Author: FLOW Editor

On Earth Day and Every Day, We’re All in this Together

Photo: The New York Daily News covers the first Earth Day, 1970

By Liz Kirkwood, FLOW Executive Director

The biggest Earth Day celebration I attended happened 30 years ago when I volunteered as an Earth Day ranger at one of the largest gatherings ever held in New York City in Central Park. It was a big deal, and we had high hopes. Some 750,000 people gathered that day to celebrate 20 years of Earth Day with an incredible, free musical lineup featuring The B-52s, Edie Brickell, and Daryl Hall and John Oates. I was a senior in high school, ready to launch into the world and tackle the most pressing local and global environmental issues, like Amazonian deforestation at the mercy of corporate America’s fast food desires. 

Central Park was pulsating to “Love Shack” and other upbeat tunes that beautiful, sunny day, but sadness hit me when the huge crowds departed and left behind thousands of pounds of garbage that I and other rangers cleaned up. This day was supposed to be a call to action and an awakening to celebrate and care for the planet. Instead, the experience left a bad taste in my mouth and raised all sorts of unanswered questions about how positive change could take root.  

In 1990, sustainable development was the buzzword of the day, but we struggled to find practical examples where modern industrial communities didn’t externalize costs and create products that harmed and polluted natural ecosystems and wildlife. Finding this balance seemed distant, particularly without the kind of technologies that have revolutionized the way we live, work, and play today. In those days, we were thinking about organic food, plastics, toxic and chemical contamination, and wilderness protections, to name a few leading concerns. Even though climate change and global warming weren’t officially part of our vocabulary, we were worried about ozone holes and CFCs in styrofoam and other products.

But we had not fully contemplated our fossil fuel addiction and how powerful interests would shape national and global policies and energy practices to delay alternative renewable energies over the next 30 years. Nor did we recognize that our work needed to fully embrace environmental justice in order to root out and dismantle structural racism, poverty, and societal inequities.

In the three decades since, success stories have given us hope with the healing of some rivers, lakes, estuaries, and wetlands, the revival of polluted Rust Belt cities, and the protection of ecologically critical habitats. But we also have witnessed the continued transformation of megacities and urban sprawl, biodiversity loss, the proliferation of global oil production and plastics, and the unprecedented growth of consumerism and cheap products. Our actions have had profound effects that ripple to every corner of the Earth.

The interconnectedness of human and natural ecosystems has never been more apparent. It’s the clarion call, the mantra, and the rallying cry of this global pandemic crisis: We’re all in this together. This virus does not discriminate, taking the lives of people from all socio-economic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, and yet, the death toll is disproportionately higher among African Americans and other people of color. In Michigan, for example, African Americans constitute just 14 percent of Michigan’s population, but account for 35 percent of the cases and 40 percent of the deaths attributable to COVID-19, to date. Healthy ecosystems depend on healthy, equitable communities, and access to water. Period. 

But we had not fully contemplated our fossil fuel addiction and how powerful interests would shape national and global policies and energy practices to delay alternative renewable energies over the next 30 years. Nor did we recognize that our work needed to fully embrace environmental justice in order to root out and dismantle structural racism, poverty, and societal inequities.

So as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day during these uncertain times, one thing is certain: protecting clean water is more important than ever before. This global pandemic has exposed the gross inequities of our society, including the unconscionable practice of denying people basic access to water for drinking, hand washing, cooking, bathing, and sanitation.

It is time for us to demand public water and public justice for all. Not just water for some. Without access to life’s most essential need — water —our society will falter and our future will falter. This work demands that frontline groups and policy organizations work side-by-side in our collective struggle for water justice. This organizing principle of empowerment guides our work at FLOW. It is a time for us to reimagine how we rebuild a just and equitable society where water is recognized and protected as a human right, where our economy respects human and natural capital, and where we no longer take each other and this small blue planet for granted.

Earth Day at 50: Observing Natural and Political Cycles

Image by Jennifer Martinez / Downers Grove South

By Dave Dempsey, FLOW Senior Advisor

Because we’re concerned about protection of water, the FLOW staff and board make frequent reference to the hydrologic cycle in our conversations. You know, the movement of water from the Earth’s surface to the atmosphere and back again. But on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the cycles of politics also come to mind.

Dave Dempsey as a 2-year-old boy (left) together with his brother Jack (right) in 1959 on the shore of Lake Erie, before the tumult of the 1960s and the environmental progress of 1970.

I was 13 and unconcerned about environmental issues on the first Earth Day in 1970—teenage obsessions were foremost on my mind. But because my father was a public servant and spoke to my brothers and me about policy, governance, and elections throughout our youth, I was well aware of the social ferment around the Vietnam War, the women’s movement, and the civil rights movement. Among my formative memories were the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, when I was barely old enough to understand it and the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968. My generation came of age during a domestic and overseas bloodbath, but also a time of rising activism to make the world better.

But only when I look back at 1970 later in life, as an amateur environmental historian, do I fully appreciate what happened that year. It wasn’t just April 22—the first celebration of Earth Day—it was 12 months of successful citizen work to raise consciousness and pass new federal and state laws that revolutionized America’s treatment of air, water, land, fish, and wildlife. Michigan was a national leader on the environment throughout 1970. Every time I think of Michigan in 1970, I am deeply grateful to the many largely unsung citizens who pressured elected officials to conserve and protect the environment. We owe them a great debt for reforms that persist today.

By the time I dedicated myself professionally to environmental policy, the cycle had moved almost to the opposite side. Michigan’s unemployment hit 17% in 1982, and conservative political forces had chosen environmental laws and rules as one culprit (even though, in reality, an energy crisis and policies to squeeze inflation had induced a national downturn).

Most of my career has taken place in that long swing of the pendulum. For the most part, my contemporaries and I have been playing defense. In a swirling flood of destruction, we’ve been holding on to many of 1970s’ gains like a life raft.

That’s the policy world. In the world of public consciousness, the need for environmental protection has remained steadfast. What seems to have changed, then, is the link between public opinion and public policy.

Opponents—primarily Big Business and Big Agriculture—have changed tactics. Instead of bluntly saying they doubt the need for environmental protection, as they often did in 1970, they acknowledge the need but offer a different route—voluntary, non-enforceable stewardship that has proven to be undependable. It almost makes me long for the days when they were blunt about their belief that environmental protections were a luxury America could not afford. They aren’t so direct now. They exploit Supreme Court decisions about back-door corporate funding of political campaigns and lavish significant sums to install candidates who talk a good environmental game, but won’t deliver.

These changes could lead one to despair, but they shouldn’t. When I first started looking at Michigan’s environmental history, I found evidence of the first lonely citizen voices who sounded alarms about the ravaging of Michigan’s forest, fish, and game in the 1870s. Those voices swelled into a chorus within decades, and a crescendo in 1970. If those earliest conservation pioneers could start from nothing 150 years ago to accomplish so much over generations, we should take heart. We are neither few, nor lonely.

I began this essay by talking about cycles. There are indeed cycles of water and politics, but there is also a kind of renewable energy in the citizenry. What’s needed is a long perspective. If it has been the lot of my generation to fight for what the previous one accomplished, it will likely be the next generation’s accomplishment to make the broad advances needed to assure a high quality of life for humans and the world we inhabit.

One of the slogans of Earth Day 1970 was “think globally, act locally.” Fifty years later, I would frame it in time, rather than scale: Think millennially, act perennially.

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

Dave Dempsey is the senior policy advisor at FLOW.

Earth Day Against the Backdrop of the Events of 1970

Organizers of the original Earth Day celebration at U-M reunite 50 years later. Photo courtesy of University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability

By Lana Pollack

Lana Pollack has served as President and CEO of the Michigan Environmental Council, U.S. Section Chair of the International Joint Commission, and a three-term state senator.

The first Earth Day celebration at University of Michigan did not wait until April 22, 1970, the date Wisconsin’s Senator Gaylord Nelson had set for environmental teach-ins across the country. In Ann Arbor, this history-changing observation blasted off March 11 when 15,000 people jammed U-M’s Crisler Arena, and thousands more crowded its parking lot. The four-day happening was sponsored by a new U-M organization, Environmental Action for Survival of the Planet (ENACT), and it was successful beyond the wildest dreams of its young organizers.

By the time this Earth Day precursor closed, 50,000 people had attended 125 events, virtually all of which had been amply covered by national press. Determined to be inclusive, ENACT’s organizers invited and accepted requests to speak from a dizzyingly diverse collection of high-profile individuals ranging from the avuncular Arthur Godfrey to the all-but nude cast of the musical Hair and top-of-the-charts singer Gordon Lightfoot. Headline environmentalist Barry Commoner was joined by Michigan’s Governor William Milliken, the University’s President Robben Fleming (exceptionally adept at avoiding conflict by giving voice to student concerns), the presidents of both Dow Chemical and the United Auto Workers, along with environmental leaders from around the country and of course Senator Gaylord Nelson. Almost every University School and department sponsored a workshop, lecture or symposium on environmental issues related to its discipline.

Not surprisingly, as U-M had been a focal point for many of the white-hot 1960s protests, this environmental happening did not want for a generous dose of zaniness mixed with serious social criticism. A blue Ford Mustang was put on trial in the center of campus. In spite of arguments energetically presented in defense of the accused car (the auto industry was the backbone of Michigan’s economy), the Mustang was found “guilty of murder of the American public.”  Its sentence was death by sledge hammers, with hundreds of observers cheering the executioners.

Somehow, I missed the car’s demise, the ceremonial dumping of thousands of non-recyclable coke cans, Gordon Lightfoot, the crowds in Crisler Arena and even the lectures and symposia in the School of Education where I attended classes and my four-year-old son, John, went to pre-school. 

How did I, a politically interested student who was on campus almost every day, miss out on this eclectic happening we now recognize as the kick-off of the modern environmental movement? Given my full-on commitment to environmental advocacy in the decades that followed, I’ve questioned why I was not an organizer, or at least a participant. In positing my answer, I have vivid memories of an overwhelmed young woman, determined to be a flawless supermom while completing her MA in Education and maintaining a household that showed not a speck of disorder. And all of this in an age when even the nicest of husbands (mine) felt their professional work excused them from sharing childcare responsibilities with their wives. 

But there was another reason I was MIA from Michigan’s original Earth Day, a reason I understand better years on in reading about a memorable session dubbed the Scream-Out. The Scream-Out was the platform for those who thought Gaylord Nelson was wrong in calling for a national day of environmental reflection. In preparing the multifaceted program, organizers had faced arguments that an active environmental movement would only distract from more pressing social injustices. Black student activists saw all that was lacking in commitment to ending campus racism. Just before the four-day, 50,000-person Earth Day teach-in, the U-M campus had been wrenched by a campus-wide strike led by the Black Action Movement (BAM). In a tense two-week stand-off, a large and growing number of professors and students (myself included) refused to cross picket lines in support of BAM’s demands to raise black student enrollment and increase successful minority engagement on campus.

Joined by frustrated anti-war protestors on a campus that fairly enough claimed to be the birthplace of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), it was not surprising that there were both black and white reformers who questioned the importance of Johnny-come-lately environmentalism. (At the time, just a few environmental activists and scholars were beginning to conceptualize environmental justice.) Although I did not consciously decide to boycott the environmental teach-in, I do recall thinking that both the women’s and the environmental movements were of less significance than fighting racism and the Viet Nam War. It was at the Scream-Out, had I attended it, that I would have heard a substantive discussion of my own poorly-formed concerns.

But I didn’t go. I had two small children to care for, MA degree assignments to be finished, and a broken refrigerator to be replaced at home. I could never have imagined in 1970 that both my husband and I would spend decades dedicating ourselves to advancing deeper environmental understandings and better environmental laws, no matter what other responsibilities we faced.

Ironically, my slow-off-the-blocks start as an environmentalist has made me a more effective advocate. Remembering how overwhelmed I felt then, toiling to manage multiple responsibilities, has prompted me to be more respectful when engaging with people struggling today to get on top of their own lives’ demands. And recalling that on Earth Day One I viewed environmental concerns as competitors with — rather than integral to — battles for social, economic and racial justice, prods me now to act more inclusively, recognizing that the fabric of a healthy planet and just society is woven from many threads.

Progress at Home, What About the Planet?

Photo: a 1970 Earth Day poster at the University of Michigan.

By Mel Visser

April 22 is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day 1970, a milestone in this country’s environmental history. We asked people of all perspectives to provide us their thoughts on the meaning of this anniversary.

Around the time of Earth Day’s inception in 1970, the rallying cry of “Think Globally, Act Locally” emerged. Fifty years of local action has greatly improved our air and waters, but is Earth any better off? Let’s look back at global/local/environmental evolution to see where we were, where we are, and where we are going.

The Grand Rapids of my youth was a sustainable nirvana. All beverages were purchased in refillable glass bottles; all paper, glass, and metals were recycled (with companies paying to get the materials); backyard gardens supplied vegetables, fruits and berries; eggs came from nearby farms; public transportation prospered, and carpooling was extensively practiced. Broken items were fixed and nothing was thrown away. The main reason for this was that World War II consumed our resources. Gasoline, sugar, paper, and dozens of other necessities were rationed or unavailable.

After the war factories churned out civilian goods like cars, bicycles, refrigerators, and radios. The chemical age offered “Better things for Better Living through Chemistry.” DDT killed pesky mosquitos, fireproof PCBs replaced flammable oils, and plastics brought us all manner of wonder. The United States became the global supplier of automobiles, hardware, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and agricultural products. Our population boomed and we prospered. Our attitude toward the environment remained as it did during the war: a few dead fish in the river and air that made you choke was the price of progress. Earth could take care of herself.

Municipal sanitary waste, farm runoff, and factory effluents filled our rivers with nutrients and toxics. Weeds choked, rivers died, fish turned belly up, and even the “unpollutable” Great Lakes lost their ability to sustain life. The “price of progress” was questioned. Turning around ingrained practices of freely discharging municipal, industrial, and agricultural wastes was difficult and as contentious as today’s politics. Massive federal spending addressed our toilet discharges and laws and regulations were enacted to control industry. Resulting industrial “discharge permits” were viewed as a “license to pollute” by the activist public and cries of “not in my back yard” (NIMBY) developed. Industry, the institution that was once perceived as the provider of health, wealth, and comfort was now perceived as an Earth destroying monster.

Other countries recovering from World War II, economically disadvantaged by importing U.S. manufactured goods, desired their own wealth and job creating manufacturing. The American public supported manufacturing’s offshore migration as the natural progression to a service economy, a society of intellectuals, researchers and developers with manufacturing relegated to a lesser developed nation. Earth suddenly became “economically flat,” with low-cost producers supplying global needs. Nations eager to raise their citizenry from poverty jumped onto this concept. The locus of global manufacturing shifted East where terrible working conditions, rape of the environment, and cheap coal for energy were major components of low-cost. Our economically flat world became environmentally warped!

Acting locally has gotten us clean air and water, but what has it done for Earth? Aren’t we rather arrogant to relish our environment while importing cheap manufactured goods made by people choking on their air and vomiting from their water? Will countries continue to meet carbon dioxide emission targets by sending manufacturing to countries without targets? Sustainability of climate and health demands a much less myopic view of Earth thinking/acting than the first 50 years of celebrating Earth Day has given us.

Mel Visser was born in Grand Rapids, educated in Houghton, and worked in Portage, Michigan. As the executive in charge of environmental compliance at a major Michigan chemical manufacturer, Mel served on the Scientific Advisory Board of Michigan’s Great Lakes Protection Fund, the Great Lakes Regional Corporate Environmental Council (Founding Cochair), and the State’s Innovative Technology Task Force. Unable to understand why banned chemicals remained at hazardous levels in the great Lakes, in retirement Mel traveled and researched the issue, culminating in his book Cold, Clear, and Deadly: Unraveling a Toxic Legacy (MSU Press 2007). Mel and his wife Gloria now split their time between Portage and their condominium in Hancock. Mel serves on the Community Advisory Group to the Kalamazoo River PCB contamination site and is active in Great Lakes contamination and climate issues at Michigan Tech.

How Do Hands Get Washed?

By Mary McKSchmidt

I worry, as I am prone to do, about the thousands of families in Detroit without even a dribble flowing from faucets, their water shut off because of unpaid bills.

How do they wash their hands for 20 seconds when they enter their homes? How do they drink plenty of water at the first hint of COVID-19 symptoms? How do they stay healthy?

Still reeling from the decline in manufacturing and the resulting mass exodus of people, Detroit has fewer residents to pick up the tab for oversized and aging water infrastructure. Under pressure to meet EPA water quality requirements and with federal funding for water and sewer systems declining, the investment burden has fallen on the shoulders of local taxpayers. With roughly 35% of Detroit residents living below the poverty level, and bankruptcy driving a 2014 decision to use water shutoffs as an incentive for bill payment, at least 100,000 households have experienced a water shutoff over the last seven years.

Data suggests the problem was not willingness to pay, but ability to pay.

On March 7, before the first case of coronavirus was reported in Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Detroit Mayor Mike Dugan, and Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Director Gary Brown initiated a Coronavirus Water Restart Plan. For $25/month for the duration of the crisis, 2,640 Detroit households will be allowed to reconnect to city water. Thankfully, the state of Michigan is picking up the reconnecting costs. But while the monthly fee is more affordable, ultimately, the families will be charged for water used during this crisis, as well as those unpaid bills from the past.

Gov. Whitmer issued a March 28 Executive Order to restore water shutoffs and allocated $2 million to reconnect water lines.

If they were without sufficient funds before the looming recession, where will they find money after? Particularly if the rates remain the same?

In the documentary, Flint: The Poisoning of an American City, groundwater expert Dr. Will Sarni says we need to think about water at a national level. “We have 19th century water policy, 20th century infrastructure, and 21st century challenges with respect to our water.”

We are seeing the result as COVID-19 sweeps across our country. A 2017 Michigan State University study estimates that if water costs continue to increase at the same rate for the next five years, a third of U.S. households may be unable to afford water. Meanwhile, 90 cities and states have suspended water shutoffs during the coronavirus pandemic. Unfortunately, only 20% have agreed to reconnect those households to public water. According to a report in The Guardian, the rest have only committed to halting new shutoffs.

It makes me appreciate the leadership demonstrated by Michigan’s governor, not only in extending a hand to Detroit, but also with her decision on April 28 requiring the re-connection of water services to all households in the state.

Water is a matter of life and health. Ask the families of the 15,718 people in Michigan who have contracted COVID-19 in the last 25 days. Weep with the families of the 617 who had died as of April 5. And pray for those in this country who still do not have access to water. Their health affects us all.

Mary McKSchmidt is an author, speaker and advocate for water who lives in west Michigan. Her latest book, Uncharted Waters: Romance, Adventure, and Advocacy on the Great Lakes, is a charming, funny, and honest series of vignettes sharing the tales of a former Fortune 500 executive learning to sail, learning to love, learning to fight for the water and life she holds dear.

Clean Water and Public Health are Inseparable

Uniting to Stop Water Shutoffs and Meet Water Infrastructure Needs During the Pandemic

“Water is a Human Right” photo courtesy of Common Dreams

Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director

By Liz Kirkwood

In these challenging times, we are always seeking genuine good news to share. And fortunately, Governor Gretchen Whitmer delivered some urgently needed relief in her March 28th Executive Order restoring water service to the thousands of Michigan households shut off from access to safe water and a $2 million fund to help these communities.

What we know is that water and public health are inseparable. Without water, we simply can’t fight this pandemic, let alone meet daily household hydration and sanitation needs. Much more work lies ahead to ensure everyone has access to safe, affordable water. Frontline communities like Detroit continue to be hardest hit by growing coronavirus cases, and we encourage you to support outstanding organizations providing households water, food, and community advocacy, including We the People of Detroit,  People’s Water BoardGleaners Food BankBrightmoor Food Pantry, and Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition

While restoring water won’t happen overnight, Michigan’s leadership gives us hope because it is part of a nationwide trend to pause and, increasingly, ban water shutoffs. A 2016 nationwide assessment of water shutoffs for non-payment revealed that an estimated 15 million people in the United States experienced a water shutoff, a shocking 1 out of every 20 households. To date, 12 statewide orders restoring water service, which apply to private and public water providers, have been issued by the governors of California, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Four of these states are in the Great Lakes Basin.

Accessing safe, affordable water is a struggle for too many people in this water-rich region that contains 20 percent of the planet’s fresh surface water. Many urban and rural communities already here are burdened with the highest water rates in the country, compounded by significant job losses, lack of diverse employment opportunities, shrinking populations, and crumbling infrastructure. The current public health crisis will only exacerbate this unacceptable problem where local ratepayers are expected to pay a disproportionate amount of their income for water service.

What we know is that water and public health are inseparable. Without water, we simply can’t fight this pandemic, let alone meet daily household hydration and sanitation needs. Much more work lies ahead to ensure everyone has access to safe, affordable water. Frontline communities like Detroit continue to be hardest hit by growing coronavirus cases, and we encourage you to support incredible organizations providing households water, food, and community advocacy, including We the People of DetroitPeople’s Water Board, Gleaners Food Bank, Brightmoor Food Pantry, and Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition.

Securing Our Water Future and Demanding Justice and Equity in Rebuilding Our Water Systems.

This difficult time gives us a unique opportunity to decide what our water future looks like — a future that makes sure that the federal response to the pandemic and our water infrastructure crisis is both people-centered and rooted in justice. To this end, FLOW continues to work with People’s Water Board, Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, and Michigan Environmental Council on equitable financing solutions to rebuild our crumbling drinking water, sewer, and stormwater infrastructure in Michigan. Every $1 billion in water infrastructure investment creates an estimated range of 20,000 to 26,000 jobs and can have far-reaching economic benefits, tripling in size with total demand for goods and services reaching an estimated $2.87 to $3.46 billion, according to the Clean Water Council.

In addition, FLOW also is partnering with a chorus of leading regional and national organizations and coalitions, including the Healing Our Waters (HOW) Coalition, Food & Water Action, and the U.S. Water Alliance, to demand the next federal coronavirus stimulus package contain robust instructure funding to end water shutoffs, promote job creation, and reinvest in our water systems like we did some 50 years ago.

Let us all work together to not just pause, but permanently ban, water shutoffs and demand equitable and sustainable solutions to fund and rebuild our water infrastructure. Consider signing this citizen petition authored by Food & Water Action urging Congress to stop water shutoffs during the pandemic crisis. Your voice makes a difference.

At the same time this crisis is exposing how fragile many of our societal systems are, it also is forcing us to identify what matters most: our health, our water, our natural and human-built communities, and our future resilience in the face of climate change impacts. At FLOW, we remain more committed than ever before to protecting and upholding these things that matter most to our shared future.

Enbridge’s ‘Line 5’ Oil Tunnel Permit Application is Contrary to the Legal Process

Enbridge Energy’s permit application is out of step with Michigan’s legal process, according to FLOW.

The Canadian energy-transport company has not even sought, let alone obtained, authorization from the State of Michigan for the easement and lease required by law to locate a risky, multibillion-dollar oil pipeline tunnel in the public trust soils and waters of the Great Lakes. Nor has the company sought and obtained a certificate of necessity and approval from the Michigan Public Service Commission to locate the tunnel in the Straits of Mackinac.

“Until Enbridge receives such legal authorization from the State of Michigan, the Canadian company has no business applying for the construction permit, and many other permits and approvals, they would need to locate and build an oil pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac,” said Jim Olson, FLOW founder, president and legal advisor.

“To obtain state authorization, Enbridge has the burden to demonstrate conclusively that a private oil tunnel in public trust soils and waters designed to serve Canadian and overseas markets for the next 99 years is in Michigan’s public interest, which it is not,” Olson added.

Enbridge’s timing amidst the coronavirus pandemic is disturbing, because it fails to respect the public’s right to engage in meaningful public hearings at this time when critical state resources are focused on managing this unprecedented public health crisis.

FLOW joins our allied organizations in calling on Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to delay full consideration and public review of Enbridge’s oil tunnel applications until the State of Michigan emerges from its coronavirus shutdown.

“It’s important to remember that this proposed oil tunnel fails to solve the greatest threat facing the Great Lakes — the decaying Enbridge Line 5 oil pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac that continue to pump 23 million gallons of oil every day,” said Liz Kirkwood, FLOW’s executive director and an environmental attorney.

“A 10-year tunnel construction project will not prevent an oil spill disaster that grows more likely every day. The State of Michigan has a perpetual and paramount public trust duty to its citizens, not a private Canadian corporation whose uninterrupted oil transport threatens grave consequences for 95 percent of America’s fresh surface water supply,” Kirkwood said.

FLOW to U.P. Energy Task Force: Act Fast to Protect Residents, End Reliance on Risky ‘Line 5’ Oil Pipeline

Photo by Kathryn DePauw for FLOW.

To alleviate the rising threat to the safety and economic security of Upper Peninsula residents, a state energy task force at its April 13 online public meeting should act with urgency to adopt, prioritize, and schedule the implementation of the 14 recommendations in its draft propane supply report.  Swift action is needed in order to end reliance on the risky Line 5 pipeline, dismantle the Canadian energy monopoly over the Upper Peninsula, and secure more diverse and renewable energy choices, said FLOW (For Love of Water) in formal public comments sent Monday to state officials.

FLOW’s letter to the U.P. Energy Task Force, which Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer created last June, comes at the deadline for the public to review the March 20 draft report on propane supply options. FLOW is urging the task force to act immediately on both short-term and long-term recommendations for the State of Michigan to resolve the clear and present danger to public health and the Great Lakes posed by Line 5.

FLOW finds that the most reliable, secure, lowest-cost, and lowest-risk alternative for propane supplies in the short term is a combination of the recommendations on rail and truck, plus an increase in propane inventory in the Upper Peninsula. Highest priority should be given to recommendations with a full range of diverse alternatives that are not dependent on the decaying Enbridge Line 5 pipeline, which crosses the Upper Peninsula and the open waters of the Straits of Mackinac.

FLOW also urges the task force to evaluate all of the environmental and health impacts and risks that each alternative poses to air, water, and land resources. The Great Lakes and other natural resources remain at grave risk with the continued daily operation of Line 5, and impacts to these public trust resources must be fully considered in the final propane report.

FLOW also calls on the task force to expedite its work and complete its renewable energy plan in 2020, well ahead of its March 2021 deadline for reporting to the governor. Michigan and the Great Lakes cannot wait another year for more studies as Line 5 continues to age.

“The U.P. Energy Task Force draft propane report concludes that both short-term and longer-term feasible and prudent alternatives exist to decommission Line 5 and to secure reliable, safe, and affordable energy to U.P. residents based on adjustments within the energy system,” said Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director of FLOW, the Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City.  “Given the current propane monopoly and lack of backup alternatives to Line 5, U.P. residents are exposed to substantial financial and safety risks. Moreover, Line 5 also poses unprecedented and devastating economic, environmental, and public health risks to the Great Lakes.”

With the help of the task force to prioritize recommendations and advance much needed energy planning, the State of Michigan can work as expeditiously as possible to decommission the aging Line 5 pipeline and transition to safe and affordable energy alternatives for U.P. residents.


The U.P. Energy Task Force, formed by Gov. Whitmer’s Executive Order 2019-14, is charged with “considering all available information and make recommendations that ensure the U.P.’s energy needs are met in a manner that is reliable, affordable, and environmentally sound.” The Order also directs the Task Force to examine “alternative means to supply the energy sources currently used by U.P. residents, and alternatives to those energy sources.”

The precipitating force behind this urgent energy analysis is Enbridge’s increasingly risky 67-year-old Line 5 pipeline, which has ruptured or otherwise leaked at least 33 times since 1968, and the failure to date to prioritize and assure a backup alternative for delivering propane in the Upper Peninsula. Line 5 is operating far past its life expectancy and continues to threaten the Great Lakes, public health, and drinking water supplies for thousands of Michiganders. With no backup plan for delivering alternative propane supplies to the U.P. in the event of a catastrophic Line 5 pipeline rupture, including in the dead of winter, the outdated pipeline also endangers the safety, security, and energy independence of Upper Peninsula residents who rely on propane to heat their homes.

We Shouldn’t Suspend Laws that Protect Water, Health, and the Environment During the Time of Coronavirus

It Is a Time to Restore the Ethos of the Common Good of All

Jim Olson is FLOW’s Founder, President, and Legal Advisor

By Jim Olson

Like all of you, in this time of the coronavirus pandemic, the common ground we share—the ground we stand on—is shaking, sinking, shifting beneath our feet.

A Sorrow of Loss and Humanity

We experience or share others’ pain, suffering and loss; some close, others far, those thousands we don’t know—nurses, doctors, emergency medical technicians who have risked or even given their lives to help save another. Even with the open spaces of time mixed with work and things at home put off far too long, I can’t shake the sadness that has taken hold of me, a deep sorrow for our common humanity.

A Solace of Hope

Before firing up the laptop this morning, my wife Judy and I watched a great blue heron engulf the top of a tall spruce with its six-foot wingspan. Last evening, we picked a few twigs of pussy willow, tip-toed the riverbank to follow the spring steelhead run up the Platte River in northwest Michigan, and watched a brown trout torment the spawning pair for their eggs. The cycles of seasons, water, plants, animals stirring in the cedar swamp follow their preordained course to seek the common good. Maybe in this dark shadow of COVID-19 we, too, in our shared humanity will return to and follow the common ground that has been shaken.

But I’m also angry.

It took months—absolutely critical months—after the exponential explosion of the coronavirus for the CEO and his confidants on Pennsylvania Avenue to admit the seriousness of the coming crisis. Why are our federal and state governments, and why are we, ourselves so-ill prepared, without foresight and coordination for supplies that are needed to face the COVID-19 crisis? They’ve had fair warning from the SARS, MIRS, and Ebola emergencies. We witnessed the same lax approach when hurricanes Katrina, Harvey, and Maria hit us. This is not just in the United States. Last year, cyclones and heavy rains hit southeast Africa and Bangladesh when those in harm’s way could have been helped by a proactive priority to address climate change and their safety.

It took a year for Michigan and federal officials to respond when the residents of Flint were exposed to lead by a governor-appointed, politically directed emergency manager’s rush to shift the city’s water supply to the polluted Flint River. Since 2014, the City of Detroit has refused to stop water shutoffs of poor residents who have no ability to pay—the number approaching as many as 140,000 in 2020. The same is true in the City of Benton Harbor. There is no recognition of the rights of citizens to water and health.

It took a month for Detroit and Michigan to declare an emergency and halt water shutoffs and order the restoration of water service to the thousands of homes still shut off from water when they need it most—to wash hands and surfaces to avoid or mitigate exposure to the virus. And, it’s still not clear these residents can turn on their taps to wash their hands, drink water, and cook.

So, this has been endemic to government for years—free markets, deregulation, slashed taxes, downsized government, increased subsidies, strip-mined laws and lack of enforcement, and indifference to the rights and needs of citizens and the good of others:

  • The Trump administration has repealed Clean Air Act carbon limits to fuel coal power plants, waived environmental impact and alternative analysis in energy, pipeline, and infrastructure projects, and gutted the Clean Water Act by dropping the “waters of the U.S.” rule with the loss of small cold-water feeder streams and wetlands—regulations that are more necessary than ever because of flooding caused by climate change and unprecedented rainfall.
  • The Trump administration has also directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to stop recognizing solid scientific research and ignore scientists who would undermine the agency’s dismantling of environmental health and pollution laws.
  • The EPA, Ohio, and even the State of Michigan refuse to lay down the law and force cleanup by agricultural and concentrated farm operations that are flushing wastes and nutrients into rivers and Lake Erie. These pollutants have converted one-third of the lake into a toxic green cesspool that has closed beaches, destroyed lakeshore tourism, killed fish, shut down fishing and Toledo’s public water supply for 400,000 people.
  • States like Michigan have suspended enforcement of environmental standards that exceed the protection of federal standards. These state standards are adopted to address pollution and destruction of our public waters and to protect paramount public rights in our public water for drinking, health, sanitation, sustenance, fishing, navigation, bathing, and swimming. Strangely, if the federal government weakens and suspends federal laws and standards, will our own ability to protect health, water, and people correspondingly be weakened?

Wait, I’m furious.

Last week, the Trump administration leveraged the COVID-19 crisis to suspend federal enforcement of violations of environmental laws under the guise that industry needed help to keep their employees working. The oil and gas industry would put people back to work if they can pollute without fear of enforcement? This is absurd. The administration claimed the suspension was temporary, but the time frame is indefinite. If industry employees can suddenly be put back to work because of COVID-19, why were they were working before COVID-19 to enforce federal health and environmental laws?

The devil’s in the details, the saying goes. In this case, the devil is the infuriating motivation behind the suspension: the EPA cited the release of the suspension of environmental laws was urgent and that the polluting industries couldn’t meet the deadlines for comments in time for the needed action; at the same time, the EPA refused to let public interest groups extend deadlines, saying comments could be timely met despite the coronavirus! Then a federal district court in Washington, D.C., ruled that the federal permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline (the “Standing Rock” case ) through South Dakota was invalid because the company and federal agencies violated the impact statement requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act—the agencies had ignored serious concerns related to risks and worst-case scenarios from a failure and oil spills. Now the pipeline and others can move forward without having to comply with federal laws and regulations—like those that require them to monitor, investigate, and prevent spills from oil and gas pipeline operations (Line 5, in Michigan, anyone?). So, now it’s up to the states and their water, environmental, and health laws. Oh, but what if those laws in Michigan can’t be more stringent than these weaker federal standards?

Hope for Subduing COVID-19 and Return to the Common Good

Let’s get angry and positive at the same time. It’s not enough to blame and become outraged, or furious. How do we turn this loss and mourning into the days of healing, and then bring about constructive change in the hope there is a light overcoming the darkness?

We’ve known for decades that greenhouse gases have warmed the atmosphere, perhaps better described as hydrosphere, and that this has warmed the earth, whipsawed weather and water, and destabilized our earth’s inextricably related support systems. In turn, this has heaped stress and increased the vulnerability of plants, animals, and the water cycle that supports them. COVID-19 is the next notch in a noose that has a stranglehold on our lives, communities, air, water, habitat, plants and animals—an awareness and hope that we might all put humanity and the common good of health, education, environment, and basic services such as drinking water, first, and collectively do something about it. We can no longer sit by and do nothing, while the global corporate dominance of economics, a culture of weak government, and the “great god” of free markets enslave us and our planet. My hope is that we don’t chalk up COVID-19 as an isolated tragedy waiting to happen.

But we can’t stop there and blame it all on climate change either. Before the recent devastation from droughts, fires, massive storms and precipitation, and flooding, we’ve had years of deregulation and increasing toxic pollution, plastic islands and invisible fibers in our oceans and water, loss of forests, erosion, sedimentation, and deaths caused by a society that has turned its back on the ethos and laws once passed for the common good. While the nation suffers through this time of COVID-19, we must not let leaders and their slash-and-burn politics gut the very laws that protect water, air, health, and environment and expose us to even greater risks of harm on top of what we are all facing.

The time has come to recognize we all live in an interdependent, interconnected world. We are on the same island coursing around the sun, we are a humanity that will survive only if we put the common good of all for generations to come, first, and utilitarian and material endeavors and wants, second.

To Combat Coronavirus, Michigan’s Governor Orders Communities to Turn Water Back On to Shutoff Homes

Photo courtesy of People’s Water Board

FLOW and allies continue to seek emergency and permanent solutions to ensure access to clean, safe, affordable water for all 

By Janet Meissner Pritchard, FLOW interim legal director

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer on March 28 ordered all local public water systems to halt disconnections and restore drinking water and sanitation services to residents who had their water shut off because of non-payment of bills. The order comes with a $2 million state fund to help communities reconnect service, which Gov. Whitmer deemed essential to help fight the spread of the coronavirus in hard-hit Michigan. Communities will be required to provide a 25% match for a state grant. All public water utilities that shut off services due to non-payment must report to the State Emergency Operations Center about the state of water access in their service areas no later than April 12. If that report does not satisfy the executive order’s list of requirements, the utility must submit a supplemental report every 30 days until it does meet the requirements.

Whitmer’s action followed urgent calls by the People’s Water Board Coalition and its partners—some of which (like Michigan Welfare Rights Organization) have been leading this fight for nearly 20 years. Continued leadership and collaboration with these frontline groups must happen to ensure that water service is restored to every household in need as soon as possible, and that emergency water and sanitation supplies are provided during the intervening days.

The Governor’s order provides needed national leadership during the COVID-19 crisis to not only stop water shutoffs but also require reconnections, while providing some of the resources necessary to safely reconnect water service. In many cases, more than just turning a valve is required to restore water because households that have been shut off for months or even years often have considerable problems with residential plumbing. Common challenges include corroded and burst pipes, water heaters lined with dangerous deposits, water-borne microbial contamination in the lines from stagnant water and raw sewage, and lead contamination in plumbing and fixtures.

If these plumbing risks are not corrected prior to restoring water service, “every home with an extended shutoff is like its own Flint water crisis waiting to happen,” national drinking water expert Elin Betanzo and Sylvia Orduño of the People’s Water Board wrote in a March 24 op-ed in The Detroit News. In effect, utilities caused much of this plumbing damage through their reckless and inhumane water shut-off policies. 

In response to the state moratorium halting further water shut-offs during the pandemic, Detroit officials disclosed that they do not have records of all the thousands of households that had been shut off—a failure that further underscores the marginalization of these households. Indeed, a lack of data was even used as a justification for declining to recognize the public health emergency that extensive water shut-offs already posed before the pandemic

What’s clear is that the practice and policy of water shutoffs is inhumane and fuels public health crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.  Moreover, this policy must be permanently banned. The next COVID-19 federal relief bill must include a national moratorium on water shut-offs and resources to restore shut-off water services. A permanent moratorium on water shutoffs nationwide is a priority because water and public health are inseparably linked. Remember that the CDC’s number one recommendation for combating COVID-19 is to wash your hands, and this simple act is not even possible for the thousands of households who lack basic sanitation and access to water.

FLOW’s Work to Ensure Clean, Safe, Affordable Water for All is More Important Now than Ever 

FLOW is working to build understanding around the unaffordability of water services and other issues compounding our water infrastructure crisis and strategizing, in partnership with the People’s Water Board and other allied organizations, how to finance much-needed investments in Michigan’s drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater systems. 

FLOW’s work on water infrastructure financing aims to identify a set of policies that:

  • Fully address Michigan’s perpetual funding shortfall for water infrastructure, estimated to total at least $800 million annually.
  • Are feasible and cost-effective.
  • Ensure the burden for funding water infrastructure for Michigan is equitably distributed and that funds for water infrastructure are equitably allocated.
  • Eliminate water shutoffs and establish comprehensive affordable water plans and funds for eligible households. 
  • Secure and strengthen good governance principles, including transparency and accountability for decisions pertaining to funding water infrastructure. 
  • Secure and strengthen the public trust principles governing Michigan’s water resources. 

The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically changes the landscape in which this work takes place. Economists project that the pandemic will throw us into a global recession, with severe impacts felt for the next several years. The economic strain that this predicted recession would impose on both households and governments could further constrain spending on water infrastructure, a need we have failed to prioritize for many decades, even during prosperous times.  

The pandemic and its impacts, including its economic fallout, also provide a lens that magnifies the importance of this work, however. First, a crisis like this exposes the underlying weaknesses of systems we rely on to keep us safe: our health system, our government planning and coordination systems, and our water infrastructure system. For example, the fact that, prior to the onset of the pandemic, an estimated 10,000 households in Detroit lacked water services due to inability of impoverished families to pay soaring water bills is a glaring example of flaws in the way we have  financed our water infrastructure, a basic necessity of life.

With the novel coronavirus continuing to threaten Michigan, health professionals advise that the way to protect ourselves and prevent spread of the virus is to wash our hands. This simple guidance, in turn, has exposed the disturbing fact that widespread water shutoffs during a pandemic threaten us all. The moratorium against water shut-offs during the pandemic, coupled with Governor Whitmer’s order to restore water services, is an essential first step.  A more permanent fix is required, however—one that considers the right of every household to safe, clean, affordable water in the context of a broad analysis of how we understand and pay for our water infrastructure systems. Only this deeper analysis of our water infrastructure financing challenges and comprehensive, sustainable solutions will help us build a more resilient society, protected and served by 21st-century water infrastructure.

Second, as with almost any crisis, both the health and the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic fall disproportionately on people and communities that already were the most vulnerable, in terms of both health and finances. This underscores the importance of the equity lens which is at the front and center of our analysis of water infrastructure finance challenges and solutions.

Third, economists forecast that the worldwide economic downturn expected to follow the pandemic could be especially deep and lengthy. This is because the social distancing measures required to deal with the pandemic—which may continue to be needed to varying degrees for another 18 months or longer—not only strain the viability of many businesses and the employment they provide, but also impede our ability to rely on consumer-led growth to pull out of the recession. The global economy we have built over the past century relies on consumer spending to drive two-thirds of economic activity worldwide and 70 percent of the U.S. economy.

In the midst of this predicted global recession and the strains it places on government revenues and services, it will be important that policymakers understand that a dramatic drop in consumer spending provides an additional reason to invest in our failing infrastructure systems over the next several years. In fact, U.S. House Democrats are proposing a five-year, $760 billion investment to get our existing infrastructure working again and fund new, transformative projects that would create more than 10 million jobs, while reducing carbon pollution and dramatically improving safety. 

FLOW, along with many others working on this agenda, has signed an open letter calling on Congress to adopt a Green Stimulus to Rebuild our Economy to address three converging crises: the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic recession, the climate emergency, and extreme inequality. These investments can replace economic drivers we are losing with the drop in consumer spending and provide family-supporting jobs for workers displaced by the economic fall-out of the pandemic, while building the infrastructure needed to protect us and enable us to thrive in the 21st century and beyond. Even President Trump, who has so far failed to take meaningful action towards his campaign promise to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure, is calling for investment in infrastructure as part of future COVID-19 relief packages

The next COVID-19 federal relief bill must include a national moratorium on water shut-offs and resources to restore shut-off water services.

Finally, while we may not be able to predict all the various challenges that might beset us in the future, we can and must build our resiliency to survive such challenges. We face many threats, including climate change, that are not going away even as the pandemic and its fallout pose additional challenges. We’ve built an economy based on a “take-make-dump trajectory” in terms of how we have used and depleted natural resources to drive our economy. We need to build an economy based on a very different understanding of the relationship with our environment. A resilient, thriving, diverse, and sustainable economy relies first and foremost on a resilient, thriving, diverse, and sustainable environment. 

With regard to water resources, this points back to the ancient and enduring public trust doctrine as the fundamental framework through which we should understand all of our interactions with and governance of water. The doctrine holds that our waters are held in the public trust for the benefit of all; while allowing for the reasonable use of water, including for economic benefit as well as sustenance, no permissible use can undermine the health, integrity, and sustainability of the resource itself. These public trust principles stand in stark contrast to the commodification of water, which we must diligently resist. 

More specifically, the Public Water, Health, and Justice Fund that could be created through the Public Water, Public Justice Act proposed by FLOW in 2018 could provide a new steady source of funding to help restore and retain access to clean, safe, affordable water for years to come. The Public Water, Public Justice Act would prohibit the sale of water except for the sale of bottled water authorized by a royalty licensing system, and recoup for public purposes royalties derived from these bottled water sales. Royalties would be placed into a trust fund to serve people and communities for specific dedicated public purposes, such as replacing lead service lines or creating water affordability plans for disadvantaged people or cities and rural communities.

The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the importance of FLOW’s work on water infrastructure and the public trust, now more than ever. Together we can build a healthier future and thriving communities centered around water.