exacerbating algal blooms such as those that caused the “dead zone” in Lake Erie. This year, we are developing analyses and strategies that address and prevent extreme energy, including fossil fuels, from further impairing our Great Lakes water. Read more about our nexus work here.

The Park Foundation’s divestment campaign is part of their broader “Mission Related Investing” practices, and is in the process of following through on a 2011 commitment and move 100% of their endowment portfolio to companies that comport with their Environment, Social and Governance screens. Learn more about Park’s mission related investing here. To read about Park Foundation’s participation in the Divest-Invest Philanthropy coalition in their own words, check out their article in the National Committee for Responsible Philanthropy’s winter publication here.

Read the New York Times Dealbook article below, or link to it here.

Foundations Band Together to Get Rid of Fossil-Fuel Investments

By: Diane Cardwell

January 29, 2014

Seventeen foundations controlling nearly $1.8 billion in investments have united to commit to pulling their money out of companies that do business in fossil fuels, the group announced on Thursday.

The move is a victory for a developing divestiture campaign that has found success largely among small colleges and environmentally conscious cities, but has not yet won over the wealthiest institutions like Harvard, Brown and Swarthmore.

But the participation of the foundations, including the Russell Family Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America and the John Merck Fund, is the largest commitment to the effort, and stems in part from a push among philanthropies to bring their investing in line with their missions.

“At a minimum, our grants should not be undercut by our investments,” said Ellen Dorsey, executive director of the Wallace Global Fund, which is practically divested of fossil fuels already and is coordinating the effort among foundations. “If you owned fossil fuels in your investment portfolio, it became increasingly clear to foundations that they own climate change, and they’re potentially profiting from those investments,” at the same time as they make grants to fight the issue.

She said she expected several larger foundations to commit to the effort, which includes moving investments to renewable energy or other sustainability ventures, in the coming months.

Among the largest in the current group is the Park Foundation, with a portfolio worth roughly $335 million, and the Schmidt Family Foundation, with about $304 million, co-founded by Google’s executive chairman, Eric E. Schmidt.

The divestiture campaign is modeled on earlier efforts aimed at ending apartheid in South Africa and ceasing to support tobacco companies. Many groups are involved, but the movement has largely been escalated by a grass-roots organization,, whose name refers to 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which some scientists say is the maximum safe level, a threshold already exceeded.

In addition to the foundations, 22 cities, two counties, 20 religious organizations, nine colleges and universities and six other institutions had signed up to rid themselves of investments in fossil fuel companies, frequently defined as the top 200 coal-, oil- and gas-producing companies identified in a report from the Carbon Tracker Initiative based in London.

The campaign’s expansion comes as institutions like public pension funds are changing their investment strategies to reflect a calculation of the so-called carbon bubble. That idea holds that most of the coal, oil and gas reserves owned by fossil fuel-based companies cannot be burned without dire climate consequences, meaning that the value of those companies will plummet once governments start strictly limiting emissions.

Some pension funds, like those of California and New York, are looking to pressure conventional energy companies to address the risks of climate change. But in some cities, like San Francisco and Boulder, Colo., officials are urging their pension funds to divest themselves of the investments.

Bill McKibben, president and co-founder of, said he had been encouraged by the spread of the argument “that fossil fuel companies as they’re currently incarnated are essentially rogue companies, that they have in their reserves far more carbon than any scientist thinks it’s safe to burn.”

Divestment advocates have run up against opposition from some of the major academic institutions, which argue that the move would have little practical effect on the activities of fossil fuel companies and that institutions would be better positioned to press for change through their roles as shareholders. Endowment officials have also said that their primary purpose is to maximize returns.

“Universities own a very small fraction of the market capitalization of fossil fuel companies,” Drew Faust, Harvard’s president wrote in a statement in October of the university’s decision not to sell. “If we and others were to sell our shares, those shares would no doubt find other willing buyers. Divestment is likely to have negligible financial impact on the affected companies. And such a strategy would diminish the influence or voice we might have with this industry.”

But the foundation executives, whose organizations are at different stages of examining and shifting their investments, said they were convinced that the more compelling action was to take their money away.

Olivia Farr, chairwoman of the John Merck Fund, said there had been concern about financial performance among some board members at first. “But that was pretty quickly alleviated as we got excited about some of the new investments we were making,” she said, adding that the fund, which is about 97 percent divested of fossil fuel, was up roughly 20 percent last year.

Executives said they had become convinced that the move made economic sense.

“Freeing up resources through the divestment allows us to concentrate on the renewables future,” said Richard Woo, chief executive of the Russell Family Foundation, “and to really see the marketplace as a platform for this kind of change.”

Require Cumulative Environmental Impact Statement for Keystone XL and Alberta Clipper Tar Sands Oil Pipelines

FLOW, along with a myriad of policy and environment groups throughout the Midwest led by Sierra Club, signed this coalition letter to Department of State Secretary John Kerry. The letter requests that the Department of State consider developing a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) for the Keystone XL pipeline that also accounts for the Alberta Clipper pipeline for the purpose of analyzing the “cumulative climate impacts” of both proposed tar sands oil routes. It got some recent news play via Bloomberg, which identifies that even if the petition letter to Department of State Secretary John Kerry was rejected, it “could be the foundation for a legal challenge.” (You can also read the full text of the Bloomberg article at the bottom of this post.)

In a nutshell: it is insufficient to evaluate the climate impacts of each of these pipelines independently through separate EISs, and we urge the Department of State to develop an SEIS for the Keystone XL pipeline that examines the consequences of both pipelines’ combined climate impacts before reaching a decision on either pipeline proposal.

Why we care: FLOW believes that legally requiring the consideration of both pipelines’ cumulative climate impact presents an opportunity to account for the potential risks and impacts that these pipelines pose to the Great Lakes. As these lakes are protected as a public commons and public trust, it is the duty of the Department of State to ensure that the proposed pipelines will not impair the Great Lakes with the destructive climate impacts they will surely create.

The letter argues that the Department of State’s Keystone XL Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statements (DSEIS) downplays the pipeline’s connection to the larger climate impacts of a fast-growing tar sands oil industry. The DSEIS posits that the tar sands industry would seek ways to increase oil development capacity even without the Keystone XL pipeline and will thus have the same, inevitable climate impacts no matter what. However, the Department of State announced that it will also consider a Presidential Permit for the Alberta Clipper tar sands oil pipeline expansion project. This proposal would contribute to a greater increase in tar sands oil development than that which is considered in the Keystone XL SDEIS. Therefore it is critical for the Department of State to consider the climate impacts of the Keystone XL within the context of an even greater increase in greenhouse gas emissions as a consequence of the proposed Alberta Clipper pipeline.

To summarize the points and legal analyses of the letter:

  • The National Environmental Policy Act requires an analysis of the cumulative effects of reasonably foreseeable projects,
  • the Keystone XL DESIS fails to consider the Alberta Clipper expansion,
  • the Department of State must evaluate the cumulative impacts of Alberta Clipper and other proposals in the Keystone XL EIS,
  • new information shows that Keystone XL will directly contribute to tar sands oil expansion and increased global carbon pollution,
  • new information shows that rail cannot replace Keystone XL and other tar sands pipelines,
  • tar sands pipelines are inadequately regulated and unsafe, and TransCanada has demonstrated a dismal safety record, and
  • there are demonstrated contractor conflicts of interest and failure by the Department of State to ensure a thorough and unbiased analysis, which may invalidate findings of the DEIS.

FLOW applauds the Sierra Club for leading the way on this petition, and continues to engage with this coalition and through our own work to protect the Great Lakes and all our common waters from the risks of climate change and extreme energy development.

In addition to supporting this request for a supplemental environmental impact statement, FLOW is specifically interested in requiring that a primary goal of tar sands development be the protection of the Great Lakes. Haphazard tar sands oil development threatens devastating  effects on the water of the Great Lakes as well as its people, businesses, ecosystem, and economy.  The Great Lakes are irreplaceable and undue risks or overwhelming potential harms, such as these proposed tar sands pipeline expansions, are unacceptable and do not comport with the rights of the public under the public trust principles that protect the Great Lakes.

Follow our work on the “nexus” between water, food, energy, and climate change issues hereRead the whole letter here. Read the full Bloomberg article below or at this link.

Keystone Foes Say Two Pipelines Are Worse Than One

By: Mark Drajem, Bloomberg News

January 30, 2014

Opponents of Keystone XL now want to block its construction by showing that two oil pipelines from Canada to the U.S. are worse than one.

The Sierra Club said TransCanada Corp.’s (TRP) Keystone and the proposed expansion of Enbridge Inc.’s (ENB) Alberta Clipper should be reviewed together to account for how the combination would contribute to climate change. The San Francisco-based environmental group filed a petition today with 15 other groups, asking the U.S. State Department to revise its Keystone review.

“If you look at each project in isolation, it doesn’t present the full picture,” Doug Hayes, the Sierra Club lawyer who drafted the petition to Secretary of State John Kerry, said in an interview. “They need to look at the two projects together to see if there will be a climate impact.”

Accepting the petition could lead to further delays in the U.S. review of the Keystone application, which is already in its sixth year. Even if the State Department rejects the Sierra Club’s argument, the petition could be the foundation for a legal challenge, said Ethan Strell, associate director of Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University in New York.

TransCanada, based in Calgary, said environmentalists will never be happy with the State Department review, which has generated thousands of pages of analysis.

More ‘Ridiculousness’

“This is more of the ridiculousness from the activists who are trying to come up with anyway to” block Keystone, said Shawn Howard, a company spokesman. “At what point does this stop? At some point the process needs to come to a conclusion.”

The Sierra Club said the State Department has to account for its authority over oil sands development, because the two pipelines combined could carry almost 1.3 million barrels a day. By considering each application separately, it’s not taking into account the full impact, according to a copy of a petition to the government provided to Bloomberg.

The State Department reviews permit applications for pipelines that cross international borders. President Barack Obama pledged in June to approve Keystone only if it wouldn’t “significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” Enbridge is seeking to expand its Clipper pipeline to carry more oil than is planned for Keystone.

Scientists say carbon-dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels such as oil and coal contribute to global warming. Environmental activists say Keystone and the Alberta Clipper would lead to greater production of Canada’s oil sands, which are more carbon intensive than traditional crude.

Alberta Crude

A draft State Department report in March reached the opposite conclusion about Keystone. It said other pipelines or more rail transit would be developed to get the oil out to refineries even without the proposed $5.4 billion Keystone project, which would link Alberta crude to refineries along theGulf of Mexico.

Enbridge’s project runs from Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin.

If the rejection of one pipeline would lead to greater use of the other, then the projects should be considered together, Hayes said.

Columbia University’s Strell said the Sierra Club argument has merit and could be the basis for a lawsuit under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.

‘Cumulative Impacts’

Under the law, “you would have to consider the cumulative impacts,” Strell said. “Certainly, it’s a very common challenge under NEPA.”

Environmental groups separately have been pressing for the final State Department analysis to account for limits on another transport option, rail. If it’s not feasible to move the expanding quantities of oil using rail, the pipeline would become the culprit in worsening climate change, they said in a meeting last month with State Department officials.

New regulations proposed by transportation safety investigators in the U.S. and Canada last week after a spate of oil-train accidents could limit the ability of rail to haul more oil.

TransCanada filed its initial application for Keystone XL, which would carry 830,000 barrels per day, in 2008. Calgary-based Enbridge applied in November 2012 to add pumps and valves to a portion of its Alberta Clipper to increase capacity to 880,000 barrels a day from 450,000 barrels.

“The Alberta Clipper expansion is a very different project from Keystone XL, involving increasing the horsepower on an existing pipeline (Line 67) within a well-established right of way, with no new pipeline construction or ground disturbance,” Larry Springer, an Enbridge spokesman, said in an e-mail.

The State Department is working on the environmental reviews of each application. Once those are complete, the Obama administration must decide if each is in the national interest.

To contact the reporter on this story: Mark Drajem in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jon Morgan at

Let’s Get Together

The Great Lakes Society was formed to sustain the work of FLOW. Now the Great Lakes Society wants to encourage others to join and participate with comments, suggestions for how the Society can foster FLOW’s work to find and apply solutions to address the systemic threats to the Great Lakes. You can join the Great Lakes Society here.

I like working in groups and working with people because of the team dynamic, the camaraderie, the exchange of ideas; all these intangible benefits are valuable aspects of being a member of a group. The French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville noted that the key to the United States’ successful democracy was the variety and volume of associations in civil society. (In 1835) Tocqueville said that “knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others.” That is to say, our groups, societies, clubs, and teams facilitate the broader democratic process simply through the exchange of ideas that occurs when we collaborate.

These benefits are why belonging to associations can improve the quality of our lives, and it’s why I joined FLOW’s Great Lakes Society this year as a Manitou Member. The Great Lakes Society is a group that does so much more than support FLOW’s work financially. It is a group that is chock full of passionate and motivated people committed to protecting the Great Lakes with great laws, and FLOW brings them all together to create a sum greater than its parts.

room full of guests - Copy

Great Lakes Society members at our Annual Celebration came from across Michigan, Illinois, New York, and Ontario, Canada.

The Great Lakes Society is building a collaborative network of individuals who care about the Great Lakes. Memberships come from across the Great Lakes Basin in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, and Wisconsin, as well as from Colorado, Washington DC, Kentucky, Washington. We are also growing our Great Lakes Society in Canada, starting in Ontario.

Our members represent many areas of expertise, from high-caliber natural resources policy experts such as Maude Barlow from the Council of Canadians and Wenonah Hauter from Food & Water Watch, to renowned poets such as Michael Delp and James Lenfestey, to professionals in government, professors, leaders in business, experts in the renewable energy industry, to doctors and lawyers and filmmakers, teachers and farmers, grassroots activist and students. The list goes on.

I had the great pleasure of organizing (along with an excellent contingency of generous volunteers and Society members) the inaugural Annual Celebration of the Great Lakes Society this past August. My fellow Society members are so different, yet alike in their passion for and engagement in the preservation of the Great Lakes’ common waters. I was delighted by the day’s art, music, and culinary indulgences (including great beer) and even more delighted by the conversations I had with fellow Society members. I was engrossed in discussions of inspiring, various topics, such as how to go about commissioning a Great Lakes Symphony (think Holst’s Planets, but with five Great Lakes instead) and use music as a catalyst for promoting Great Lakes education. Or how to connect the idea of “virtual” and “embedded” water consumption to use of everyday consumer items, perhaps expanding on our Beans4Blue coffee to include things like beer, or clothes. Of course there was plenty of discussion about how climate change has affected our Great Lakes.

A sign of good beer

A good sign at The Workshop Brewing Company where we hosted the inaugural Annual Celebration of the Great Lakes Society

I was not surprised by the level of intelligence and awareness of my fellow Society members, rather I became even more inspired to help FLOW take our work to the next level and find workable solutions to the systematic threats facing the Great Lakes we all so deeply care for.

The Great Lakes Diaspora

This time of year I’ve been working (again with our dedicated volunteers and Society members) to expand our Great Lakes Society through our holiday membership drive. From organizing the databases to dreaming up the letters and emails to nursing the inevitable paper cuts that come with stuffing envelopes, it’s been quite a journey. One of our volunteers even said he had a dream (or was it a nightmare?) about licking envelopes after one long night of work.
Throughout this process I’ve become familiar with our members and our followers, and I noticed that so many of our followers are spread out far beyond the Great Lakes Basin. Our care for and love of the Great Lakes follows us wherever we live, these lakes are truly that valuable and magnificent. We are growing our membership and as it continues to spread out geographically we are also working on new ways to bring our Great Lakes Society members together virtually. This is to promote members’ engagement and collaboration with FLOW on our policy work, as well as with each other.

In the spirit of Tocqueville, in the spirit of cooperation, and in the spirit of collaboration, I’m asking you to leave a comment and let us know, what are some ideas you have for creating a more inclusive Great Lakes Society community that promotes the exchange of ideas and improves interpersonal connections among members? We’re open to your feedback, and of course, we hope you join us and become a member of the Great Lakes Society today.

#FAIL – It’s a Good Thing

As FLOW’s Communications Designer, I have been working in our Traverse City office since January, creating print and web content that gets the word out about FLOW’s policy programs that help protect the integrity of Great Lakes water with the vision of the commons. I have been given the great opportunity to work with our team on a number of tasks, from fundraising and grant writing, to research and policy reports, to event organizing. One experience remains with me as the most interesting to date (the one where I learned to embrace–or at least redefine–failure, something we all face from time to time): The Michigan Corps Social Entrepreneur Business Plan Challenge.

Serendipity and Facebook brought FLOW and Michigan Corps together. Back in April, a college friend working with Michigan Corps posted on Facebook about “The Challenge” – a business plan competition for social entrepreneurs with start-up or emerging companies. I clicked, I scrolled, and read the five-point checklist for a Great Social Entrepreneur:

  1. The entrepreneur is a tenacious leader with a pragmatic vision;
  2. The solution addresses a clear social problem;
  3. The solution changes systems, not just symptoms of the problem;
  4. The [business] model prioritizes social impact over financial gain;
  5. The model generates a sustainable funding stream.

As I read over these points my face lit up and I was brimming with enthusiasm. FLOW would be the “ultimate” candidate for this competition! We have Jim Olson as our leader, and many who know Jim call him their “hero” as a water law champion. His vision is to work proactively to improve policy that protects water, rather than defend against or fight over discrepancies of inadequate law. Our solution to improve Great Lakes water policy directly addresses the social (and environmental) impacts of the threats harming the Great Lakes (see map – red is bad).

great lakes threats map

The GLEAM maps environmental threats and stresses throughout the Great Lakes.

The solution of starting from the core value that water is common to all and held in the the public trust, which we at FLOW take to heart and specialize in, fundamentally addresses the whole system or framework–the policy. We work on policy because it ultimately determines the way in which we view, protect, and impose limitations on how we can use (or abuse) our water. FLOW programs seek to help communities and governments to improve their policies, and as a non-profit we do much of our policy and consultation work at pro-rated and discounted rates. We’re not in this to make a profit, but to cover our costs and make a difference–this is our “profit.”  And with our awesome Great Lakes Society member supporters–that unique group of people and businesses who understand and are dedicated to our mission to save the Great Lakes with sound policy and strong commitment–we’ve got a growing stream of donations that will help us to get our work done.

The Challenge

So we at FLOW threw our hat in the ring and submitted our business plan to “The Challenge” in May. By June, the Michigan Corps folks read all the 160 business plan entries, and selected FLOW as one of the top 12 participants! While we didn’t win the big bucks, we received really valuable feedback from the judges who had clearly been intrigued with our nonprofit business plan and wanted to help us succeed. FLOW Communications Director Eric Olson and I went down to Lansing and attended the award ceremony, which dovetailed with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s Great Lakes Entrepreneur’s Quest award ceremony.

social entrepreneur challenge2

The “Ask the Investors” panel at the Michigan Corps Social Entrepreneur Business Plan Challenge award ceremony. June, 2013.

We met so many inspiring entrepreneurs whose missions were to create social wealth through a variety of unique business models. I’ll never forget squirming at the sight of blood when Gillian Henker of DIIME showed us pictures of her patent life-saving medical device invention, or cracking up at the subtle humor of Rich Daniels, whose mission to hire veterans into his FunPak company touched my heart. Even though we didn’t win, as Eric and I drove back north at dusk, we agreed that participating in the Challenge was a valuable exercise for FLOW. We met so many people and learned about so many great ideas. We learned about the many ways to run a nonprofit in an era of tight competition for funding, and we felt good about being selected as a finalist.

The Pitch

However, that’s not the story of “failure” I’m talking about, and FLOW’s relationship with Michigan Corps didn’t end there in Lansing. As runners-up in “The Challenge” we were given the opportunity to join in a three-month fellowship, hosted by Michigan Corps, with coaching from the awe-inspiring business strategist and consultant for The Public Squared, Richard Tafel. Our Executive Director Liz Kirkwood did the majority of the training sessions, and I jumped in at the end to help her with our “final project” (which gave me flashbacks of college deadlines, and was just as nerve-wracking). The October capstone of the fellowship was the opportunity to give a five-minute pitch to a panel of high-level investors looking to invest in social entrepreneurs. This was a real world litmus test for all the work and strategizing we’d been up to. We were competing against other impressive social entrepreneurs and asking high-level investors to invest in us as a nonprofit where the returns would be purely social, rather than financial. Not an easy task!

For our pitch, we decided to speak in a language that investors get – money. Using the bank trust analogy, we explained how our “special sauce” was our public trust policy strategy for water and the Great Lakes. If the “asset” is the Great Lakes water, then the governments are the “trustees” who are required to protect the asset for the “beneficiaries” – you, me, and all the 40 million residents in the basin. Is government doing a good job? Are they accountable? Is our trust safe and improving?

Here we are with the entire Michigan Corps Social Entrepreneur Fellow cohort and our consultants, mentors, advisors, and new friends.

Here we are with the entire Michigan Corps Social Entrepreneur Fellow cohort and our consultants, mentors, advisors, and new friends.

At the pitch summit in Detroit, the morning workshop was a lesson in “design thinking” from Mike Brennan of United Way for Southeast Michigan. We learned a lot through his Venn diagrams and four-quadrant modules, but the best lesson was about failing. His advice: instead of bending over backwards trying to insist that you have “the solution” to the problem you’re trying to solve, make sure that you’re using both research and observation to inform a prototype first. And then: fail. A lot. It wasn’t the first time we’d heard this at FLOW, a son-in-law of a Board member here told us to “fail forward.” Nonetheless, easier said than done.

One of the investors on the panel, Romy Gingras Kochran of Gingras Global, highlighted the importance of failing early and often, and she even suggested hosting a “failure conference,” where entrepreneurs tell their “I failed” stories. So the more I thought about this idea of embracing failure as a learning tool, the more I realized that FLOW needs to share a “failure story” from our past to help illustrate WHY we are a policy and education center, and not an advocacy and lobby group, or a defense fund, why we offer something that is both visionary and real in the field of water commons, the water-food-energy-climate change nexus, and public trust policy. It’s because we have failed before, and it launched us forward to where we are today.


In 2009, the volunteers and policy advisors of the (at that time) “FLOW Coalition” worked with then-U.S. Representative Bart Stupak (D-MI) to draft important federal legislation that would make a big difference for protecting the Great Lakes from the threat of water exports. Put this in the context of the 21st Century water crisis, and you see why it’s important to keep our water IN the Great Lakes ecosystem. The bill, which was about to report out of committee and be introduced on the floor of the House of Representatives, was to close a loophole that allowed for water to be exported from the Great Lakes provided that it was labeled an “end user product.” (This arguably means water as an “export,” which in the trenches of international trade law could weaken the defense of the Great Lakes.) It took a huge amount of effort and countless hours spent building a public campaign to support the legislation, working with other organizations like Food & Water Watch in Washington, DC.

The FLOW Coalition also worked on legislation at the state level in Michigan that proposed to extend public trust protections from surface water (lakes, rivers, streams) to also include groundwater (like aquifers). Why? Because whatever happens to tributary groundwater will impact the surface waters and wetlands they replenish. Protecting water at every step in the hydrological cycle is important and a primary policy objective for FLOW. This legislation was important, and the idea is still important, because it helps protect water on a larger scale in the Great Lakes region, and it protects the water for all of us, public and private users alike.


Some say that the bills were poised for success, but they did not live long enough for any to ever truly know their viability. Why? Because the Affordable Health Care Act was introduced shortly thereafter, usurping the attention and impetus behind the FLOW legislative effort. Then we lost our political allies in the mid-term elections. When legislators pulled back from supporting these bills, FLOW was, at this point, tapped out. Our two-year flagship effort as an advocacy coalition for guarding the Great Lakes and our groundwater and surface water from export and abuse was over. It was a big, fat, #FAIL.

While we all could still benefit from federal and state laws better protecting our water with the public trust, FLOW founders and staff pulled back, knowing that it was time to re-evaluate our strategy for just how we could get this–and other important policy–accomplished in the most efficient, effective manner. From a coalition with a pinpointed goal, we realized that we had a big idea: enshrining water as a commons, public trust in our policy can protect citizen beneficiaries, communities, business, and quality of life for the whole region. These are ancient and core values, and we knew not to give up. We knew that our big idea was right, that we were addressing the important problem, but that our prototype was in need of refinement.

Our #FAIL demonstrated to us that it was worth the shot to try, and we almost succeeded, but events like the economic collapse in 2009 and the health care agenda took all of Congress’ attention in 2010. The lesson was that narrow windows of opportunity are not guaranteed. Going it alone for a single attempt with a federal legislative campaign means going back to square one, when things out of your control force you to scrap your efforts.

Resurget Cineribus

We realized after the legislative efforts were swept away in the health care debate, that the vision to save the Great Lakes from the many threats of this century requires education, deep education, as deep as the lakes themselves, so that the winds and whimsies of politics do not affect the goal and changes that are needed. Water is deep in all of us, we’re made of water, and literally it is our lifeblood. So is it for the Great Lakes and around the world. If people begin to connect, through education, that water is at the core of their lives and well-being, then they will support, vote for, and take action to save the Great Lakes when it is needed.

We also realized that there were more, equally important, low-hanging fruit on the policy tree that could be addressed as part of demonstrating and applying the public trust to protect Great Lakes water. What’s more, part of our failure was embedded in a lack of public awareness and education. The reason the public campaign took so much energy out of us is that we didn’t have a strategy building up to the campaign. Did anyone really know about the public trust? And that people, as legal beneficiaries of the Great Lakes water, can use the public trust to enforce an “umbrella” standard of protections for the water? Or did they know why groundwater needs to be protected by the public trust? Or did they even know enough to make the connection that groundwater becomes streams, rivers, and the Great Lakes, and that all are one? That if groundwater and surface waters are not protected by public trust, that they can more easily be abused or exported right out from underneath a farmer’s crops, a golf course’s aquifer, or a fly fisherman’s favorite river? After all, the public trust protects access, use, quantity and quality of our Great Lakes for fishing, boating, swimming, sustenance, navigation, the basics of life and community. If these are compromised, interfered with, or harmed, then citizens, knowing these rights and uses are protected, and can speak out and take action to prevent and restore the harm from these threats.

With so many questions to ponder, and so many gaps in knowledge to fill, the FLOW Coalition evaluated the need for education, and this is how FLOW became the FLOW policy and education center for the Great Lakes. Rather than only focus on export loopholes and groundwater protections, we recalibrated our mission and thus our operations. To solve a big, systemic problem like preserving the Great Lakes, we needed to pursue the big, holistic solutions. It was 2011 when FLOW began to beat the drum of public trust policy and education.

In this way, the FLOW Coalition was an important first step – a prototype for the steps to follow. When we went back to the drawing board, we came up with a two-pronged strategy for our next prototype: deep legal research and policy development on one hand, and education and training for both leaders and citizens on the other hand. We went through a phase where we were the FLOW Coalition, which undertook the education, and the Public Trust Policy Center, which performed the research and reporting. However, one hand didn’t know what the other was doing, and we saw that the interdependence of policy and education work was too strong to keep them separate.

So, we’ve moved past the bicameral organization prototype, too. Our objectives remain twofold: to educate and train leaders and citizens, and to undertake deep legal research and policy. Now, from an organizational standpoint, we are simply FLOW, the public trust policy and education center. Our programs vary and are topic-based, weaving both policy and education into the components of the programs. We have a much deeper and more insightful strategy for targeting our actions to our audience. So far, these programs have been successful. And now, with many thanks to our partners at Michigan Corps, we are prepared to move them forward, and are equipped with the tools for embracing the opportunity of failure. We learn from our #FAILs and improve ourselves to create more success in the long run. Even more importantly, like singing in public, we have learned to work boldly and steer clear of the shadows of reticence and into the lightness of sanguinity.

Allison Voglesong and salmon on the Crystal River in MI.

Allison Voglesong and salmon on the Crystal River in MI.