Author: FLOW Editor

If Line 5 Ruptures, Shut Mackinac Island Water System, Evacuate Everyone

Photo: Bryan Newland, chair of the Bay Mills Indian Community, addresses the 2019 Mackinac Island Community Forum.

By Jacob Wheeler

During conversations at a home on the West Bluff of Mackinac Island on Friday afternoon, July 19, summer resident Susan Lenfestey described what she had learned at a previous community meeting about the immediate consequences if Line 5 ruptured and an oil spill in the Straits of Mackinac.

The municipal water plant would have to be shut down immediately to prevent oil from getting into its pipes and filters, and an immediate and unprecedented evacuation of the island would ensue because of the oil flowing from the pipelines underwater west of the Mackinac Bridge.

The island’s residents, thousands of seasonal workers, and deluge of tourists would all need to flee for mainland Michigan. Soon, however, the oil would engulf Mackinac Island and stop all boat traffic, stranding passenger ferries from Shepler’s and Star Line in Mackinaw City and St. Ignace. Small aircraft landing on the island’s small strip would be the last resort for evacuating masses of people.

The cherished horses—an iconic presence and primary source of transport on this automobile-less island—would be left behind, at least initially.

“That really hit home when people realized what that would mean on a hot summer day, with thousands of tourists camped out in Marquette Park, not to mention no water for the approximately 500 horses on the island,” said Lenfestey. “A question followed about what would a spill would mean in the winter? How would there be a clean up under the ice?  The answer: ‘No idea.'”

Gasps were audible among those gathered, suggesting that some hadn’t fully considered the true magnitude of what a spill from Enbridge’s old and decaying pipes would mean for the island, which is adored not just by residents, but by people all over Michigan.

The Mackinac Islanders who earlier that day attended FLOW’s sixth annual Community Update on Line 5 at the local Community Hall were an economically and politically diverse crowd. What united them was a concern over Line 5, and a desire to learn from FLOW and tribal representatives, lawyers, and risk experts about this sunken hazard in the fragile Straits of Mackinac — and how we are pressuring the State of Michigan to restore the rule of law and shut down Line 5 before an oil spill happens. FLOW has been working with Mackinac Island residents for six years on this issue because they’re at the epicenter of the threat of a Line 5 oil spill.

Lenfestey credited FLOW for its rational, fact-based and evidence-based approach to fighting this battle.

This year’s Community Update featured a welcome by George Goodman, board chair of the Mackinac Island Community Foundation, which co-sponsored the event. The welcome was followed by an introduction by FLOW executive director Liz Kirkwood and a synopsis by FLOW founder and president Jim Olson of the legal fights playing out on multiple fronts. FLOW board member and international risk expert Rick Kane followed with a tutorial about the logistics and economics of oil pipelines, soundly debunking Enbridge’s falsehood that shutting down Line 5 would deprive Upper Peninsula residents of propane or Detroit Metro Airport of jet fuel). And Bryan Newland, chair of the Bay Mills Indian Community, delivered a rousing speech by about what Mackinac Island means, spiritually, ecologically, and legally, to Native peoples of the Great Lakes.

Newland describe the Anishinaabek story of the great flood over the earth and how the Creator then recreated land and put it on the back of a turtle. The Anishinaabek word for turtle is “Mackinac.”

“Right here on this island is where our story tells us this happened,” said Newland. “If the pipelines were to burst, if oil were to wash upon these shores, it would degrade the very place where we say that life was reborn.”

This year’s Line 5 Community Update was streamed live on FLOW’s Facebook page (watch a recorded version below). You can click here to view the slideshow presentation. And click here for our updated Line 5 fact sheet and new Key Facts list, with the most up-to-date information about Line 5, the proposed oil tunnel, and actions you can take to protect Mackinac Island and the Great Lakes from an oil spill.    

Attendees of the Community Update engaged the presenters with important questions such as whether Enbridge is “winning the PR campaign.” The Line 5 owner/operator is spending millions of dollars on an advertising and disinformation “Chicken Little” campaign around the state—from billboards in the Upper Peninsula, to full-page advertisements in regional newspapers, to the aforementioned, hyperbolic, oversimplified narrative that shutting down Line 5 would affect statewide fuel supplies.

In fact, 95 percent of the oil pumped through Line 5 flows through Michigan and back to Canada. Only 0.25 percent (that’s just one-quarter of 1 percent) becomes propane for the Upper Peninsula, which can be replaced by a few trucks or rail cars. When the pipeline shuts down, Detroit jets will still fly and refineries in Toledo, Ohio, will still exist. For more on that, check out our Fact Check: When Line 5 Shuts Down, Detroit Jets Will Still Fly and Union Refinery Jobs Will Still Exist.

And check out these videos by the Oil & Water Don’t Mix campaign that refute Enbridge’s wild claims that the Upper Peninsula will freeze without propane from Line 5 and that building a tunnel for Line 5 would protect the Great Lakes. 

“The world won’t end if Line 5 shuts down,” said Liz Kirkwood.

Kirkwood reminded the Mackinac Islanders that July 25 marks the nine-year anniversary of the Kalamazoo River oil spill when Enbridge’s Line 6B ruptured in southern Michigan.

FLOW’s gathering on Mackinac Island also took place one day before the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission landing on the moon.

“If we can put a man on the moon, we can certainly shut down an oil pipeline,” said Kirkwood. 

Jacob Wheeler is FLOW’s Communications Coordinator.

Beach Cleanups Protect Water and Health and Raise Awareness

By Holly Wright

The excitement when packing for a trip to the beach is palpable; we select our favorite sun hats, towels and snacks while our children gleefully nestle toys and buckets for sand castles into the day bag. We hope that the sun will shine bright and Lake Michigan not be too frigid or choppy; and we expect that the beach where we recreate and relax will be clean and safe for our families.

The reality is that many of our Michigan beaches are sullied by refuse and littered with food wrappers, soggy cigarette butts, and small plastic pieces of mysterious origin. In an extreme case, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore staff found thousands of pieces of broken glass deliberately spread in April on the Lake Michigan beach near the Good Harbor picnic area.

Whether littered on-site or carried from elsewhere in the watershed, unsanitary garbage on our coasts puts-off beach-goers and infringes upon the public’s right to enjoy the shoreline—a great Michigan summertime tradition that’s protected by the public trust doctrine.

Upon entering a body of water, these bottle caps, balloon fragments and straws tangled in summer berms pose another danger to the health of wildlife and people, threatening public trust uses as waves, wind and sun break down materials into small pieces called “microplastics”. Microplastics are known to be harmful to wildlife and are present in Great Lakes drinking water. The prevalence of plastics on our shorelines and in our waters has prompted local beach cleanup efforts.

Microplastics Present in the Great Lakes

The general awareness of plastic pollution in earth’s oceans (and scientific study of the issue) currently exceeds the awareness and scientific understanding of the effects of microplastics (including microfibers) in the freshwaters of the Great Lakes. As USGS put it, “the microplastics story is large and complex”.

But we do know that microplastics are present in our waters.

A United States Geological Survey (USGS) page based on a 2016 study emphasized that one plastic particle per gallon of water was found in Great Lakes Tributary Water; 1,285 particles were found per square foot in river sediment. 112,000 particles were found per square mile of Great Lakes water. Since 2016, plastics have continued to accumulate in the Great Lakes.

Microplastics and Wildlife, Human Health

The Great Lakes support a multitude of wildlife; aquatic insects, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds; and provide drinking water for approximately 40 million people human and non-human species alike, we all need water to survive; our health is interconnected within the hydrosphere.

Freshwater and marine aquatic wildlife have displayed ill effects from ingesting microplastics. According to National Geographic, “Experiments show that microplastics damage aquatic creatures, as well as turtles and birds: they block digestive tracts, diminish the urge to eat, and alter feeding behavior, all of which reduce growth and reproductive output. Their stomachs stuffed with plastic, some species starve and die.”

Chemical harm from ingesting microplastic causes further concern. Heavy metals, flame retardants and antimicrobials which adhere to plastic surfaces have been associated with endocrine disruption in humans and cancer (via National Geographic).

Since the composition of plastic materials varies greatly, estimating toxicity of plastic is difficult, as is predicting toxicity as chemicals move up, through the food web; and eventually to us, through consumption of wildlife (via National Public Radio).

Drinking Water

We who drink Great Lakes water are ingesting microplastics through our taps. So miniscule in size, microplastics pass through water treatment facilities and into our cups. Microplastics are even turning up in beer brewed from Great Lakes water.

Opting for bottled water may not decrease the risk of ingesting microplastics; in fact, total microplastics in bottled water are evidenced to exceed microplastics in tap water.

Beach Cleanups

Performing beach cleanups supports our community’s right to enjoy our shorelines and can prevent the introduction of some plastics into the Great Lakes. Alliance for the Great Lakes reports that every year, through its “Adopt-a-Beach” program, “15,000 volunteers hit the beach and remove about 18 tons of trash.”

Photos courtesy of NMC Freshwater Society

Mike Seefried and Kathryn Depauw, NMC Freshwater Studies students and members of the NMC Freshwater Society, are participating in the “Adopt-a-Beach” effort this summer by coordinating community beach cleanups.

Seefried and Depauw collected a total 24.36 pounds of trash during their June 1 cleanup at Bryant Park in Traverse City. Local organizations supported the initiative; collection buckets were provided by the Grand Traverse Bay Watershed Center. Volunteers, equipped with gloves and data sheets, combed the shoreline public park and, over an approximate area of 550 feet, removed 707 cigarette filters, 236 foam pieces, and 459 plastic pieces. “When you’re actually on the ground picking it up, there’s kind of a ‘wow’ factor—of how much is actually there,” said Seefried.

A June 29 cleanup performed at Sunset Park yielded 387 cigarette butts, 227 pieces of small foam, and 253 small plastic pieces. Seventy-five food wrappers were also picked up over the area of 261 feet. At the end of the process, 11.7 pounds of trash no longer littered the park—an immediate benefit to the community.

Beach. Cleaning Opportunities, Tools

All are welcomed to participate in future cleanups initiated by NMC’s Freshwater Society. Visit the Freshwater Society’s Facebook page for upcoming cleanup event information.

FLOW can equip you with beach cleanup kits (containing items such as gloves, pencils, clipboards, data sheets, trash bags, and buckets) to use independently. FLOW’s Lauren Hucek encourages anyone interested to rally their friends, families, and coworkers to host their own beach cleanups. Please choose sites that offer public waste receptacles or prepare to dispose of trash privately; recycle when possible. Email Lauren Hucek with questions and requests for kits, or call the FLOW office at 231-944-1568.

Raising Awareness

Plastic is so ingrained and pervasive in our systems, can the independent effort of individuals cleaning beaches make any difference? Are beach cleanups effective?

“Honestly, I think we take the beaches in our area for granted a little bit,” said Seefried. “The point of this work is to clean the beach—but also to raise awareness.”

We know that plastics are in our water—and in our bodies. We know that microplastics are harmful to wildlife, and that it is not understood how they may be harmful to people. But there’s something about actually picking through the refuse on our beaches that sticks with us; we wonder, will a fiber of this cigarette butt; this lost sock; this disposable diaper; one day slip down someone’s throat via a glass of drinking water?

Performing beach cleanups prompts us to consider our own choices and to get involved with the overarching threat to Great Lakes water, wildlife, and our own health—plastics.

The Thirsty Buffalo

Photo: the rogue buffalo walking through Otwell’s campsite.

By Bob Otwell, FLOW Board of Directors

This past spring my wife Laura and I travelled to the Southwest to camp, see new sights, and leave the snow behind. We stayed at two very nice state parks in the Texas panhandle, with hiking trails through canyons cut by the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River. At Caprock State Park, there exists a large, free-ranging buffalo (bison) herd. These buffalo are descendants of the last members of the wild herd that used to roam the prairies and numbered 30 to 60 million animals in the 1800s.

On our first evening, we were walking to the restrooms at our campsite, and a huge buffalo stood in the way along a narrow trail. We backed up slowly and went elsewhere. When we came back to our campsite, this buffalo was standing next to one of the nearby water spigots, with the water on full blast. He would put his face in the water, and just enjoy it cooling his body as he rotated around. After about 30 minutes, he wandered off. Being the good water conservationist I am, I then walked over and turned the water off.

First thing in the morning, I went to the park headquarters and told them the amazing story of this creative bison. They laughed, and said that this is not uncommon, and in the summer, sometimes several of the spigots will be on all night, and drain their reservoir down to empty. The buffalo wiggle their bodies against the T-handle valve lever until the water turns on. Say what? What clever, resourceful animals. And the humans? Not so much.

This part of Texas utilizes the nation’s largest aquifer, the Ogallala (High Plains) for drinking water, industry and agriculture (irrigation). The Ogallala serves eight states, and water levels have dropped over the years, down as much as 150 feet in Texas. Water levels are dropping because the water is being utilized at unsustainable rates. The groundwater is not replenished by annual rainfall. Canyon, Texas, a small city near the head of the canyons, and a former home of the painter Georgia O’Keefe, is part of a larger study that is looking at ways to reduce water use to preserve this important aquifer.

Well, to help out, it took Laura and me about a minute to come up with a solution for Caprock State Park: replace the T-handle water valve levers with round ones the buffalo cannot open. But this little solution does not address the larger problem: many folks, including state employees, have their heads in the sand when it comes to solutions that will prevent future catastrophes like running out of water. Unless people in the West start seriously restraining  their unlimited development and deal with declining water levels, they will soon be eyeing our bulging Great Lakes to solve their self-induced problems.

Michigan Groundwater Expert Distills Lessons of a Career

Professor David Lusch retired in 2017, after a 38-year career in the Department of Geography, Environment, and Spatial Sciences at Michigan State University (MSU). Beginning in 1992 with the publication of the Aquifer Vulnerability Map of Michigan, Dr. Lusch helped pioneer the use of geographic information systems for groundwater mapping and management in Michigan. The Groundwater Inventory and Mapping Project, which Lusch co-directed, won the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s (MDEQ) Excellence Award in 2005. In 2008, MSU awarded Dr. Lusch the prestigious Distinguished Academic Staff Award and IMAGIN, Michigan’s professional geospatial organization, presented him with the Jim Living Geospatial Achievement Award.

As a member of the team that developed the Michigan Groundwater Management Tool (MGMT), Professor Lusch received the annual Director’s Recognition Award from MDEQ in 2009. Dr. Lusch was a co-PI of the recent Ottawa County Water Resources Study which used process-based flow modeling, coupled with field sampling, historical data mining, geostatistical analyses, and geospatial visualizations to better understand the underlying mechanisms controlling the patterns of shallow groundwater salinization in Ottawa County.

We asked him to offer his views on critical groundwater matters.

Do you think the Michigan populace understands groundwater and its importance? Why or why not?

In my opinion, most citizens of Michigan have only the most basic of an understanding of groundwater. Most people seem to intuitively know that there is groundwater beneath the ground surface and they generally know how important groundwater is as a drinking water source. However, they know little or nothing about aquifer systems, which aquifer they get their own drinking water from, the recharge areas in their landscapes, or the intimate connection between groundwater and surface water resources (especially the maintenance of stream flow and temperature).

What is the most important or surprising thing you have learned in your years working on groundwater?

The lack of adequate amounts of fresh (i.e., non-saline) groundwater in central Ottawa County from the Marshall Formation.

What are the biggest threats to Michigan groundwater quality, and what gaps are there in groundwater policy?

Human contamination of groundwater by an increasing number of hazardous chemicals. PFOS/PFOA are good examples of materials that have been used for a long time and that only recently have been found in groundwater because we never looked for it before. PFOS/PFOA were both on the EPA’s 2016 Contaminant Candidate List, but no preliminary regulatory determinations have yet been made due to a paucity of data about occurrence and toxicity. From a drinking water quality perspective, I think the biggest threat is that we don’t know what we don’t know.

Michigan appears to be a water-rich state; why would groundwater become scarce in some areas in the future?

As the Ottawa County Groundwater Study showed, some areas of Michigan are underlain by a very thin layer of fresh groundwater floating on top of saline groundwater. As groundwater use increases, the saline groundwater can upwell into the production zone and cause an increase in the concentration of dissolved solids (chlorides in the Ottawa County case). Drilling deeper will only exacerbate the problem because the TDS concentrations increase with depth (in some places reaching levels three times the TDS concentration of ocean water). In some areas of the state, the transmissivities of the local aquifer materials are small and the recharge rates are slow, so groundwater yield is notably low (less than 8-10 gpm in some places — a typical 3-bedroom home with modern domestic infrastructure requires 15-20 gpm). Lastly, in certain areas of Michigan, cold-transitional stream types need up to 96-98% of the available groundwater discharge in order to maintain their stream habitat. In such water management areas, this leaves only 2-4% of the available groundwater for all human uses.

If you were Michigan’s groundwater czar, what would you do to protect the resource?

As groundwater czar, my first priority would be to financially enhance the Environmental Health Divisions of all of the Local Health Departments in the state. Environmental Health sanitarians staffing these agencies are the first line of defense for protecting and maintaining groundwater quality (through the well and septic installation inspection programs). Currently, these programs are funded with pass-through money from the Michigan EGLE Department, Drinking Water and Environmental Health Division. The minimum program requirement for the LHDs is to field inspect at least 10% of all the wells drilled in any one year. A few of the more affluent counties LHDs (e.g., Oakland Health Department) in the state inspect 100% of all the well installations in their county. Such a level of funding/staffing for all the LHDs in the state would go a long way toward protecting our groundwater resource.

My second priority would be to increase the funding for the Environmental Health Divisions of all of the Local Health Departments in the state in order to have vibrant and vigilant Pollution Incident Planning Programs. Coupled with this, I would also increase funding for local fire chiefs/marshals so they could effectively bolster the PIP Program with onsite inspections under the Firefighter Right To Know statute. Both of these activities should be focused on existing wellhead protection areas for both Community and Non-community Public Water Supplies, with special emphasis placed on non-transient, non-community supplies (schools, nursing homes, apartment complexes, etc.).

Click here to learn about FLOW’s groundwater program, “The Sixth Great Lake: The Emergency Threatening Michigan’s Overlooked Groundwater Resource,” why Michigan needs stronger septic protections, a FLOW podcast about the groundwater connection, videos and infographics about our groundwater, and key policy recommendations for the Michigan legislature and MDEQ.

Shaping Niagara Falls: Engineers, Hydropower, and Sustainability

Contemporary Aerial View of Niagara Falls (American Falls to the left, Horseshoe Falls to the right). Photo by author.

By Daniel Macfarlane

Last month marked the 50th anniversary of the temporary turning off in 1969 of the American Falls, the smaller of the main cataracts at Niagara Falls. There was a precedent for this bold move: In the 1950s, engineers had re-plumbed the much larger Horseshoe Falls, shrinking it and diverting the majority of the water before it plunged over the precipice. All this may not seem very “green” — but the point was primarily to funnel water to hydropower stations. Thus, the modern history of Niagara Falls raises some interesting questions about what sustainability looks like in the Great Lakes basin.

Let’s jump back a bit. After decades of failed diplomatic agreements to remake Niagara Falls, in 1950 the United States and Canada finally inked the Niagara River Diversion Treaty. This accord authorized the binational construction, with International Joint Commission (IJC) oversight, of the International Niagara Control Works. These remedial works consisted of various weirs, dams, excavations, and fills, designed to facilitate greater hydro-electric production (and diminish the erosion that annually moved the Falls upstream 3-7 feet) by diverting the majority of the water destined for the Falls. Indeed, depending on the time of day and season, either half or three-quarters of the river flow is diverted around the waterfall via massive tunnels to hydropower stations.

GIS image showing past crestlines, and rate of recession (in years), at the Horseshoe Falls. Map created by Jason Glatz and Daniel Macfarlane.

Stealing most of the water from the waterfall would obviously harm its scenic appeal, as well as the local tourism economy. Thus, the engineers from both nations simultaneously sought ways to use the aforementioned remedial works, based on scale models, to “beautify” Niagara Falls by reshaping the curtain of water as it dropped over the brink so that it would at least give the “impression of volume” (and reduce the mist and spray that had led to many visitor complaints).  For example, the crestline of the Horseshoe Falls was chiseled out and shrunk by 355 feet; parts of these crest fills were fenced and landscaped to provide prime public vantage points (such as Terrapin Point).

Work on the Canadian flank of the Horseshoe Falls in the 1950s. Used with the permission of Ontario Power Generation.

With the Horseshoe Falls facelift accomplished, a campaign began in the mid-1960s to address the “unsightly” talus (the rock that gathered at the base of the American Falls). In 1967, Canada and the United States asked the IJC to investigate and report on measures necessary to preserve or enhance the beauty of the American Falls, specifically with regard to the talus. In 1969 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shut off the American Falls for about half a year (see the images, as well as this video). The outright removal of the 280,000 cubic yards of talus was considered, as was the placement of a dam downstream from the Falls that would drown the talus. But the engineers concluded that the talus was probably propping up the face of the waterfall. Based on this, as well as an estimated cost of approximately $26 million and uncertainly that the public would actually notice if the talus was gone, in the mid-1970s the IJC decided to keep the talus

The American Falls dewatered in 1969. Used with the permission of the Niagara Falls Public Library (NY).

Dewatered talus at the American Falls. Used with the permission of the Niagara Falls Public Library (NY).

The IJC admirably noted that it seemed “wrong to make the Falls static and unnatural, like an artificial waterfall in a garden or a park” and added that “man should not interfere with the natural process.” Of course, making the Falls “like an artificial waterfall” is precisely what technocrats had done in previous decades. Moreover, the dewatering provided an opportunity to stabilize the rock face of the American Falls with bolts and cables, and install electronic rockslide sensors. In the following years, other major engineering modifications were also performed on Luna Island and Terrapin Point.

Thus, even though additional major interventions were disavowed, representing a major conceptual shift, Niagara Falls had nonetheless already been heavily manipulated. This natural spectacle was, in many ways, decidedly unnatural.

I am personally conflicted about the history of Niagara Falls, specifically, and the role of engineered solutions and big technology in general. To my mind, claims that technology is the answer to our environmental problems seem to conveniently forget that technology is all too often the very cause of the problems. I can’t deny that the engineers have done a very impressive job with Niagara Falls. You could certainly argue that the end result was a compromise that provided a societal good – i.e., sufficient preservation of the scenic beauty coupled with electricity generation.

However, it feels unethical. Moreover, the engineering of famous landmarks like Niagara Falls gives license to messing with any natural system, feeding our technological hubris. Moreover, in recent years it has become apparent that hydroelectricity is not nearly as environmentally benign as has often been touted. In addition to the enormous impacts on the riverine ecosystems and the organisms that count on it for habitat, large reservoirs emit methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

The American Falls in 2019. Photo by the author.

An energy system like that of Niagara Falls relies on expensive and elaborate infrastructure, along with the extreme manipulation of a waterfall and river – this system would quickly break down and cease to work without constant upkeep, maintenance, and intervention. Can that really be considered sustainable? I’m convinced that the only real long-term sustainable solution will be drastically reducing our society’s energy consumption. Renewable energy and sustainable energy are not necessarily the same thing.

Niagara’s history represents the traditional “hard path” approach to water: a focus on supply-side options, particularly enormous and capital-intensive infrastructure. But sustainable water policies and infrastructure will need to follow the “soft path,” which entails smaller and localized sources, as well as consideration of the water-energy nexus, and water policies and laws based on public trust, water as a commons, and right-to-water principles.

Daniel Macfarlane is an Associate Professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at Western Michigan University. His research and teaching focus on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, and he is the author or co-editor of several books, including authorship of a forthcoming book about the history of modifying Niagara Falls. He has written about Niagara Falls in numerous other academic publications, as well as in Slate, The Washington Post, and Toronto Star, which can be accessed here.

Reflections on Independence – Liberty, Water, and the Public Trust Doctrine

By Jim Olson

July is “Public Trust Month” at FLOW, a time to gather views and inspiration from people from all walks of life who live, use, enjoy, or depend on the waters of the Great Lakes Basin for life, recreation, and livelihood.

This is because FLOW’s mission is to assure that decisions and actions that affect the Great Lakes are undertaken in the framework of ancient principles, embedded in our law as deep as the Great Lakes and the soils beneath them. These principles, known as the public trust doctrine, recognize the duty of government as trustee to protect, and the rights of the public as beneficiaries to enjoy, these public trust waters and their paramount public nature and uses from one generation to the next.

On July 4, my wife Judy and I hosted a large family picnic at our house in Benzie County. After enjoying the food and multiple conversations going on at once, some of us, with pant legs rolled up above the knees, found ourselves wading in the Platte River with several grandchildren. Watching them totter and frolic in the fast current—their ages ranging from 3 to 23—I had this thought: Liberty includes the gift of freedom to enjoy public trust waters like the Platte River, here in Michigan, and the Great Lakes, and waters throughout the United States and beyond. The public trust in our water resources is a principle that protects and passes on this gift from one generation to the next.

The public trust doctrine is often traced from the Justinian Code 1,600 years ago: “By the law of Nature, these things are common to [humankind]: the air, running water, the sea, and consequently the shore of the sea.”  The doctrine reappeared in 1215 in that “Great Charter of Liberty,” the Magna Carta, to restore the custom and rights of the people to access to the rivers and sea for food and sustenance.

On July 4, 1976, the Declaration of Independence declared:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The U.S. Constitution was adopted and ratified between 1787 and 1788, and not long after, the Bill of Rights  in 1791 declared that no government—federal, state, or local—can deprive a person of the right to “life, liberty, and property” or “other rights [not listed] retained by the people.”

In 1821, in the first of a long line of decisions adopted in similar form as the common law of the people by the courts of every state, the Supreme Court of New Jersey nullified an attempt by a landowner to exclude the public from the seabeds, navigable waters, and their near shores because these waters and special lands were public common property held in a public trust for the benefit of all citizens of a state.

In 1892, the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed the public trust doctrine in the navigable waters, the soils under them, and the shoreline below the high water mark. An influential railroad company hoodwinked a compliant Illinois legislature into granting it almost one square mile of Lake Michigan for a private industrial complex. This didn’t sit well with Illinois residents, especially those who lived in Chicago, and the next session of the legislature repealed the grant.  The company, of course, notified the state that it was too late; they owned the bottomlands and waters of Lake Michigan.

The Supreme Court rejected the company’s claim, and in a landmark decision ruled that the grant to a private company or person was void because the special common public waters and lands owned and held by the states in public trust were “inalienable”! This means that no government can pass a law that deprives a citizen of the inalienable rights, as beneficiary of the public trust, to enjoy and use these waters and special trust lands for fishing, navigating, boating, swimming, bathing, and sustenance—drinking water and growing food.

Imagine that, an inalienable right derived from Roman law, the Magna Carta, and English common law came down to this country because of the “inalienable rights” covered by the Declaration of Independence and American Revolution, and that this “inalienable right” is protected by the public trust doctrine. It is a right that cannot be taken away or repealed, and it is protected by the rights to “life, liberty, and property” and the “other rights of the people” in our Constitution! 

Today, courts around the country are recognizing that the rights of citizens to an individual and indivisible right under the public trust doctrine fall within our “life, liberty, and property” protected by our Constitution.

Talk about a gift for all of us to celebrate during the afterglow of Independence Day and throughout FLOW’s “Public Trust Month” of July. This is one to be thankful for, exercise, and protect for ourselves, our children, grandchildren, and all future generations.

Jim Olson is FLOW’s founder and president. 

New State Funding Gives Boost to Recycling

Late last year, the Michigan Legislature approved $15 million in annual funding for recycling programs. To learn more about this initiative, FLOW interviewed Matt Flechter, Recycling Market Development Specialist at the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. Flechter assists recycling programs by growing the Michigan supply chain so the valuable commodities that businesses need make their way from the curb to new products. He is a longtime member of the Michigan Recycling Coalition board of directors and the former chair of the Mid-America Council of Recycling Officials. Flechter completed the Great Lakes Leadership Academy Advanced Leader program in 2017. Flechter is a graduate of Michigan State University’s College of Lyman Briggs and is always surprised by the number of other Peace Corps volunteers in the recycling world. For 19 years, he has worked to transform materials once thought of as waste into jobs, energy savings, and improved quality of life. He has always viewed recycling, as a gateway to greater environmental, economic, and social sustainability where individuals can see the positive impact of their daily decisions.

How important is the recycling funding approved by the Legislature?

The recycling funding included in Renew Michigan is vitally important. For over 20 years, the Michigan recycling industry has watched other states pass us by with strong recycling market development, education, and infrastructure initiatives. Now that long-term, stable funding is secured, we can begin the process of building upon our long history as a leader in managing materials in an economically and environmentally sound way.

But while the funding is important, Michiganders spend over $1 billion annually on waste management, so $15 million is only a small part of a much larger system. Furthermore, while it is a significant increase from years past, it still is lower than what other states spend, especially states with leading recycling programs. For example, Pennsylvania spends $37 million per year and Minnesota spends $65 million per year.

In what categories is the $15 million divided?

The $15 million in annual funding is allocated to support local recycling collection, processing, and end-use activities.  A special focus on strong planning and recycling market development activities is noted. The funding goes to:

  • Materials management planning, including grants to counties, regional planning agencies, municipalities, and other entities responsible for preparing, implementing, and maintaining materials management plans.
  • Local recycling programs, including grants to local units of government and nonprofit and for-profit entities for recycling infrastructure, local recycling outreach campaigns, and other costs necessary to support increased recycling.
  • Market development, including grants to local units of government and nonprofit and for-profit entities for purchasing equipment, research and development, or associated activities to provide new or increased use of recycled materials to support the development of recycling markets.

Recycled materials market development has been a need for a long time. What have we learned works and doesn’t work and how will this money be used differently from the past?

Recycling and using recycled materials is not just about using fewer new materials and saving landfill space. Recycling is about protecting the environment and growing the economy through expanding job opportunities, reducing greenhouse gasses, protecting air and water quality, and supporting healthy communities. The best market development initiatives understand that increasing the use of recycled materials hit on all of these metrics. Selecting projects must be done thoughtfully, while looking at the big picture impacts they will have. Further, the best market development programs recognize the importance of measuring the life cycle impacts of materials choices throughout a product’s useful life, not just end of life disposal. It is our goal to use the market development funds to encourage the circular thinking that is beginning to take hold in industry.

We’ve heard a lot about the China market for recycled materials shutting down. How big a problem is this for Michigan? How will your strategy address this?

The turmoil facing global recycling markets precipitated by China’s import restrictions has struck a blow to sustainable materials management everywhere. Fortunately, for Michigan, we have access to strong regional markets for our paper, metal, plastic, and other materials collected at our loading docks and curbs. Michigan industry still needs those materials, and in most cases could use even more than we are sending to them. For example, CleanTech in Dundee, Michigan, imports plastic bottles from as far away as Texas to use in their manufacturing process to make new bottles. Meanwhile far too many detergent bottles and water bottles are being landfilled in Michigan because a lack of convenient recycling opportunities. While we may have strong markets, the price received by recycling programs for their recyclables has dropped dramatically because of restricted demand in China. Recycling programs are feeling this economic pinch and are adjusting as best they can.

The Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy is focusing on two main areas to address these global market challenges. First, we are working to improve the quality of the recyclable materials collected. We are expanding our efforts to help communities and recycling service providers reduce contamination by helping to inform residents and businesses on how to properly use their recycling collection system. Less Christmas lights, bagged recyclables, half-full ketchup bottles, and other common contaminants in the recycling bin help improve the marketability of collected materials and decrease costs for recycling operations.

Second, we are focusing on growing domestic markets for recycled materials. The more end-markets we have for our recyclables the lower our transportation costs—both economically and environmentally speaking. Furthermore, keeping materials closer to home means more jobs for Michigan residents.

Do you have goals for recycling percentages that you hope to achieve with the new funding?

Michigan’s recycling rate is still at the bottom at around 15% where the national average is around 34%. We know that by adopting best practices in residential single-family and multi-family recycling, organics collection, public space recycling, event recycling, waste reduction, and business/commercial recycling, we can achieve a leading recycling program that triples our current recycling rate. We are beginning to see progress. It is the goal of Michigan to achieve a 45% recycling rate, and as an interim step a 30% recycling rate by 2025.

Are there other recycling policy needs?

In addition to the long-needed funding support recently received, Michigan needs accompanying policy changes if we are to achieve the goal of returning our state to a leadership position in recycling. Our agency has worked for over three years with a large group of stakeholders to rewrite Michigan’s solid waste laws to refocus our efforts on materials management rather than just disposal. The policy changes address local planning needs, facility oversite, and establish benchmark recycling standards that will set Michigan on the path to improved management of waste resources. The leading states in recycling recognize that both strong guiding policy and goals, along with stable funding, are the keys to success. It is our hope that the legislature acts on the policy recommendations yet this legislative session.

What can a Michigan citizen do to help with the recycling cause that he or she may not be already doing?

Recycling is a very personal act that is also very visible. Individuals can immediately see the difference they are making for the economy and the environment. When someone chooses to seek out a recycling bin, they are making a real difference. But it must be done correctly, or the entire system breaks down—as we are currently seeing with the China import restrictions. If there is one thing an individual can do, it is to actively research what can and cannot go in their recycling bin. Ask their hauler or community for answers—then tell their neighbors, their brother in-law, their mother—together we can all ensure recycling continues to be successful for years to come.

The Detroit River’s Waterfront Porch

John Hartig is intimately connected with one of the most successful environmental restoration projects in the United States, the recovery of the once highly degraded Detroit River. He retired in 2018 after 14 years as manager of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge and more than 30 years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In his new book, Waterfront Porch: Reclaiming Detroit’s Industrial Waterfront as a Gathering Place for All, he chronicles the exciting comeback of the river and the connection restoration efforts have forged between the community and the river.

What is the single most important thing a prospective reader should know about your new book?

Waterfront Porch is the story of building the Detroit RiverWalk as part of a strategy to reconnect people with nature, help revitalize Detroit and its metropolitan region, and help foster a more sustainable future. In its first 10 years, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy raised $110 million to build east riverfront portions of the Detroit RiverWalk and raised another nearly $40 million for an endowment to operate, maintain, steward, and program it with quality and in perpetuity. Economists have quantified that in the first 10 years of the Detroit RiverWalk, there was an over $1 billion return on this investment, with the potential for greater return in the future. All of this happened while Detroit became the largest city in the United States to go through bankruptcy. This was an amazing accomplishment that can be directly traced to the unique public-private partnership called the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and its approach of democratic design that ensured all stakeholders were involved and would benefit. If this can be done in Detroit, it can be done elsewhere and clearly gives hope to all.

You’ve dedicated much of your life and career to restoring the Detroit River. What motivates you and where did your relationship with the river begin?

I grew up in metropolitan Detroit in Allen Park during the 1960s. My family enjoyed picnicking and canoeing on Belle Isle and fishing in the Detroit River. In the summer, we would vacation up north in different cottages and my sister and I attended a church camp in a wilderness area of the northern portion of the Lower Peninsula. These formative years provided me with two polar-opposite experiences — one recreating in pristine lakes and rivers up north and the other recreating in and along the polluted Detroit River. I could not understand why there was such a stark contrast. Then in 1969, when I was a junior at Allen Park High School, the Rouge River caught on fire because of oil pollution. The next year, when I was a senior in high school, I attended an Earth Day Rally on the football field of Allen Park High School that opened my eyes to the environmental degradation that was occurring everywhere. I decided I wanted to help be part of the solution. While attending Eastern Michigan University I got hooked on the study of lakes and rivers, and have been fortunate to be able to combine my vocation with my advocation.

Why did the River deteriorate so much up to the 60s and what are the principal factors that turned it around?

During the 1960s, the Detroit River was one of the most polluted rivers in the United States. In 1960 and 1967, 12,000 and 4,700 waterfowl died in the Detroit River because of oil pollution, respectively. In 1969, the lower Rouge River, right before it discharges into the Detroit River, caught on fire because of oil pollution. In 1970, the “Mercury Crisis” caused the closure of commercial and sport fishing on the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair, the Detroit River, and western Lake Erie because of mercury contamination. All of this led to public outcry over water pollution that contributed to the establishment of Earth Day in 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Together, public outcry over water pollution and regulation have been the driving forces behind the revival of the Detroit River.

How important was the work of the late Congressman Dingell to river restoration?

The late Congressman John Dingell had more impact on the cleanup of the Detroit River than any other person. He was the key author of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Together, these acts have been the driving force behind the cleanup of the Detroit River. In more recent years he was the author of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge Establishment Act of 2001 that helped change the perception of the Detroit River from that of a polluted river in the Rust Belt to an international wildlife refuge that brings conservation to the Detroit metropolitan area and helps make nature part of everyday urban life. He is a true conservation hero for our region, our country, and North America.

What remains to be done?

Clearly, much remains to be done to restore physical, chemical, and biological integrity of the Detroit River. Key challenges include addressing: human population growth, transportation expansion, and land use changes; continued loss and degradation of habitat; pollution from the runoff from our streets, parking lots, and roofs; remediation of contaminated river sediments and brownfields; introduction of exotic species; and climate change. To address these challenges, we need an informed constituency that cares about the river as their home, ensures continuous and vigorous oversight, and speaks out for continued cleanup and rehabilitation. A key part of this has been reconnecting people to the Detroit River through the Detroit RiverWalk, other greenways, parks like Belle Isle, and the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. Waterfront Porch is the story of building the Detroit RiverWalk as part of a strategy to reconnect people with the Detroit River, help revitalize the city and region, help foster a more sustainable future, and help develop a stewardship ethic within the citizenry. Completing the Detroit RiverWalk, greenway connections to neighborhoods like the May Creek Greenway and the Joseph Campau Greenway, and the Joe Louis Greenway that circumnavigates the city are key elements in reconnecting people with nature, developing greater environmental literacy, and developing a stewardship ethic so necessary for restoring and sustaining the integrity of the Detroit River. 

It is fair to say that the Detroit RiverWalk would not have been built without the cleanup of the Detroit River. But it is also true that continued cleanup of the Detroit River will require an informed and vocal constituency who cares for the river as their home and greenways like the Detroit RiverWalk help reconnect people with amazing natural resources right in their backyard, inspire a sense of wonder, and help foster a stewardship ethic.

Are you optimistic about the future of the River?  Why or why not?

I am optimistic about the future. The major accomplishment of the public outcry over water pollution in the 1960s was the establishment of major environmental laws and agreements like the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, the Canada Water Act of 1970, the U.S. Clean Water Act of 1972, the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1972, and the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973. This is an amazing set of accomplishments from concerned citizens working together to speak out for clean water. In my opinion, the major accomplishment of more recent times is the establishment of a plethora of environmental organizations, conservation organizations, and other nongovernmental organizations. For the Detroit River it is organizations like the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, Friends of the Detroit River, the International Wildlife Refuge Alliance, the Detroit Greenways Coalition, the Belle Isle Conservancy, and many more. These organizations have picked up the environmental baton from citizen activists of the 1960s and 1970s and are continuing the long restoration race to ensure that a cleaner Detroit River is a gift to future generations. This gives me optimism and hope.

The Changing Great Lakes: Living with Fluctuating Water Levels

High Lake Michigan water levels have overwhelmed popular beaches, such as this one at East Bay Park at the base of East Grand Traverse Bay. Photo by Holly Wright.

By Dave Dempsey and Jim Olson

This spring, water levels on all five of the Great Lakes have reached, or are approaching, record highs. The result of unusually high winter and spring precipitation, increased winter ice cover and reduced evaporation, these new highs are the latest in a never-ending series of Great Lakes level fluctuations. The levels have typically fluctuated by as much as 7 feet in recent geologic times. However, studies show that climate change is causing or contributing to more rapid swings between high and low water levels. Just six years ago, Great Lakes levels were below normal, and in some portions of the Great Lakes watershed, citizens clamored for new underwater structures to hold back water in an attempt to boost upstream water artificially.

Now the problem is high water, which creates several concerns:

  • The residences of lakeshore property owners may be at risk of foundational erosion, flooding and even toppling into the lake.
  • Coastal infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, is vulnerable to erosion damage and destruction.
  • Public access to the shoreline may be limited, both because of inundation of prime publicly-owned coastal land and because high water will intrude beyond the ordinary or naturalhigh-water mark, the limit of access adjacent to private property.
  • Taxpayers may be asked to pay the bill for erosion control, moving of structures away from the lake, and/or damages.

In a recent article published in The Conversation (an online magazine devoted to “academic rigor and journalistic flair”), University of Michigan scientists Drew Gronewald and Richard Rood  say they “believe rapid transitions between extreme high and low water levels in the Great Lakes represent the ‘new normal.’ Our view is based on interactions between global climate variability and the components of the regional hydrological cycle. Increasing precipitation, the threat of recurring periods of high evaporation, and a combination of both routine and unusual climate events – such as extreme cold air outbursts – are putting the region in uncharted territory.”

Supporting their observations, water levels have also tumbled dramatically in the last several decades. In 1998-99, the water levels of Lakes Michigan and Huron dropped 25 inches in 12 months.

The public often asks whether governments can do something to raise or lower levels. But the fact is that human engineering can do little in this regard. While there are laws for setting or modifying inland lake levels, increasing outflow from one lake to the next often has a ripple effect downstream. The problem will only worsen with increased precipitation and water levels now experienced in the Great Lakes region. Similarly, manipulation of water level control structures to address lower water levels can, in turn, lower any one of the lakes only a few inches. Only one percent of the volume of the Great Lakes flows out of the system annually. Far bigger influences are precipitation and evaporation.

Members of the public also ask whether they can still walk the beach when water levels are above the ordinary or high-water mark that defines the boundary between state ownership and private riparian ownership. As a practical matter, the public should still be able to enjoy a right to walk the beach and shores of the Great Lakes—provided it is safe—so long as they remain in the zone along the water’s edge that is wet or compacted by recent wave and other natural forces of nature.

The International Joint Commission (IJC) observes, “Unlike oceans, where tides are constant and predictable, water levels on the Great Lakes can vary significantly in frequency and magnitude making them difficult to accurately predict.” A US-Canada treaty body, the IJC is responsible for maintaining control structures at Sault Ste. Marie, Niagara Falls and the meeting point of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

A popular misconception is that warming temperatures associated with climate change will significantly lower Great Lakes water levels. But the effect of climate change on these levels is unclear. Warmer air holds more moisture, leading to an increasing number of heavy rain and snow storms. In fact, some models predict rising Great Lakes levels as a result of climate change.

To minimize our contribution to climate change and to protect our Great Lakes ecosystem, we should reduce our use of fossil fuels and we should push our elected leaders to act on climate change. However, given that human effort can do relatively little to alter quickly-changing Great Lakes water levels, adaptation should be our societal response.

Resources

Great Lakes water level update, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Great Lakes water levels, International Joint Commission

Great Lakes Water Levels and Related Data, Government of Canada

Jim Olson is founder and president of FLOW; Dave Dempsey is senior advisor.

The Public Trust and YOU

“The Great Lakes belong to all of us. It’s in our DNA,” said FLOW executive director Liz Kirkwood. “We know that those waters that surround us, that bathe us, that nurture us underneath our feet, are inalienable rights for all.”

During this high-water month of July, FLOW will publish video postcards each weekday that feature Michiganders (and citizens of the Great Lakes Basin) explaining what the Public Trust Doctrine means to us and how our precious, publicly-owned fresh water shapes our lives and relationship to this place we call home.

“We chose July because this is the height of summer and the connections people have with our waters,” added Kirkwood. “This is an opportunity for us to renew our commitment to the Great Lakes and think about what stewardship really means. What will we do to make sure these waters are protected for our children and our children’s children?”

At its core, the Public Trust is a set of legal principles establishing the public right to our natural resources. It also establishes the government’s responsibility to protect public health and public rights to use those natural resources. Our goal is to increase everyday awareness about the Public Trust and make it feel less like a legal term and more like an existential code by which we all live.

We saw the Public Trust Doctrine in action last week when the State of Michigan and Attorney General Dana Nessel took the important step of defending the Great Lakes by suing Enbridge and alleging that its occupation of Line 5 violates the Public Trust.

“When Michigan and other states joined this country, the states took title to all navigable waters and the soils beneath them like the Great Lakes in trust for the benefit of its citizens,” said Jim Olson, FLOW president and founder and nationally recognized expert on public trust law. “This means the State has a duty to protect these waters, soils, natural resources, and the rights and uses of citizens from one generation to the next.

“Every citizen is a legally recognized beneficiary for use and enjoyment of these public trust resources for fishing, boating, drinking water, bathing, swimming, and other recreational activities. Governments and private persons cannot interfere with, impair, dispose of or alienate these public trust resources or preferred public rights and uses.”

Olson underscored the importance of the Public Trust Doctrine and its principles at this time in history.

“Whether oil pipelines in the Great Lakes, toxic algae and ‘dead zones’ in Lake Erie, Green Bay, or along Sleeping Bear Dunes, the sale and private control of public water, changes in water levels, erosion, flooding and damage to piers, docks, roads, water infrastructure from global warming and climate climate, the public trust in our waters offers all of us a path forward to address the existing damage and threats, and the world water and climate crisis. When government fails or others refuse to change, citizens have the right to enforce the law to protect their rights and the common good of the community, and their children and grandchildren.”

Our Public Trust video postcards this month will feature everyone from a U.S. Senator and a state Attorney General, to leading environmental advocates, to poets and dancers, to boaters and fishermen, to everyday citizens recreating, beach walking and swimming in their public waters. Through these videos, we hope to empower citizens, educate people about beach access rights, discuss the importance of protecting our groundwater, and reinforce the importance of protecting our freshwater in the age of Climate Change.

On the Fourth of July, we’ll also unveil an online “Public Trust Passport” that you can view, download or print, and use as a handy guide to learn more about your freshwater recreation rights.

Stay tuned to FLOW’s social media feed to learn why Sen. Gary Peters loves backpacking at Isle Royal National Park, why poet Anne-Marie Oomen loves to paddleboard, why toddler Judah Heitman digs swimming and kayaking, and the lifelong resonance of fly fishing with her father on the Boardman River for dancer Sarah Wolff.