A Time for the Universal Application of the Principles of the Public Trust Doctrine
“The water cycle and the life cycle are one” —- Jacques Cousteau
A White-Water Trip Down the Currents of the Public Trust Doctrine
In ancient times, people knew water and the life cycles were the same. Without water, civilizations collapsed. Rome, with its dependence on water and the spokes of its aqueducts, knew this. It is little wonder that that nearly 2000 years ago, air, running water, and wildlife were considered common to all.
In 1215, paragraphs in the Magna Carta –that Great Charter of Liberty that formed the basis of modern constitutional democracies–ordered the Crown and Lords to remove weirs that limited the public’s access to water, fishing, travel, survival.
In 1821, the New Jersey Supreme Court recognized this principle. The legal principles around land came down to this country as private property. But the court ruled that water, particularly navigable waters, came down as commons. Landowners had rights of use of water, so did the public, but no one owned the water. The water was owned by the States as sovereign (the people) for the benefit of citizens. A private landowner could not claim ownership of the oysters and the seabed, and the state as sovereign could not transfer the seabed or exclusive license to take oysters to a private person.
In 1892, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the legislature of Illinois had had no power to convey a square mile of Lake Michigan on the shore of Chicago to Illinois Central Railroad for a private industrial harbor and industrial beachhead. Why? Because the Great Lakes, like all navigable waters or public property or commons of a special character, was subject to a public trust: Government cannot alienate the commons of water, lakebeds, or impair the quantity, quality, or public uses—fishing, navigation, boating, swimming, bathing, drinking water or sustenance—protected by the public trust doctrine.
When Michigan joined the Union—in 1837—the state, like every other state, took title to the waters and lakebed below the ordinary high water mark in public trust for citizens. The federal government reserved only a navigational servitude to assure travel for all citizens for commerce and pleasure over the navigable waters of the U.S. The title of the state cannot be transferred and the state cannot be divested, by anyone of this sovereign title of a state and its citizens. And because it is a trust, like any trust managed by a bank or other concern, each citizen is a legal beneficiary who can enforce this trust when the trustee breaches its duties.
In the 1970s, a Wisconsin court recognized that wetlands formed by the waters of an adjacent public stream were part of the public trust and could and should be protected. An Illinois court recognized the public trust doctrine applied to public parks, also public common property of a special character.
In the 1980s, the California Supreme Court ruled that Los Angeles could not divert water to feed its water demand from a tributary upstream from Mono Lake, because the diversion of the stream diminished and impaired the public trust in the lake.
From the late 1990s to this month, the Hawaii Supreme Court has ruled a number of times that tributary groundwater, connected to a stream, could not be removed if it dried up or diminished the basic public uses of all citizens under the public trust doctrine.
In the last eight years, the states of Vermont, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and California have recognized the connection between groundwater, springs, creeks, streams, wetlands, and lakes—the hydrologic or water cycle.
Last fall, and in two subsequent rulings, the federal district court and 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that children and persons whose health, property, and public trust uses of navigable public trust waters were impaired or threatened with impairment in the future by climate change had a right under the public trust doctrine and constitution to bring a lawsuit against the federal government — to compel it to take actions within its governmental powers to reduce C02 and greenhouse gases to mitigate the coming impacts from climate change. The federal government and states have a duty to protect the public trust waters and commons, and the public uses that depend on it. It cannot stand by with deliberate indifference and do nothing. It cannot deliberately obstruct or interfere with efforts that protect our water and this commons.
Time for a Wide Application of the Public Doctrine’s Legal and Ethical Principles
The importance of the public trust doctrine grows exponentially and rapidly. Some examples—some representing FLOW’s work—
- Line 5 in Straits of Mackinac and the 645 miles under or near the lakes, streams, towns, groundwater drinking water zones of Michigan. The public trust in the Straits and Great Lakes and waters, and public use and health, are threatened with deliberate government refusal to take serious action.
- Nestlé’s major expanded water diversion from the headwaters of creeks near Evart, with little regard for existing conditions and what the withdrawal will do to creeks, wetlands, and wildlife; and with little regard for the shocking injustice that even though water is held by the State for its people, Nestle gets it for a $200 administrative fee and pays nothing for the water, massive profits with no benefit to citizens. Meanwhile, people in Detroit are cut off public water supplies because they can’t afford the $150 to $200 a month bill. People in Flint couldn’t drink their water, can’t afford to fix their pipes from their home to the main system so it’s safe, and must pay $150 to $200 a month.
- Foxconn recently obtained approval from the State of Wisconsin of an exception to the Great Lakes Compact diversion ban to divert 5 to 7 million gallons of water from Lake Michigan to 1,000 acres for a new industrial manufacturing facility outside the basin divide, for “public” and “largely residential” purposes.
- Wall Street, backed by a federal government effort to cut funding for states and local governments, is stepping in to control water privately, for higher gains, and higher costs.
- Scott Pruitt, EPA Administrator, wants to nix the federal clean water rule for waters of the U.S. under the Clean Water Act.
- Climate change continues to exacerbate droughts and floods, causing devastating harm and damages; EPA’s Pruitt is interfering with efforts under Clean Air Act to reduce greenhouse gases.
- Until recently, Ohio and the federal EPA have dragged their feet to declare western Lake Erie impaired to reduce phosphorous and prevent “dead zones” and algal toxins from entering public water supplies.
- President Trump last week revoked an Executive Order and 8-year effort by the Obama administration to start protecting oceans and the Great Lakes with stewardship and other principles to assure sustainability and integrity of these waters. In its place, President Trump issued an Executive Order to increase opportunities for industrialization and oil and gas production and transport under and over our oceans and the Great Lakes.
Each of these examples runs counter to the public trust doctrine and the rights or interests of citizens as beneficiaries. Each example either alienates or privatizes public trust water or impairs or threatens impairment of drinking water, fishing, swimming, boating, and sustenance. Each of these threatens health, public and private property, public uses, tourism, and quality of life and long term economic stability.
President Trump’s Executive Order ramping up industrial uses and oil and gas leasing and transport in, under, or over the Great Lakes completely ignores the legal fact that the federal government does not own the lakebeds or waters of the Great Lakes. With last week’s announcement by Justice Anthony Kennedy that he will step down from Supreme Court later this summer, solutions to these major threats and problems will face greater difficulty if not impossible odds.
Science and common sense informs us in the context of today’s world that human behavior and actions influence every arc of the water cycle—groundwater, streams, lakes, rivers, ocean, evaporation, snowpack or rainfall. One simple documented conclusion makes the point: The demand for freshwater will outstrip supply by thirty to forty percent by 2050. Population will have increased to nearly 9 billion, and 2 billion persons may be without adequate or safe sources or supplies of freshwater.
At FLOW, we are working to educate leaders, citizens, communities, and businesses in a way that offers a legal and policy framework that is equal to and embraces the water cycle and, as noted at the outset, the life cycle. Water is public, held in public trust, and must remain so. If we protect water as a public trust, we will make good choices about energy, land development, economy, and quality of life.