2021 Reflection: FLOW Sees Successes and Celebrates Our First Decade Together Keeping Water Public and Protected

Above: FLOW’s 10-year Timeline of Accomplishments.

FLOW’s 10th anniversary in 2021 has provided an opportunity for celebration and reflection with our supporters, collaborators, partners, and volunteers. It also has been a year of significant progress in our work with you to strengthen protection of the waters of Michigan and the Great Lakes, using the public trust doctrine as a powerful tool.

In July, we reached an organizational milestone. The addition of FLOW’s first full-time legal director was an achievement many years in the making. Environmental attorney Zach Welcker joined FLOW after more than a decade representing Indian tribes in the Pacific Northwest on water, fisheries, and other natural resource issues. Zach now carries the legal torch borne since 2011 on a part-time and volunteer basis by FLOW Founder and Senior Legal Advisor Jim Olson. Learn more here about Zach and his efforts so far to keep our freshwater public and protected.

Our 2021 celebration was capped by our live-streamed event, Confluence, on September 21. Emceed by dynamic Traverse City talent Ben Whiting, the online affair included a special honor—the launch of the Olson-Dempsey Fund for Public Trust in the Great Lakes—for FLOW luminaries Jim Olson and Dave Dempsey and offered a fun and fast-paced frolic through FLOW’s history and heroes, with special guests and prize-drawings. Watch a replay of Confluence here.

“This is a really exciting time,” said Olson. “FLOW now enjoys a solid foundation built from the work we’ve done to protect the Great Lakes through application of public trust principles, work that cuts through politics and sustains communities with water that is clean, safe, affordable—and public.”

Meanwhile, our staff—empowered by our board of directors, partners, and supporters—led or contributed to numerous initiatives that will have long-lasting benefits for our water and the people who value and depend on it.

Protecting the Great Lakes from the Risk of a Catastrophic Oil Spill

Photo by Nancy May

The 68-year-old Line 5 petroleum pipelines crossing the Straits of Mackinac present an imminent danger to a vast area of the Great Lakes. Operated by Enbridge, the Canadian company responsible for the largest, most destructive oil spill in Michigan history, the pipelines send nearly 23 million gallons per day of petroleum through the open waters of  the Straits.

In April, FLOW and allied environmental groups and tribes succeeded in convincing the Michigan Public Service Commission to consider the impacts of climate change that would be spurred by Enbridge’s proposed oil pipeline tunnel as the commission decides whether to permit the siting of the tunnel through public bottomlands of the Great Lakes.

In June, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would proceed with an environmental impact statement (EIS) for Enbridge’s Line 5 tunnel project permit application. In 2020, FLOW authored two significant public comments, urging a full EIS given the major, complex, and highly controversial nature of building an oil pipeline under the Great Lakes to operate for the next 99 years.

In July, FLOW and the Oil and Water Don’t Mix campaign held a webinar that drew more than 400 registrants and focused on The Battle Over Line 5: The Legal Fight for Our Public Waters—for residents of Mackinac Island, the Straits Area, and beyond. Supported with a grant award from the Mackinac Island Community Foundation’s Natural Resources and Preservation Fund. The webinar provided legal, economic, regulatory, tribal treaty, and frontline insights in support of the State of Michigan’s case to shut down Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac. 

Learn more about FLOW’s efforts to shut down the Line 5 oil pipelines and stop the proposed oil tunnel to protect the Great Lakes, drinking water, jobs, and a way of life.

Establishing Water as a Basic Human Right 

Photo of Grand Traverse Bay by Jerry Stutzman

The Traverse City Commission on December 6 unanimously approved a Resolution Proclaiming Water and Sanitation as Basic Human Rights, and that Water Shall Remain in the Public Trust. The resolution was advanced by FLOW and in comments to the City Commission, FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood said, in part, “By protecting water as a human right, this resolution provides clear foundational principles to guide public policy and investments in water system infrastructure priorities in our community. It also promises to be a milestone in the growing debate over the creation of water futures markets.” 

Learn more about Traverse City’s efforts and FLOW’s OUR20 Communities and Clean Water for All programs designed to promote water stewardship and safe and affordable drinking water for all.

Protecting Groundwater, Our Sixth Great Lake

Art by Glenn Wolff

The source of drinking water for 45 percent of Michigan’s population, groundwater is plagued by 26,000 contamination sites. It is a priority for FLOW to strengthen protection of these waters for present and future generations.

In March, FLOW published our 2nd groundwater report—“Deep Threats to Our Sixth Great Lake: Spotlighting and Solving Michigan’s Groundwater Emergency”—and fact sheet and hosted a webinar with co-panelists Dave Dempsey; Carrie Jennings, Policy and Research Director for the Freshwater Society in Minnesota; and Dr. Alan Steinman, the Director of the Robert B. Annis Water Research Institute at Grand Valley State University.

In April, FLOW teamed with the Michigan League of Conservation Voters to host an informational webinar on PFAS, the so-called “forever chemicals,” which have polluted Michigan groundwater in at least 200 locations. Approximately 100 persons attended this virtual event. We participated in a second PFAS webinar with LCV on October 21, providing important information about the status of contamination investigations associated with Traverse City’s Cherry Capital Airport and state and federal PFAS policy responses.

Beginning in May, FLOW organized and facilitated the multi-stakeholder Michigan Groundwater Table, whose purpose is to explore opportunities for consensus on actions to better protect Michigan’s groundwater. The group teamed up to urge the Governor and Legislature to approve more than $5 million in state funding for monitoring and mapping of groundwater. In December, the State Senate approved $20 million for these needs.

In October, based on a FLOW proposal, Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued executive directive 2021-8 reducing state purchases of products containing intentionally added PFAS.

Learn more here about FLOW’s program to protect groundwater, the sixth Great Lake.

FLOW’s accomplishments spanned several other areas:

Advancing the Public Trust

Virtually all of FLOW’s work to protect the Great Lakes, groundwater, and drinking water involves applying and upholding the public trust. Here’s a state-level example: FLOW authored and in March successfully persuaded the Michigan House of Representatives to adopt a resolution affirming the public trust doctrine as the linchpin of Michigan’s water protection strategy.

Learn more about FLOW’s efforts to craft public trust solutions.

Halting a Major Aquaculture Threat

In November, FLOW filed formal public comment to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) asking that the department find the Atlantis Fish Company’s water withdrawal permit application for 4 million gallons per day incomplete or deny it outright. This was one of the biggest, if not the biggest, proposed water withdrawals since a water use law passed in 2008. FLOW’s concerns included a lack of information needed to determine whether the proposed withdrawal would pollute, impair, or destroy flows and levels of nearby lakes, streams, or wetlands held in public trust by the state for the benefit of all. Later in the month, the company rescinded its water withdrawal permit application and abandoned the Newaygo County site from its consideration.

Learn more about FLOW’s program to protect the Great Lakes from private fish farms.

Art Meets Water: Throughout the year, FLOW continued our Art Meets Water programWater inspires art, and that art—in the form of poetry, music, paintings, dance, letters, film—drives us to protect the Great Lakes. Our 2021 events included: 

On January 18, we hosted award-winning ecopoet Alison Swan for a reading and discussion of her new book, A Fine Canopy.

Presented in partnership with the National Writers Series on August 10, FLOW Board of Directors member and author Matthew L. M. Fletcher interviewed Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass in this video recording.

On August 25, we staged a conversation exploring the creative collaboration of author Lynne Heasley and visual artist Glenn Wolff, on display in a new book release. The Accidental Reef

On December 8, FLOW hosted a conversation with Dave Dempsey on his newly updated book, Great Lakes For Sale. The event was facilitated by Sally Cole-Misch, longtime communicator for the International Joint Commission’s Great Lakes Regional Office.

As we do every year, FLOW made numerous educational presentations to community and state audiences and kept the public informed of environmental policy and practice developments on our Facebook, Instagram, and website

All of these accomplishments are a prelude to the start of our next decade  in 2022, one we envision to be a time of unprecedented progress in our mission. Stay tuned and engagedwe couldn’t do it without you.

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