Jim Olson Passes the Torch to Zach Welcker, FLOW’s First Full-Time Legal Director


Photo of Zach Welcker by John Robert Williams Photography

Shortly after Zach Welcker started working at FLOW last summer, he came onto the Monday morning staff meeting by Zoom and wryly summed up his weekend: “Well, I think I had more inches of rain in my basement this weekend than we had rainfall in the entire year back in Spokane.”

Zach had just arrived from drought-stricken eastern Washington after more than a decade as a legal advocate for Indian tribes in the Pacific Northwest on water, fisheries, hydropower, and other natural resource issues. Seeking a return to his Midwest roots and moved by FLOW’s mission to keep water public and protected, he stepped directly into the high waters and heavy downpours of Michigan’s changing climate.

It’s precisely the kind of systemic challenge Zach came to confront head-on as FLOW’s first full-time legal director, responsible for building on FLOW’s legal power, policy acumen, and partnerships—especially among tribes, conservation groups, frontline communities, justice organizations, and scientists—to ensure the waters of the Great Lakes Basin are healthy, public, and protected for all.

“I’m thrilled to be surrounded by all of this water and humbled by the opportunity to keep it public and protected for all,” Zach  Welcker said.

The position’s sweeping range already has immersed Zach in FLOW’s ongoing campaigns to shut down the Line 5 oil pipelines and keep water and water systems in public hands. He also is working with partners on FLOW’s model legislation developed by FLOW’s founder and longtime senior legal advisor Jim Olson that would end household water shutoffs and stop the privatization of the public’s groundwater.

“I’m thrilled to be surrounded by all of this water and humbled by the opportunity to keep it public and protected for all,” Zach said. “I couldn’t have asked for more dedicated and tireless colleagues. Together with our allies, we are going to improve water security for current and future generations by changing the way people think about and interact with water.” 

A Moment Years in the Making

Jim Olson, FLOW Founder and Senior Legal Advisor

Jim Olson, FLOW Founder and Senior Legal Advisor

Zach now carries the public trust legal torch borne since 2011 by Jim Olson, FLOW’s founder and senior legal advisor, who is a water and environmental lawyer renowned for championing the protection of the public waters of the Great Lakes Basin for the common good. For several years, Jim and Executive Director Liz Kirkwood have worked with FLOW’s Board of Directors to develop the strategic vision and case statement for the legal director position, and sought philanthropic partners to invest in the opportunity.

“FLOW’s supporters are terrific ambassadors for our mission,” said Liz Kirkwood, “and we were able to sit down with some of our earliest and most committed advocates to secure multi-year pledges supporting recruitment efforts and funding the launch of our Legal Director position,” said FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood.

FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood

“More than three years ago, FLOW’s staff and executive team worked together on an organizational growth and succession plan,” Liz said. “We knew that we would need increased capacity on our legal team, and we projected that increase into future budget scenarios, on both the expense and revenue side. Once we knew what it would take to turn our plans into reality, we began to reach out for resources.

“FLOW’s supporters are terrific ambassadors for our mission,” Liz continued, “and we were able to sit down with some of our earliest and most committed advocates to secure multi-year pledges supporting recruitment efforts and funding the launch of our Legal Director position. Those pledges allowed us to proceed with a search that ultimately led FLOW to Zach—and Zach to FLOW.

“I hope you’ll join me in welcoming Zach, who brings extraordinary legal expertise and experience clerking at the 9th Circuit and working on tribal, water, and natural resource matters for the Kalispel tribe,” Liz said. 

“Moving to Michigan with his wonderful family is a homecoming of sorts for Zach who grew up in the Midwest in a small town outside of Chicago. He is a wonderful addition to our organization and talented team, sharing great wit, insights, and smarts to our daily work focused on complex systemic water policy and governance issues in the Great Lakes.”

“It is rare that someone like Zach comes along with his extraordinary legal talent and down-to-earth character and listening and problem-solving ability,” said Jim Olson. “When I met Zach and his wife Ellen early last summer, it didn’t take long for me to realize that his spirit and experience would take FLOW’s foundation in water and public interest law and policy into the next decade and beyond.” 

Enhancing our legal team in FLOW’s 10th anniversary year makes the moment all the more sweet as FLOW celebrates successes with partners and supporters and looks ahead to the next decade of safeguarding the Great Lakes, groundwater, and drinking water for all—while addressing climate change and global water scarcity.

“It is rare that someone like Zach comes along with his extraordinary legal talent and down-to-earth character and listening and problem-solving ability,” said Jim Olson. “When I met Zach and his wife Ellen early last summer, it didn’t take long for me to realize that his spirit and experience would take FLOW’s foundation in water and public interest law and policy into the next decade and beyond.

“In the six months since I started mentoring Zach on the many facets of our programs, he’s already made significant contributions to projects like Line 5 and public water justice, public infrastructure financing, and the human right to water and health,” Jim continued. “We’re grateful he and Ellen and their children chose Traverse City and the Great Lakes for their new home.”

Supporting the Olson-Dempsey Fund for Public Trust in the Great Lakes

Dave Dempsey, FLOW Senior Advisor

Jim Olson, FLOW Founder

In an another initiative to keep the legal torch lit, FLOW this summer launched the Olson-Dempsey Fund, which aims to ensure the ongoing impact of Jim Olson’s achievements, as well as those of FLOW Senior Advisor Dave Dempsey, in deepening the influence of the public trust doctrine in environmental policy, especially the protection of freshwater resources.

FLOW and the residents of the Great Lakes Basin are forever indebted to the brilliance, dedication, and relentless efforts of Jim and Dave on behalf of public water, the public trust doctrine, and the well-being of future generations who will call the Great Lakes home.

Learning Lessons from Zach and His Experiences Out West and Back in the Midwest

Zach, who looks forward to a time when he can meet more of FLOW’s allies in person and continue the conversation started here, shares some of his perspective:

How have you and your family’s experiences here so far with water and climate change impacts differed from those you experienced living in the West?

Summer became my least favorite season out West due to the forest fires. Every day was sunny, hot, and dry. There always seemed to be smoke in the air, whether it was blowing up from California, down from Canada, or from a local fire. We had weeks where the air quality was so bad that summer camps shut down, public swimming pools shut down, and even healthy people were advised to stay inside. And this is nothing compared to the western communities that have water scarcity problems on top of all of this! I don’t think it would be accurate to pin all of these fires on climate change, but climate change has certainly exacerbated the problems caused by decades of unsound forest management and land-use practices.

Summer became my least favorite season out West due to the forest fires. Every day was sunny, hot, and dry. There always seemed to be smoke in the air, whether it was blowing up from California, down from Canada, or from a local fire.

Even though there was some smoke in Traverse City when we arrived this summer, our first summer here was a wild dream. It was great to have a mixture of blue skies and the occasional rain storm. I’m told that a couple of our storms here in Michigan were far more powerful than normal. So perhaps Michigan’s analog to forest fires is increased storm intensity.

What are some of the key lessons on water protection that you learned living and working in Montana, Oregon, and Washington State that you bring to your work in Michigan and the Great Lakes Basin?

The regulatory system won’t protect us. It is pollution and consumption enabling, highly manipulable, and captured by the regulated community. That being said, there are many good people working within the system. We need to find those people and empower them with the information and support to make the system work as well as it can. That’s the short game. The long and more interesting game is transforming the system. The public trust doctrine is a great tool in this fight because it can simultaneously influence both games.

As Jim Olson passes the torch to you as FLOW’s first full-time legal director, what does your position at FLOW and this moment mean to you and your personal and professional path?

I’m the trustee of Jim’s vision. That’s a solemn responsibility that should keep me on my toes for quite a while. For now, I’m trying to learn everything I can from him. My basic goal is to keep up Jim’s work in my own way. If I’m able to do that, I will have done good work.

I’m the trustee of Jim’s vision. That’s a solemn responsibility that should keep me on my toes for quite a while.

What are you working on now at FLOW that excites you and holds promise for keeping water public and protected for current and future generations?

I’m just starting to dive into the commodification, financialization, and privatization of water. If there isn’t a vigorous resistance to these efforts, only the rich will have water security. We need to meet the moment.

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