Public Trust Education

Protecting the Great Lakes through Education and Public Policy

At the heart of our mission, FLOW is dedicated to educating and empowering citizens and leaders to know and use their rights under the public trust doctrine -- with the government as trustee of our shared resources and citizens as beneficiaries -- to solve systemic threats facing our Great Lakes today.

FLOW’s team of legal and policy experts actively works to advance and apply the public trust to key Great Lakes issues through research, policy development, articles, reports, and direct engagement.

We work with, and strive to educate and influence, state regulators, regional decision makers, local governments, and citizen activists in Michigan and across all of the Great Lakes states and provinces, raising key legal issues about the human right to water and the public trust duty to protect it.

Understanding the History of the Public Trust Doctrine

Dating back to Roman times, the public trust is an ancient legal principle with modern relevance that empowers citizens and governments to protect our waters and bottomlands of the Great Lakes as a commons, owned and shared by the public for the use and enjoyment of all for drinking, fishing, swimming, navigation, and recreation.

With greater knowledge of these existing legal duties and responsibilities, the public can better hold government accountable to protect our Great Lakes from catastrophic oil spills, toxic algal blooms, water diversions, pollution, aquaculture waste, and more. This organizing legal principle is so powerful because of its potential to unify existing water protection laws and interested stakeholders around common stewardship responsibilities.


The Public Trust dates back to the Byzantine Empire

The Waterfront and Lake Belong to the People

The story of the public trust in the United States is particularly interesting because the seminal U.S. Supreme Court case took place right here on the shores of our Great Lakes. Over a hundred years ago, the Illinois legislature granted the Illinois Central Railroad one square mile of the downtown Chicago waterfront and Lake Michigan bottomlands for their exclusive and private use.

Realizing the significance of granting away a portion of the state’s most important public resource, the following legislature brought the case to the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate the deed. The Supreme Court ruled that a state may not privatize the public lands and waters that it holds in trust for the use and enjoyment of its citizens. Since this 1892 decision, courts nationwide have recognized public trust interests related to swimming, recreation, navigable tributaries, ecological values, and drinking waters.

Today, the public trust exists in all Great Lakes jurisdictions, providing 40 million citizens a legal right to defend these common waters and their protected uses from harm for current and future generations. Citizens can also enforce this duty when government refuses to act or takes action resulting in potential or actual harms that exceed the boundaries set by the public trust.

Building Blue Communities

FLOW shares the vision advanced by the Council of Canadians to encourage municipalities and other entities around the world to become “Blue Communities,” as evidenced by recognizing water as a human right; promoting publicly financed, owned, and operated water and wastewater services; and banning the sale of bottled water in public facilities and at municipal events.

We believe that communities that prioritize and protect their freshwater resources and related infrastructure will be best positioned to help their citizens meet their needs and prosper.

Learn more.

Help us protect the Great Lakes
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