Author: FLOW Editor

A Truly Golden Anniversary: 50 Years Since the Environmental Awakening of 1970

Photo: Students and faculty at the University of Michigan organized an environmental teach-in attended by 50,000 people in March 1970. It led to the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.

By Dave Dempsey

Although American environmentalism reaches back to the early 20th century, public demands for clean water, clean air, and healthy ecosystems reached a crescendo in 1970. As 2020 dawns, FLOW believes it’s time to remember and reflect on all that happened that 50 years ago—and how we can make the next 50 years a time of further dramatic progress for our precious waters and the environment.

In the minds of some who were present then, the most prominent environmental memory of 1970 is likely the first national observance of Earth Day, April 22—with Michigan out front on that one. In March 1970, students and faculty on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor organized what they called an Environmental Teach-In. 

At the five-day teach-in, in which an estimated 50,000 people participated, Victor Yannacone, a nationally recognized environmental attorney, spoke on use of the courts to halt pollution. He told students, “This land is your land. It doesn’t belong to Ford, General Motors, or Chrysler…it doesn’t belong to any soulless corporation. It belongs to you and me.” A new student group called ENACT organized the week’s events, which included an “Environmental Scream-Out,” a tour of local pollution sites, music by singer Gordon Lightfoot, and speeches by entertainer Arthur Godfrey, scientist Barry Commoner, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, and Senators Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin and Edward Muskie of Maine.

The national observance of Earth Day followed on April 22.

Earth Day 1970, however, was just one of many events and accomplishments—and a few crises—both nationally and in Michigan. During 2020, FLOW will note these and other milestones from 50 years ago:

  • January 1, 1970: the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) took effect.
  • January 1970: Michigan Governor William G. Milliken unveiled a broad agenda of proposed environmental reforms.
  • March 1970: The discovery of alarmingly high levels of toxic mercury temporarily shut down fishing in Lake St. Clair.
  • March 1970: Environmental Teach-In at U of M in Ann Arbor
  • April 22, 1970: Earth Day
  • July 27, 1970: The Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA) took effect.
  • October 21, 1970: Legislation creating Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in northwest Lower Michigan took effect.
  • December 2, 1970: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was officially created.
  • December 3, 1970: The Michigan Natural Rivers Act took effect.
  • December 31, 1970: The U.S. Clean Air Act took effect.
  • December 31, 1970: The Michigan Great Lakes Shorelands Act was signed into law by Governor Milliken.

The first milestone, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), was co-authored by the late Congressman John Dingell of Michigan. As its title suggests, the law established a federal policy on the environment, created a federal Council on Environmental Quality, and required environmental impact statements on proposed major federal activities affecting the environment.

President Richard Nixon, who signed the legislation, said, “I have become convinced that the 1970s absolutely must be the years when America pays its debt to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its waters and its living environment.”

In 1970, there was a broad bipartisan consensus that the United States and Michigan needed to do a much better job of protecting our environment. It’s a lesson from which we can learn today.

 

Share Your Environmental Recollections from 1970

FLOW is looking for contributions from you for this 50th anniversary year of Earth Day and related milestones. Here’s how you can help:

  • Suggest additional local, state, or national milestones from 1970.
  • Provide short guest commentaries (500 words) with your views on the significance of 1970, what’s happened since then environmentally, and where you hope we stand 50 years from now.
  • Provide your historical photos of significant environmental events from 1970.

If you are interested in submitting material, please contact us at info@flowforwater.org.

Dave Dempsey is FLOW’s senior policy advisor.

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

Court’s Denial of Zoning Permit for Nestlé Pump Station Exposes Achilles Heel of Private Bottled Water Industry

Bottled water

By Jim Olson

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

On December 3, the Michigan Court of Appeals released an opinion nullifying a lower court order that had allowed the water-bottling giant Nestlé to build an industrial booster pump facility to transport 210 million gallons per year of groundwater that feeds headwater creeks in Osceola Township, just north of Evart. 

In one sense, the decision was narrow. The Court simply interpreted and applied zoning law and the language of the township’s zoning ordinance, and concluded that the industrial-sized pump facility was not authorized as a listed use or “essential public service” in a long-established agricultural district. 

In another sense, the decision exposes the Achilles heel of the private bottled water industry’s water withdrawals, diversions, and sales throughout Michigan and the country.

No matter what arguments Nestlé threw at the appeals court—and there were many—the court rejected them. Nestlé tried to convince the court to allow the booster pump to expand its water diversion to Evart and then down U.S. 131 by truck to its plant in Stanwood by claiming, alternatively, that it was engaged in an essential public service, a public service, a public necessity, or a public water supply. 

But Michigan’s second highest court found that, no matter how you pump it, the removal of 576,000 gallons per day, seven days a week, of public water for private bottled water sales was not public, not essential, not necessary, not a public service, and not a public water supply. In other words, bottled water diversion and export operations can no longer be paraded as public. The bottled water industry has only one purpose—maximum profit from the sale of packaged public water.

At its core, the conversion of Michigan’s sovereign water into a product and revenue does not square with our laws and customs that view water as “a commons” for reasonable use to serve the needs of landowners, communities, and the public. Water has been considered public for more than 1,500 years. Until the last 30 years, our common law never contemplated the sale of massive quantities of water to consumers living outside a river’s or lake’s watershed, or outside the Great Lakes Basin.

It is a frequent misconception that landowners own the groundwater beneath their feet or the stream passing by the shore. Landowners or occupants of land do not own the water passing under or through their land; they have only a right of reasonable use, and may use it in connection with their land in some beneficial way, so long as the use does not interfere or diminish the water or their neighbor’s reasonable use in connection with the overlying land. 

Lower Court Decision

Along with gaining state approval to pump 400 gallons per minute, Nestlé leased farmland and filed an application for a zoning permit with Osceola Township to locate an industrial-size booster pump in the A-1 Agricultural District to expand capacity of a pipeline that runs to a truck transfer-station located two miles south of Evart. The industrial use did not appear eligible as a use in the farming district. The Planning Commission noted, however, that it might qualify as an “essential service” if Nestlé could show that the private facility constituted a “public convenience and necessity,” but ultimately denied the request because it did not meet that standard.

Nestlé appealed to the county circuit court, ruling that the proposed pump facility constituted an “essential public service,” which was exempt from the ordinance. The court reasoned that, from Nestlé’s viewpoint, the facility was an essential service, and that, because it satisfied a general public demand for consuming bottled water, it was public. 

Court of Appeals Decision

The Township then filed an appeal with the Michigan Court of Appeals. After briefing and oral arguments, the appeals court on December 3 reversed the lower court’s ruling that the pump station qualified as an “essential public service.”

Nestlé also submitted several alternative claims and arguments that its booster pump station qualified for approval under the zoning ordinance. In every instance the Court completely rejected Nestlé’s arguments.

First, Nestlé argued that its pumping station was an “essential public service.” The Court acknowledged that “water is essential” to life—sustenance, health, farming, industry, electricity, recreation, and other human needs—but rejected the argument that selling bottled water to consumers at a profit somehow constitutes a “public service.” The Court found that “public service” means supplying water as a service to the general public or community through public waterworks, in the same way as any public utility, such as for the delivery of gas or electricity; the appeals court concluded that bottled water sales are a convenience, and sometimes are a help consumers in an emergency—but not a service that’s essential to the public.

Second, as a backup claim, Nestlé argued that its pump facility qualified as an “essential public service” because the large-volume water well permit constituted a “public water supply” under Michigan’s Safe Drinking Water Act (“SDWA”). However, the appeals court determined that the private sale of bottled water was not in the nature of a public utility subject to the Michigan Public Service Commission. Moreover, in a latter section of its decision, the appeals court noted that under the SDWA a “community supply” and “non-community supply” refer to a public water supply that provides year-round service to living units of residents, places of employment, schools, or daycare centers. The Court concluded that bottled water sales to consumers do not meet the definition of a public water supply.

Third, the company argued that the pump station qualified as an agricultural use. But the appeals court pointed to the definition in the zoning ordinance, finding that farming uses included growing, irrigation, food storage, or distribution facilities for agricultural products, and concluded that the industrial pump facility did not qualify as an agricultural use. Water is not “something produced,” the appeals court stated. Water used for farming is not, in itself, a farm product.

Fourth, Nestlé argued that its pump station qualified as an “extraction” of natural resources like sand and gravel under a special use permit provision in the ordinance. But once more the appeals court rejected the company’s argument because extraction or mining of a natural resource is not the same as the removal of water that continually moves through subsurface soils to replenish a stream, lake, or wetland, or provide a source of water for overlying landowners. In other words, water is not owned and extracted, water is a common resource reasonably used by others as it moves through the watershed. The sale of water permanently removed or severed from the water cycle by its nature does not replenish a shared common resource, it irretrievably depletes the resource: “… [E]xtracting water and sending it to other places where it cannot return to the water table… faster than the aquifer can replenish is an ‘irretrievable’ depletion,” the appeals court ruled. The court’s reasoning is entirely in accord with the common law rule in Michigan that water cannot be diverted off-tract or out of a watershed for sale in distant places if it diminishes other uses of water in connection with land in the watershed, the level of a marsh, lake, or stream. A large-volume pump diverting water from the land used by others for farming purposes is not compatible with farming or agricultural use.

Fifth, Nestlé argued that Michigan’s 2008 Water Withdrawal Act preempted local zoning ordinances that restricted the withdrawal of water: “[A] local unit of government shall not enact or enforce an ordinance that regulates a large quantity withdrawal,” stipulated the act. But the appeals court distinguished the regulation of groundwater withdrawal from the regulation of allowable land uses under a zoning ordinance, and concluded that the zoning ordinance “does not have the effect of regulating… the removal of water.”

Finally, Nestlé argued that its pumping station was an inextricable part of its large-volume water well that had been permitted by the State as a “public water supply” under the SDWA. However, the appeals court, again, ruled that water withdrawn for sale as bottled water for private gain did not fit the definition of a “public water supply,” emphasizing that the 2008 amendments to the SDWA created an entirely new classification for permitting bottled water operations, completely apart from sections of the SDWA that governed permits for a public water supply.

Future of Free Public Water for Private Bottling, Sale, and Profit

As a result of the court of appeals decision, for Nestlé to locate an industrial pumping station in Osceola Township, it will have to convince the Township’s board to amend the zoning ordinance. But the ruling goes far beyond zoning law.

In its broadest sense, the Osceola Township case could mean a lot more. Over the past two decades, bottled water has represented a battleground in many locations, including Maine and Vermont, Maryland and Florida, Texas and California, and across the border in Hamilton, Ontario. 

There are three fundamental issues in play: First, as seen by the court findings in the 2005 Nestlé case in Mecosta County, Michigan, groundwater withdrawals diverted for bottled water on a permanent basis cause substantial local impacts to fish, canoeing, kayaking, wildlife, and habitat in tributary creeks, lakes, and wetlands. Second, the removal of water for sale out of a watershed is not a use of water like farming or manufacturing in connection with land and returned to the watershed; it is a diversion and sale or export. Third, almost no one—regardless of their political persuasions—warms to the notion that someone can withdraw water, bottle it, and then claim it as its own to sell and profit without paying a penny for it. The public, in effect, subsidizes the company’s profit, without ever authorizing the company to sell the water.

Private large-volume groundwater operations like Nestlé’s in Michigan aren’t the only threat. Many water bottlers like Dasani and Aquafina hook up to a public water supply, package it, and convert it into a product to sell after paying a tiny fraction of a penny per gallon to the local municipality. In these cases, the corporations do not need a groundwater permit. They simply convert a public water service based on a nonprofit rate structure—spread across all those using the service—into profit. Like Nestlé, water bottlers who convert a public water supply into a package to sell at lucrative prices are subsidized by the other ratepayers and the public water supply service.

How can a bottled water company pay only an infinitesimal fraction of a penny for a gallon of water—based on a pro-rated cost of the municipal operation spread across all ratepayers—package, or bottle it, and convert it into a product or export t for sale for its own profit without authorization to sell or profit from the sale of a public water service?

The Court of Appeals decision in Osceola Township is a significant victory for local communities, water users, and citizens of Michigan who so often struggle to combat large, exploitive operations such as high-volume bottled water exports, Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), fracking, and mining extraction. Just because a company thinks it can withdraw water and sell it because it holds a permit that says the withdrawal doesn’t violate impact standards, doesn’t mean the extraction is authorized or lawful under zoning laws, water rights law, or the sovereign state and public trust interest in water for the benefit of all citizens. Corporate water bottling is a private use, bent on convenience and profit. Even in humanitarian situations, like supplying bottled water in Flint, the water withdrawal still benefits the company. 

The answer to the larger question, “Who owns the groundwater?” is that, “No one owns the water.” Not the landowners, not bottled water companies, not even the local public water works. Groundwater is public water held by the State for the benefit of its citizens’ health, safety, and wellbeing. Michigan water is for use here in our local watersheds and the Great Lakes Basin, not for sale in some distant land.

Chronicling FLOW’s Accomplishments in 2019

Powered by our supporters, FLOW had quite a year in 2019.

Our legal advocacy work to restore the rule of law made a big impact at the state level. Michigan’s new Attorney General Dana Nessel filed a public trust lawsuit on June 27 to revoke the 1953 easement that conditionally authorizes Enbridge to operate its 66-year-old Line 5 oil pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac.

“This is a watershed moment in the battle to decommission Line 5, prevent a catastrophic oil spill, and protect the Great Lakes, an economic engine for our state and the source of drinking water for millions,” said FLOW executive director Liz Kirkwood about Nessel’s bold legal action.

On December 3, the Michigan Court of Appeals nullified a lower court order that would have allowed the bottled water giant Nestlé to build an industrial booster pump facility to remove millions of gallons of groundwater per year from Osceola Township. The court affirmed that bottled water is neither an “essential public service” nor a “public water supply”.

“Bottled water diversion and export operations can no longer be paraded as public,” said FLOW founder and president Jim Olson. “The purpose of the bottled water industry has only one purpose—maximum profit off the sale of packaged public water.”

Meanwhile, a bill has been introduced in Lansing by Rep. Yousef Rabhi that extends public trust protection to groundwater and mandates that the state protect that water.

Our work has had a national impact as well. In February, the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed that we have a public trust right to walk the Great Lakes shorelines below the natural high water mark of private property, when it declined to hear an Indiana case filed by riparian land owners. Jim Olson was involved in the original case.

 

Education and protective policy

FLOW launched several education campaigns in 2019 including a Groundwater Awareness Week, what it is and why it matters; the Michigan Septic Summit on Nov. 6 that convened parties from public health officials to realtors to watershed nonprofits to generate new partnerships and build political will to pass a statewide septic code; an environmental economics project and four policy briefs by former FLOW board chair Skip Pruss about the benefits of government regulation to protect the environment and public health; and a Public Trust month in July that included a “Great Lakes Passport” and a month-long series of videos that featured the public answering the question: “Who owns the Great Lakes?”.

We advocated for several protective policies in 2019, including a two-pronged proposal to the International Joint Commission (IJC) for an emergency pilot study and urgent action to address the effects of climate change on the Great Lakes, the inclusion of funding for clean water in Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s budget, and the need for statewide requirements for septic system inspection, particularly given that Michigan is the only state in the nation without any statewide septic code.

The International Joint Commission, which held a public hearing in Traverse City on July 24, also appointed FLOW executive director Liz Kirkwood to its Great Lakes Water Quality Board.

“I am delighted to have the opportunity to work with people from all across the Great Lakes Basin to help improve protection of these public trust waters,” Kirkwood said. “Our challenge in this new century, then, is to break the constant cycle of ruin and recovery, and replace it with sustained protection and prosperity. This is critical in the context of the climate crisis where we are testing the capacity of our ecosystems to rebound.”

FLOW senior policy advisor Dave Dempsey was also invited to present at the Great Lakes Funders Conference in Cleveland in late October.

 

Celebrating water

FLOW held several events in 2019 to recognize the importance of inspiring citizens viscerally and emotionally (as well as cerebrally) to protect the Great Lakes. We launched our “Art Meets Water” webpage to highlight examples of the heartfelt creativity that inspires us to fight for our public waters. “We all know that water is the source of the future,” says Leelanau County writer Anne-Marie Oomen. “But it’s also a part of our souls and our spirits.”

On June 28, cellist Crispin Campbell and “Mad Angler” poet Mike Delp performed at our “In Praise of Water” benefit for FLOW at the Cathedral Barn at Historic Barns Park in Traverse City. “The Mad Angler finds himself upset about the state of affairs that Michigan rivers find themselves in,” said Delp. “When you hear that deep sound coming out of the cello, that’s the heart of where this comes from… I’m right down inside that cello.”

On July 24, Oomen and the Beach Bards storytellers’ troupe presented, “Love Letters to the Lakes” (which she had solicited from writers across Michigan) in a live reading to the International Joint Commission, in hopes that deeply personal prose would impact public policy to protect the Great Lakes. And on October 11, Higher Art Gallery in Traverse City held “Artists for FLOW,” inviting local artists to share water-inspired works for a show that benefits our fight to protect that water.

After all, protecting the Great Lakes is “A Matter of the Heart” writes FLOW supporter Jerry Beasley:

“What I have learned, and what I believe in the most elemental way, is that our first and most basic relationship with water is anchored in love. In the absence of love, there is the great risk of indifference and failure to protect this resource that, under the Public Trust Doctrine, belongs to us all and is essential to life. If the heart is not engaged, the waters will not be saved. So, while we marshal facts and organize and encourage activism, let us remember to acknowledge the power of our affections and make them a guiding principle in all that we do.”

FLOW’s Top 10: Water Diversions, PFAS, Line 5, Beach Access, and Septic System Pollution Rank among Most Popular Stories of 2019

Great Lakes from Space

Drumroll please! It’s time to unveil the top 10 most popular, most clicked, most-talked about blog posts written by FLOW in 2019.

The threat of diverting water from the Great Lakes basin generated significant interest among our readers. Our most read blog post this year, written by FLOW founder and president Jim Olson on March 7, concerned FLOW’s challenge to the proposed Great Lakes water diversion for Foxconn in Wisconsin. Second on the list, also written by Olson on May 8, was a post about Michigan citizens and the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians challenging a state of Michigan permit for Nestlé’s water grab.

PFAS and Line 5 also dominated the public consciousness this year. FLOW board member Rick Kane’s essay on the environmental and public health crisis posed by PFAS that needs answers and action made our most-viewed list. So did a blog about our effort to stop the Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners from supporting Enbridge’s proposed tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac. Also on the list was Olson’s blog about restoring the rule of law on Line 5, and how Michigan’s new leadership can protect the Great Lakes from the risk of a catastrophic oil spill at the Straits of Mackinac.

This year began with great hope, as a new Governor and Attorney General took office in Michigan, and FLOW worked to encourage state officials to reverse Michigan’s anti-environmental, lame-duck lunacy of late 2018. Some of that effort paid off when new Attorney General Dana Nessel and Governor Gretchen Whitmer in late June took bold legal actions to shut down Line 5 and apply the rule of law.

This was the year of high water. Great Lakes water levels in 2019 eclipsed their all-time high on Lakes Superior, Erie and Ontario, and fell just short on Lakes Michigan and Huron. As such, readers were concerned about their ability, and right, to walk the shorelines. Olson addressed that in his June 3 blog, “Walking the Water Line—A Legal Right, But Difficult as Great Lakes Levels Rise”.

FLOW helped generate interest in the importance of septic regulations this year, as a proposal to abolish required septic system inspections threatened Kalkaska waters. Our Nov. 6 Michigan Septic Summit helped further the conversation.

Rounding out the top 10 list was a helpful primer of facts on what everyone should know about the Great Lakes.

 

FLOW’s top 10 most read stories of 2019:

1) FLOW Challenges Proposed Great Lakes Water Diversion for Foxconn in Wisconsin, March 7

2) Michigan Citizens, Tribe Challenge State Permit for Nestlé’s Water Grab, May 8

3) PFAS: An Environmental and Public Health Crisis that Needs Answers and Action, March 20

4) What Everyone Should Know About the Great Lakes, March 26

5) Walking the Water Line — a Legal Right, But Difficult as Great Lakes Levels Rise, June 3

6) A 2019 Resolution to Reverse Michigan’s Anti-Environmental, Lame-Duck Lunacy, January 2

7) No ‘Line 5’ Oil Tunnel in the Great Lakes! August 7

8) Proposal to Abolish Required Septic System Inspections Threatens Kalkaska Waters, March 27

9) Bypassing, and Now Restoring, the Rule of Law on Line 5, January 29

10) Attorney General Nessel, Governor Whitmer Take Bold Legal Actions to Shut Down Line 5 and Apply Rule of Law, June 27

State Official’s Non-Decision Thwarts Protection from Potash Mining

Wetlands photo courtesy of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation

A Michigan state administrative law judge, after almost a year and a half delay, recently decided he had no jurisdiction to rule on a citizen challenge of a proposed potash mine that would suck enormous amounts of groundwater out of an aquifer near the town of Hersey—near Reed City and the Huron-Manistee National Forests. The mine, if approved, would drain groundwater supporting sensitive wetlands and result in disposal of contaminated water into aquifers.

Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) filed the challenge after the state in June 2018 granted permits for eight solution mining wells and three non-hazardous brine disposal wells for the potash mining operation, despite environmental opposition to the project. The proposed potash mining operation in an Osceola County wetland complex would use 725 million gallons of Michigan groundwater per year, according to the state. Potash is used as fertilizer.

Michigan Potash Co. LLC proposes to extract potash salt through the process of solution mining, by pumping water or brine into targeted zones to dissolve the underground potash. The resulting dissolved, potash-rich brine is returned to the surface where it is evaporated to recover potash and food grade salt, state officials say.

The process creates potash deficient brine and water that is recycled in a closed loop system and reused. The three proposed nonhazardous disposal wells will handle the residual brine that is no longer usable for solution mining.

Administrative Law Judge Daniel Pulter, just days before a scheduled hearing on MCWC’s challenge and more than a year after the state issued the permits, determined he had no jurisdiction to rule on the challenge. The action baffled opponents of the mine.

“The upshot of all this,” said MCWC chairperson Peggy Case, “is that for the past year and a half, no one in Lansing has been looking into the serious issues involving Michigan Potash’s plan and site.” But MCWC vows to forge ahead, taking its challenge to the Environmental Permit Appeals Board within the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE). A hearing on jurisdiction is expected on March 20.

Case notes that Pulter’s non-decision decision dealt only with permits to drill the 11 wells. Additional permits will be required for the location of a refinery, high-pressure brine pipelines and handling facilities, shipping routes, and storage. The company has not performed any tests to establish that it can safely withdraw 5 to 10 times more fresh water than Nestlé is taking for its bottled water six miles away.

“People ask us why we’re continuing our fight,” Case said. “In short, we believe that we have no choice. High-risk, intensive industrial activity at such a uniquely vulnerable site is not something we’re willing to accept without a fight. Michigan already has far too many areas that have become ‘water sacrifice zones’.”

“As Michiganders, we view fresh clean ground and surface waters as our birthright.”

Thunder Bay Film Festival Showcases Water Themes

In what has become a cherished Great Lakes community event, the eighth annual Thunder Bay International Film Festival will take place in Alpena, Michigan, January 22-26, 2020.

Organized by Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the festival’s offerings span a range of films—from a local student competition, to Great Lakes subjects, to selections from the International Ocean Film Festival.

The far-reaching subjects attract filmmakers from great distances. 

“It’s an opportunity to promote the Sanctuary around the world,” says Stephanie Gandulla, research coordinator for the sanctuary and organizer of the festival.

With 16 sessions, the Thunder Bay International Film Festival includes more than 50 films. In addition to the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center in Alpena, films will be shown in Harrisville (at the Alcona County Library) and at the Rogers City Theater.

Great Lakes films at the festival include features on Great Lakes surfing, paddle boarders crossing Lake Erie, a mini-documentary on the restoration of the Raisin River, stories of Michigan’s fishery heritage, and programs produced by Detroit Public Television.

Ocean topics include gray sharks, baby beluga whales, and marathon swimming. Those films address important issues such as climate change, overfishing, and endangered species.

This is the fifth year that the festival also features a student competition. Last year, junior high and high school students submitted almost 100 videos of five minutes, or less, in length. 

“The technological skill level of the students is impressive,” Gandulla says. This year’s student theme is “The Great Lakes Are …”

The film festival has become a favorite event in northern Michigan, attracting hundreds of locals and visitors to sample the cinematic wares. After it was launched on a shoestring budget in 2013, the festival now turns a modest profit that is donated to support the Friends of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which in turn educates the public and conducts activities in support of the sanctuary.

A pass to view all films costs $100. Entrance to individual films costs $6 each. The festival coincides with the 20th anniversary year of the creation of the national marine sanctuary through an act of Congress.

Don’t Forget the Department of Natural Resources

An angler speaks with a DNR creel clerk. Photo courtesy Michigan DNR

By Tom Baird

Many Michiganders overlook a state agency critical to the environment.

When we talk about water issues in Michigan, we usually think of environmental protection, especially related to pollution and public health. We tend to forget that environmentalism was born out of the conservation movement of the early 20th century. Water issues remain central to the mission of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to this day.

Water was an integral aspect of the early conservation efforts of Michigan, often related to fish and game issues, as well as agriculture. The Department of Conservation was created in 1921, and the DNR took its place in 1965. Michigan’s early environmental laws were assigned to the DNR, but under Governor John Engler the Department was split, with environmental functions going to the Department of Environmental Quality (now Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, EGLE), allegedly because the environmental staff at the DNR was too zealous in its enforcement of the law.

The DNR still has an active water program, covering areas of major concern. Under the new administration of Governor Gretchen Whitmer, several of these areas have seen renewed focus. And the DNR has a Senior Water Policy Advisor, Dr. Tammy Newcomb, who oversees many of these efforts.

PFAS pollution is an area generally within the purview of EGLE and the Department of Health and Human Services. The DNR has an important role in assessing contamination of water bodies and the fish and game that use them. Recently “do not eat” advisories have been posted due to PFAS contamination on Clark’s Marsh and the Au Sable River near Oscoda and the Huron River, for example. The DNR is critical in determining how PFAS compounds work through an ecosystem, and its half-life in various species of fish. Michigan appears to be the only place in the world that has tested white-tailed deer for PFAS contamination, resulting in a “do not eat” advisory for venison near Oscoda. Much of this work has been controversial, especially in areas where hunting and fishing are integral to the local economy, but the DNR has pushed hard when public health was at risk.

Water withdrawals remain another controversial area of concern where the DNR is involved. Applicants for high-volume ground water withdrawal authorizations use the Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool (WWAT) to determine whether a withdrawal will have an adverse environmental effect. This is based on a computer model that assesses the effect on nearby streams. Those streams are classified, in part, by their temperature, flow, and the type of fish living in them. Cold-water trout streams, for example, are highly valued, so a relatively small adverse effect (compared to a sluggish warm water stream) might trigger a denial. The DNR is responsible for characterizing each stream’s type, and identifying the fish that live in it. Recent water withdrawals by Nestlé for bottled water and by Encana for fracking in northern Lower Michigan, and for agricultural irrigation in the southwestern part of the state, have caused significant controversies and litigation. The WWAT is under continuing review.

The Water Use Advisory Council is back in operation. Its purposes include the study of groundwater use in Michigan, and review of the scientific basis and implementation of the WWAT. As noted above, the DNR has an integral role to play, and Dr. Newcomb is the DNR’s delegate to the Water Use Advisory Council. Important work on the WWAT will continue in 2020.

Invasive species are a never-ending challenge for the Great Lakes. A major focus is Asian carp. Intensive negotiations are continuing with Illinois and federal authorities to block their migration into Lake Michigan. The goal is to engineer and finance the “Brandon Road Locks Project.” Brandon Road is a system connecting Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. It could allow carp to invade the Great Lakes. The project involves measures such as an engineered channel and acoustic fish deterrent, air bubbles, electric currents, improved locks with flushing systems, specialized boat ramps, and other measures. Negotiations with Illinois are ongoing, with the DNR keeping up the pressure.

Climate change is a major emerging threat to Michigan’s fish, wildlife, and state forests. Warming temperatures and severe weather events threaten rivers, lakes, and streams, and their fisheries. The DNR Fisheries Division has been studying the issue for several years now. At some point, difficult decisions will need to be made regarding management of these resources in the face of these climate effects. For example, some streams will warm to the point that they will not be viable habitats for trout, causing management objectives to change. This will be controversial due to its effect on anglers and local recreational economies, and the DNR will play a central role in deciding how to manage these resources in the face of these changes.

The Department of Natural Resources remains integral to the study and management of Michigan’s water issues.  Monitoring its work is critical to assure healthy and productive habitats and sustainable water uses.

Tom Baird, who serves on FLOW’s board of directors, is past president of the Anglers of the Au Sable and chair of the group’s legal and governmental relations committees. Reach him at tbairdo@aol.com.

Government Protects Human Health and the Environment, in West Michigan and Nationwide

From left to right, panelists Alan Steinman, George Heartwell, Skip Pruss and Dave Dempsey. Photo by Liz Kirkwood

FLOW held a community engagement session at the Grand Rapids Public Library on Thursday, December 5, to make the economic case for government’s role in protecting human health and the environment—both nationally and locally.

The event followed a similar listening session in November in Traverse City. It punctuated the publication of a series of “Resetting Expectations” policy briefs by Skip Pruss, former FLOW board chair and former director of the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth. Read those policy briefs here.

The Grand Rapids event featured presentations by Pruss, as well as Alan Steinman, who directs Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute, former Grand Rapids mayor George Heartwell, and FLOW senior policy adviser Dave Dempsey. FLOW executive director Liz Kirkwood opened the engagement session with introductory remarks and closed it with a panel discussion.

Pruss spoke about his early career in government and highlighted the then-prevailing spirit of public service, and public support for and confidence in government’s high aspirations for implementing change. Examples of that change include building the interstate highway system, reaching the moon, launching the war on poverty, and fostering a nationwide public education system which was at one time the envy of the world. Landmark environmental laws passed approximately 50 years ago demonstrated the value of well-conceived governmental interventions. Since its enactment in 1970. economic health benefits related to the Clean Air Act are estimated at $22 trillion.

Watch a recorded video of Pruss’ presentation.

Paradoxically, despite significant achievements, public confidence in government has declined in recent decades, said Pruss, who argued in his “Resetting Expectations” briefs that government should support the renewable energies of tomorrow rather than the dirty fossil fuels of yesterday.

Without government subsidies, the oil and coal industries are going bankrupt: they no longer make good business sense. Meanwhile, a report by the White House Office of Management and Budget demonstrates that environmental regulations have the best cost-benefit ratio of any federal rules. Those regulations also help to level the playing field, and eliminate free riders who don’t abide by the rules.

Across the political spectrum, economists agree that positive externalities—activities that result in additional benefits for society—should be promoted, and negative externalities, which indicate market failure, should be avoided. Negative externalities impose “spillover” costs on society that are not included in the cost of production.

To emphasize his point, Pruss quoted Sir Nicholas Stern, who said that “Climate change is a result of the greatest market failure that the world has ever seen.”

“It’s not just the release of hazardous substances and soil and groundwater contamination and the impact to health and wildlife, it’s also the irreparable loss of these functions of this landscape,” said Pruss while sharing a searing image of the destruction of the Tar Sands region in Alberta, Canada. “The benefits of this landscape that are now gone for future generations. We can’t afford to do that.”

Government environmental protection and investments pay off at the local level, too, added Dr. Alan Steinman and former Grand Rapids mayor George Heartwell.

Steinman opened his presentation with an image of a West Michigan sunset over Lake Michigan, which he said shows how economic development and environmental protection go hand in hand. Steinman then contrasted images of Muskegon Lake as an industrial hub and now, as a favorite recreation spot.

Steinman worked 10 years ago on a project to stabilize Muskegon Lake’s shoreline—a project whose funding didn’t originally intend to highlight economic impacts, but whose cascading benefits included “when the insects came back, the fish came back, and when the fish came back, the people came back.”

Ecosystem restoration is generally considered a 3-to-1 return on investment, but the Muskegon Lake restoration yielded a 6-to-1 return.

Watch Steinman’s presentation here.

Former Grand Rapids mayor George Heartwell started his presentation on an upbeat note: “Let me start with a modest proposition—mayors will save the world!” he boomed. “The work that’s done by cities, by progressive mayors, by visionary and innovative mayors will turn down the thermostat on global temperatures.”

While these superheroes are saving the world, they must also address extreme rain events, flooded sewers and common issues facing cities like Grand Rapids.

Heartwell narrated a Grand Rapids story that evolved from spilling billions of gallons of combined storm water and sewage overflow into the Grand River to separating storm and sanitary sewers and creating storm water treatment systems in neighborhood green spaces that also serve as amenities.

Heartwell shared a litany of steps that Grand Rapids has taken to improve the urban environment and mitigate against the effects of climate change.

“I know it sounds like a very small step toward saving the human species but green infrastructure in every city will at least save us from storm water and flooding damage and buy us the time we need to do other climate change mitigation.”

“If every city did what Grand Rapids is doing, life on our planet would survive, and the seventh generation would look back at us with gratitude.”

Watch Heartwell’s presentation here.

Dave Dempsey stressed the economic value of groundwater to Michigan and the huge costs of failing to protect it from contamination. About 45% of Michigan’s population gets its drinking water from groundwater sources and industry and agriculture also use considerable groundwater for manufacturing and irrigation. Yet a legacy of contamination has cost Michigan taxpayers over $1 billion in cleanup costs, and there are 6,000 more orphan sites—where no private source is available—that may require taxpayer money to clean up. 

Dempsey said Michigan needs stronger groundwater protection policies to support Michigan job creation and reduce health risks from chemically contaminated water supplies.

Watch Dempsey’s presentation here.

Following the presentations, an engaged audience asked the panelists how cities and communities can be empowered to better use their master plans to prevent environmental harms.

Watch the panel discussion here.

Microplastics Invading the Food Chain

Photo: Possible microplastic mass in lower segment of Copepod

By David Long

The Great Lakes face many challenges. Some are well-known, such as Asian carp, but some are almost invisible, such as microplastics.

Small plastic detritus, termed “microplastics” or “microfibers,” are a widespread contaminant in aquatic ecosystems including the Great Lakes.

Research reported in Environmental Science and Technology suggests that marine microplastic debris can have a negative impact upon zooplankton function and health. It can be surmised that the zooplankton communities of the Great Lakes can also be negatively impacted by microfibers. A major concern is that since zooplankton is at the bottom of the food chain microplastics (microfibers) can cause a changes in the zooplankton community. This can harm Great Lakes fisheries.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines microplastics as small plastic pieces less than five millimeters long that can be harmful to our aquatic life. They are created by the degradation of larger items, such as discarded single use plastic containers, effluent from wastewater treatment plants and even fallout from the air. Microplastics from wastewater treatment plants comes from discarded plastics, laundering fleece, synthetic fiber clothing, and waste from carpet cleaning. Microplastics in airborne dust can enter the water through wind and runoff from roads and other impervious surfaces.

Ingestion of microplastics by organisms, including mussels, worms, fish, and seabirds, has been widely reported, but the impact of microplastics on zooplankton remains under-researched. It is very difficult to identify microfibers in zooplankton. Microplastics are best identified using 3D bioimaging techniques to document ingestion, egestion, and adherence of microplastics.

Microplastics have been observed adhering to the external carapace and appendages of exposed zooplankton. Ingestion of microplastics can interfere with the digestive system. More research is needed to understand the impact of microplastic debris on zooplankton.

Microplastics and microfibers pollution is well documented in research from universities such as the University of Michigan, Notre Dame, The University of Chicago, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee and the State University of New York, Fredonia. Researchers from these schools as well as the U.S. Geological Survey have documented the presence of microplastics and microfibers in the Great Lakes since 2013.

Researchers have seen the volume of microplastics and microfibers increase over the years. Microfibers and microplastics have been found in beer brewed with Great Lakes water and drinking water taken from the Great Lakes. It is estimated about 22 million pounds of plastics enter the Great Lakes each year. Unfortunately, there is no legislation that protects our valuable Great Lakes water from plastic pollution.

There are no known solutions for cleaning up microplastic pollution in our lakes and oceans. Plastic does not degrade, it only breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. The only solution for the future is to reduce the amount of single-use plastics and increase the percentage of plastic that is recycled. Currently only 9% of plastic in the United States is recycled. It is cheaper to make virgin plastic from oil than to recycle plastic. Until the economics change, the industry will continue to make virgin plastic from oil and the recycle rate for plastics will remain low.

David Long is the founder of Environmental Sustainability Solutions, LLC (ESS) that provides consulting services for environmental, sustainability.

Accounting for Environmental, Health, and Climate Impacts in the Energy Sector

Report author Skip Pruss

By Skip Pruss

This article is excerpted from the final of four policy briefs by former FLOW board chair, and former director of the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor, and Economic Growth, Skip Pruss, that make the economic case for government’s role in protecting the environment. The fourth policy brief, “Resetting Expectations: Accounting for Environmental, Health, and Climate Impacts in the Energy Sector” is available here to read or download.

Pruss’ first policy brief in the series, “Resetting Expectations: Government’s Role in Protecting Human Health and the Environment,” is available here in executive summary and in full.

The second policy brief, “Resetting Expectations: The Value of Natural Systems and Government’s Role in Protecting Water,” is available here to read or download as an executive summary or full report.

The third brief, “Resetting Expectations: The Multifaceted Benefits of Regulation for the Economy and Environment,” is available here in executive summary and in full.

FLOW will convene an environmental economics public listening session on Dec. 5 in Grand Rapids. We convened our first listening session on Nov. 13 in Traverse City (click this link to watch a live video feed of the event; blog coverage also available here).


Natural systems provide trillions of dollars of economic value annually but are largely unacknowledged as essential to our economic well-being. Government plays a critical role in protecting natural systems that provide wide-ranging economic benefits to industry, commerce, agriculture, recreation, and tourism, for present and future generations.

At the same time, perverse incentives remain in law and policy that are profoundly disruptive to the environment, the economy, social welfare, and a stable climate. Government subsidies for the development and use of fossil fuels undermine and negate the very protections and safeguards sound environmental regulations aim to preserve. These subsidies, some of which date back a full century, are harmful anachronisms that are contrary to the public interest and sound economic policy.

Environmental standards can also be a strong force for innovation within business and industry by reducing waste and production inefficiencies, inducing technological improvements, lowering costs, and mitigating environmental vulnerabilities. Environmental regulations can level the playing field within business sectors by setting industry-wide standards for protection and safeguards and by fostering competition for improvements among competitors.

This fourth brief—”Resetting Expectations: Toward a Full Accounting of Environmental, Health and Climate Impacts in the Energy Sector”—is the last in a series of policy briefs that examines the economic costs associated with government policies that do the opposite—imposing unnecessary and unaccounted for burdens on the environment, public health and the economy. Obsolete and inefficient government policies and programs impose additional costs on society and taxpayers by directly supporting activities that result in environmental degradation and diminishment of the ecological services provided by healthy and robust natural systems.

Fossil fuel subsidies persist in policy despite being demonstrably inefficient and more costly than clean energy alternatives because they serve powerful, deeply embedded, and influential special interests in global energy markets. The adverse environmental and climate consequences and associated economic costs from the production and use of fossil fuels are “negative externalities” unaccounted for in the price of goods and services. In economic theory, negative externalities are indicators of “market failure.”

An optimal regulatory framework would, consistent with established tenets of economics, assess the full range of costs and impacts of competing energy technologies. A rational regulatory framework would quantify and monetize the environmental, public health and economic costs and impacts from the production and combustion of oil, natural gas, and coal, and compare them against clean energy alternatives.

Full accounting of the direct and indirect economic effects of energy subsidies would enable government to make more rational, evidence-based decisions regarding the impacts of energy policy on the environment, the economy, public health, and the climate. It would also align with the fundamental purposes of the Public Trust Doctrine in advancing the most environmentally beneficial, healthful, and economically efficient policies to safeguard present and future generations.

Environmental protections and safeguards, implemented through government regulations, provide overwhelming economic and health-related benefits for society at large. Maintaining the functionality, vitality, and resilience of natural systems provides cascading economic benefits to industry, commerce, agriculture, recreation, and tourism, helping to assure these benefits for future generations. The environmental protections afforded by government regulations are substantial but are marginalized and, at times, negated by competing policies that cause environmental and economic harm.

Incentives are deeply embedded in economic policies in the form of subsidies provided to business and industry that degrade and diminish natural systems, resulting in substantial and permanent economic loss. Long established, yet function- ally obsolete, energy subsidies produce wide-ranging insidious and harmful effects on the environment, public welfare, and the economy. Despite this, demonstrably inefficient and detrimental subsidies for fossil fuels are pervasive both domestically and globally, and supported by long-standing powerful economic interests that are firmly integrated into our politics and our economy.