Public Trust Solutions

What Is The Public Trust?

Think of a public park near you or the better-known Boston Common, or think of the public beaches and waters of our Great Lakes. Who owns these public spaces and resources? The short answer is that you do, meaning you the public. This concept of public spaces and resources like water being owned and shared by the public is not a new one; in fact, it dates back at least 1,800 years, three centuries before the times of Roman Emperor Justinian, who re-codified Roman Law. It has been a part of English common law and our U.S. jurisprudence and democracy for centuries. Read more

Celebrating Public Trust Month

“The Great Lakes belong to all of us. It’s in our DNA,” said FLOW executive director Liz Kirkwood. “We know that those waters that surround us, that bathe us, that nurture us underneath our feet, are inalienable rights for all.” During the high-water month of July 2019, FLOW published video postcards that featured Michiganders (and citizens of the Great Lakes Basin) explaining what the Public Trust Doctrine means to us and how our precious, publicly-owned fresh water shapes our lives and relationship to this place we call home. In July 2019, we also introduced our Great Lakes Passport to help you celebrate and exercise your rights during what we at FLOW called Public Trust Month. During 2019’s record high water levels, know your rights and responsibilities in Michigan when walking the beach and enjoying the water. Here in the Mitten State, our Great Lakes, bottomlands, and shore are protected from sale, private control, or impairment for us—the public—to use and enjoy. Those protected activities include walking the Great Lakes shoreline (up to the ordinary high water mark), boating and navigation, drinking water, fishing, gathering and sustenance, and swimming and other recreation. Read more

Why Public Trust?

The 21st century brings a new wave of acute and chronic threats to the waters of the Great Lakes Basin. The world water crisis is coming to a head based on a constellation of contributing factors, including climate change, increasing world population, unchecked pollution, and wasteful consumption practices. Conflict over fresh water sources will only increase in the future as the need to provide clean drinking water, grow food, and produce energy is expected to double worldwide by 2050. Read more

How Does It Work?

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Northwest Lower Michigan.

To understand how the Public Trust works and how it can solve the threats and abuses to the waters of the Great Lakes Basin, citizens and leaders will need to see and understand water as a shared public resource or “commons” is as important as other constitutional rights including free speech, assembly, and the right to posses and enjoy private property. Read more

Public Trust Principles

  • Public trust waters and protected uses cannot be alienated by government, and in any event may never be transferred or controlled for private purposes. A public purpose is required. (Public protected uses include navigation, commerce, fishing, swimming, recreation, and drinking water).
  • The proposed diversion or use cannot materially impair the flow, level, integrity, or quality of public trust water and tributary water. It cannot materially impair public trust resources or protected public uses.
  • A duty is imposed on government to account for its actions or approvals of a diversion or use by making duly recorded findings based on adequate information concerning the effects of a proposed use to assure that there is no unlawful alienation or transfer for private purpose and no material impairment of public trust waters or uses. Read more

Protected Uses

Uses of Great Lakes water are protected under the public trust, including fishing, swimming, recreation, commerce, and navigation. Read more