OUR20 Communities

A New FLOW Initiative Helping to Place Water Stewardship at the Heart of All that Communities Do while Addressing Climate Change

OUR20 Communities: An Introduction

Communities in Michigan and across the Great Lakes basin have begun stepping up to protect fresh water, address climate change, and increase efforts to promote public awareness and build a base of individual, business, tribal, and government support for restoration and protection initiatives. However, there is still much work to do to protect the Great Lakes, groundwater, drinking water, and all of our shared common, public water resources.

Putting water at the center of decision-making will lead to good decisions in all sectors. Water is not only a resource critical to life, but also a centerpiece of community life, particularly here in the Great Lakes basin.

Threats to water include climate change, an increase in population and urbanization, emerging contaminants, and attacks on state and federal clean water standards, groundwater, wetland, and surface water protections. Local participation, collaboration, and leadership in defending water resources are more critical than ever. Communities cannot afford to wait for state and federal governments to help or take the lead.

OUR20 Communities: A Great Lakes Movement

FLOW, through our new OUR20 Communities initiative, is committed to educating and empowering local citizens, governments, businesses, and groups to becoming front-line champions of fresh water and its protection in the Great Lakes basin as the region faces urgent challenges caused by climate change.

“OUR20” refers to the approximately 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater found in the Great Lakes watershed. OUR20 Communities and their stakeholders put freshwater protection and sustainability at the center of local decision-making to assure water remains public, safe, clean, and affordable for all. An OUR20 Community – with complete information and the active participation of its residents, local officials, groups, and businesses – fully blends water quality and quantity protection into planning, zoning, and everyday government and business practices. 

OUR20 Communities set a common agenda by bringing together stakeholders of all interests and backgrounds to identify and address water issues. Balanced water management and stewardship is an essential component of future community prosperity.

Click here or click the image to the right to view FLOW executive director Liz Kirkwood’s OUR20 PowerPoint presentation to the City of Traverse City in November 2019.

The details will vary from community to community.  In addition to leadership and commitment, success will take ample funding. Such funding is critical to assure an OUR20 Community is about more than words and regulations. In this guide, we provide the building blocks of OUR20 Communities to be used as each locale sees fit.  We encourage use of the building blocks as a starting point for broad community engagement and action.

Why are Watersheds Important?

Simply put, watersheds are topographical features that receive and then release water within a single drainage basin. For example, a watershed is the land, groundwater, and tributary creeks and rivers that feed the Boardman River. Watersheds exist at the lake, river, and creek level and rarely coincide neatly with political boundaries. Because of the relationships between upstream and downstream communities, it makes sense that they coordinate and collaborate on watershed initiatives.

Even within a single community, watershed consciousness and management are important.  Often, all watercourses within a community flow within a single watershed, linking neighborhoods, industrial and commercial development, and sometimes, public lands such as parks and forests.

Becoming an OUR20 Community

How do you actually go about moving from a project-by-project approach to becoming an OUR20 Community?

  • The OUR20 Communities project means making water stewardship a primary objective so that water management and water protection are blended strategies when proposing and evaluating local projects that significantly alter landscapes, water quality, and quantity.  
  • OUR20 Communities are guided by the principles of credible science, shared data, collaborative partnerships, and the public trust doctrine.
  • OUR20 communities understand that water is our most precious natural resource and a driving economic force for the State of Michigan and the Great Lakes region, sustaining our quality of life.
  • OUR20 communities recognize that the climate crisis is a water crisis we must address together—with too much water too fast in some places, too little for too long in others. But it’s more than just a water quantity problem. Changing climate patterns are contributing to the first-known algae blooms in Lake Superior and to so much toxic algae in Lake Erie that 400,000 residents of Toledo, Ohio, were left without drinking water for days in 2014.

FLOW will provide initial logistical support and a proposed approach to integrating consideration of water into local government policies and actions. Ultimately, OUR20 communities will need to make the initiative their own.

Check out FLOW’s Blue Communities project with the University of Michigan.

Defining an OUR20 Community

The critical first step in an OUR20 Community project is to define actions and measuring sticks appropriate for the individual community.  While details will vary based on local preferences, one such characteristic critical to all OUR20 initiatives is a commitment to protecting water as a commons. 

Water as a Commons

What does it mean to treat water as a commons? 

Fundamentally, water is a public commons in which each individual or property owner has a right of reasonable use so long as that use does not measurably impair the common water on which all life and private and public uses depend.  Increasingly, private interests are seeking not just to use, but also to take control of public drinking water and sewage systems, or to pump groundwater that belongs to the public and take a private profit.

Private operators of formerly public water systems hike rates and reduce maintenance in order to maximize profit. They also may be aggressive in shutting off water service to low-income customers having difficulty paying the increased rates. 

A legal antidote to private claims on public water is the public trust doctrine. Think of public parks and the beaches and waters, fish, and aquatic resources of our Great Lakes. Who owns these public spaces and resources? The short answer is that the each state does as sovereign, which means you do –the public.

The Public Trust Doctrine holds that certain special common natural resources like navigable waters are preserved in perpetuity for public use and enjoyment. Applying a banking analogy, government serves as a trustee to maintain the trust or common resources for the benefit of current and future generations, who are the beneficiaries. Just as private trustees are judicially accountable to their beneficiaries, so too are government trustees in managing public trust properties to prevent their diminishment or impairment.

Under the public trust doctrine, the waters of the Great Lakes Basin can never be primarily controlled by, or transferred to, private interests for private purposes that interfere with the overarching public uses and values of water to the watershed and community.

Among actions that OUR20 Communities may take to affirm the public character of water:

  • Commit to protecting uses of water such as drinking water, sanitation, and sustenance, and wastewater systems public, 
  • Eliminate the use of commercialized bottled water or non-returnable plastics at municipal facilities,
  • Educate constituents on the history, hydrogeological nature, uses, and increasing value of public control of water,
  • Formally embrace the public trust doctrine framework as a guiding principle of the OUR20 Community Initiative.  A model resolution of municipal commitment to keeping water public and affirming the public trust doctrine is included as Appendix 1.

A Menu of Choice for OUR20 Communities

OUR20 Communities have multiple potential areas of action for community consideration.  

  • Water Conservation
  • Addressing Climate Change
  • Water Quality
  • Water Equity
  • Community Policies, Planning, and Zoning

Changes in policies guiding community public works projects or public services should also be considered. For example, community governments should be challenged to revise traditional policies and practices to favor buffers, rain gardens and wetlands over concrete and pipes such as in transportation, dam or flood control, and stormwater system upkeep.  Increasing the area of parking lots and streets that permits water to percolate into the ground can help.

The Importance of Measurement

Measurement and reporting are key actions for an OUR20 Community. Success in raising public awareness about the OUR20 Community initiative depends to a large degree on citizen engagement, including the defining of both quantitative and qualitative measures against which to measure progress.

Qualitative metrics could include:

  • Creation of institutional structures such as an Office of Sustainability to model and measure the effectiveness of on-the-ground and long-term OUR20 Community work, and to report to the public on a regular basis.
  • Public awareness of OUR20 Communities initiatives.
  • Citizen participation in activities related to the OUR20 Communities initiative.

Quantitative metrics may include:

  • Pollutant trends in surface water, groundwater, and drinking water;
  • Gallons of sanitary and stormwater overflow;
  • Occurrence of invasive species;
  • Number of homes that have septic systems not recently inspected and maintained;
  • Commitment to 100% renewable energy by local government;
  • Number of educational programs directed to increase Great Lakes and water literacy.

Of course, individual communities will identify other characteristics and metrics that make sense for their situations.