Above: Satellite imagery from August 2022 shows the extent of a western Lake Erie algae bloom. Similar nuisance and hazardous blooms, spawned by excess agricultural fertilizer and animal waste, have plagued the lake for 20 years. But officials continue to insist that only voluntary measures by agriculture are needed to put the lake on the road to recovery. (Photo/U.S. EPA)
Although few people are likely to read it, a key report about the state of clean water in Michigan was published this year.
Two key themes emerge from the report. First, most of Michigan’s open Great Lakes waters meet standards and support public uses such as swimming — and beach water quality is generally high.
Two key themes emerge from the report. First, with the exception of pollution of fish by PCBs, mercury, and other long-lasting contaminants, most of Michigan’s open Great Lakes waters meet standards and support public uses such as swimming. In addition, beach water quality is generally high:
In 2020, 143 of 157 monitored public beaches on Michigan inland lakes reported no exceedances of the state’s E. coli standard. The remaining 14 beaches had 23 exceedances.
Also in 2020, of 116 publicly accessible beaches on the Great Lakes and connecting waters, 92 reported no exceedances of the E. coli WQS for total body contact. The remaining 24 beaches reported a total of 57 exceedances.
Second, there are large pockets of degraded water quality that stubbornly resist pollution-control efforts.
Second, there are large pockets of degraded water quality that stubbornly resist pollution-control efforts.
“Repeated, persistent, and extensive cyanobacteria blooms,” resulting from an excess of phosphorus runoff from agricultural sources, undermine the water quality of the inner portion of Saginaw Bay. Therefore, EGLE has determined the inner bay is officially impaired.
Cyanobacteria blooms in western Lake Erie, also from agricultural processes, warrant an impaired listing. But EGLE continues to insist the best way to deal with this is to continue a collaborative process with Ontario and Ohio that has delivered little in water quality improvements, instead of writing its own plan.
Jim Olson is FLOW’s Founder, President, and Legal Advisor
By Jim Olson
The citizens of Toledo, Ohio, desperate to end the continuing plague of toxic algal blooms covering the western one-third of Lake Erie, in February 2019 passed by referendum a municipal ordinance that enacted the “Lake Erie Bill of Rights.” The Bill of Rights holds that “Lake Erie, and the Lake Erie watershed, possess the right to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve.” The State of Ohio, joined at the hip by big agricultural corporations, challenged the ordinance in the courts and, for the moment, put an end to this new municipal law that sought to create rights of nature.
The Lake Erie Bill of Rights is part of a larger stage: The rapidly increasing worldwide movement to recognize nature as a being or “person,” has become a rallying cry to address the growing irrefutable evidence of the connection between systemic threats to water and the environment, and human and cultural survival.
Actor and producer Mark Ruffalo’s compelling documentary on the rights of nature movement, Invisible Hand, illustrates the gravity of the systemic threats to earth and water on which health and all life depends.
Like the movement to shift our perception that in the 1970s resulted in the rights of citizens to bring lawsuits to protect the air, water, and environment, Ruffalo’s film dramatizes the declaration of the rights of nature itself, concluding that nature, its rivers, lakes, and biotic systems must be protected by government as living beings. Indeed, if government fails to fulfill its duty to protect nature as it would any person, then, in the same way people can bring lawsuits to protect themselves and the environment, natural living ecosystems, such as Lake Erie, under some type of guardianship can, too.
The recognition of rights of nature or a body of water attracts more and more support worldwide because it is something ordinary people and communities facing serious threats to water from climate change and government indifference can understand and support. It establishes a scaffolding for humans to shift the way we see nature in the first place—a shift from a “property” or physical orientation to one that embraces relationship to a tree, lake, or a river. This is not new for many indigenous people around the world who see nature as not apart, but beings in relation to themselves. But it is new to those more accustomed to seeing everything autonomously, each object bouncing back and forth as separate, unrelated pith balls in a Newtonian world.
Yet while a change like the Lake Erie Bill of Rights calls for more humility and fundamental respect toward nature, from a purely legal or legal policy standpoint, it doesn’t change the basic reality that if government fails to protect nature as a “person” or “natural object,” a person has to step in as an appointed guardian to speak for this new “person.” In most countries, and all of the states or provinces in North America, the only way to do this is for people to march to the state or provincial capitol or file lawsuits on behalf of nature in the courts.
In the 1970s, the states and federal government passed laws giving citizens the legal “standing” to file lawsuits to protect their use and dependence on the environment. The rights of nature movement, if enacted as in New Zealand and attempted for Lake Erie, whether by constitutional amendment or a new law, would grant legal “standing” to the lake, river, forest, or watershed itself. But if this happens, and it should, does it change the fact that citizens, that is human beings, must still insist on that protection by filing lawsuits based on legal standing as they have done since the 1970s?
Toledo’s Lake Erie Bill of Rights clearly created the right, or standing, for citizens to go after the state, but it didn’t establish a remedy. The court ruled the city didn’t have the power to pass a law to protect Lake Erie because it is the state that holds Lake Erie for the benefit of citizens, and only it could pass laws to protect it. Clearly, then, legal standing is not enough.
I suppose a state can pass a new law that grants legal rights to a lake or river, and that because of this, a person could file a lawsuit, perhaps as appointed guardian, in the name of a natural living feature like Lake Erie. And, I suppose, too, that a court would be compelled to grant standing to the lake or river that has been or is threatened with harm, and protect the water and ecosystem that is part of this “person,” as authorized by the new law. Is this different from what people do now? People have been filing lawsuits to protect nature for the last 50 years. But here we are in 2020, facing the cataclysmic demise of the earth and its water—the fading blue planet we’ve seen from outer space during this same 50 years—despite being armed with laws and the right to sue when government and corporations pollute, impair, or destroy anatural systems.
However, this does not mean from a cultural, educational, and advocacy viewpoint, the rights of nature are not important. I think they are. Here’s why.
The Importance of the Rights of Nature and Its Link to the Public Trust Doctrine
First, with the recognition of rights of nature, as noted above, people experience a relationship between themselves and nature, both connected and worthy of protection as “beings” or a life form. When this happens, people are more likely to protect that relationship when it is harmed or threatened with harm, and expect the law to recognize it as the status quo of a viable and sustainable being. Courts or legislatures are more likely to be receptive and understand this, too, and therefore articulate new laws or pass constitutional provisions that declare rights, protection, and enforcement of the violation of the duty to protect or sustain these rights of nature. Perhaps equally important, if not more so, people will become more likely to see nature, ontologically speaking, as beingness. In this way, people can bring civil actions to insist that those new “rights of nature” by a local initiative or law are protected, and the burden is shifted to those who threaten or or alter these rights of nature or being to prove that there is no likely harm to water and nature..
Second, as people search our existing laws, particularly the common law associated with common property of a special character like oceans, rivers, lakes, streams, and their tributary groundwater, they will discover there already exists a legal protection of our relationship to nature as if nature is a being. It’s called the public trust doctrine. The doctrine applies to watersheds and the waters that flow through and define them. Under the public trust doctrine, government has a high, solemn, and perpetual duty to protect these special commons and the public’s use of them from impairment, subordination, or alienation for private control. This trust establishes a legal relationship, just like a trust created with a bank as trustee, among the trustee, beneficiaries, and the commons in nature like water, which establishes a three-way relationship. If the government breaches or fails its duty as trustee to protect the rights or beingness of nature, citizens as legal beneficiaries have a legal right, standing, and claim or civil action against government as trustee to protect both the commons, the natural beingness, and the people and species who depend on it.
Like “rights of nature,” the public trust doctrine calls for respect of the beingness or personhood of nature, and at the same time protects a citizen’s right to bring an action to protect this personhood and the essential protected use of water or ecosystems, such as fishing, drinking water, sustenance, and health.
Citizens have successfully protected water and other special natural commons through numerous public trust cases for more than 100 years. The most visible examples are the beachwalking cases, e.g. National Audubon v Los Angeles Superior Court (“Mono Lake” case), Illinois Central Railroad v Illinois (the Great Lakes are held in public trust), and Glass v Goeckle in Michigan or the Gunderson v Indiana cases (the right of the public to beach access to navigable waters). The children’s trust and other public trust cases, like Juliana v U.S., also seek to address the systemic effects of human behavior, like the diversion of a river, the conversion of a lake to a private industrial complex, or the ruin of a rainforest, and the massive, myriad irreparable harms and disease caused by climate change to the public trust in our waters and the ecosystems, watersheds, and people who depend on them.
Michigan a Forerunner with the MEPA
In Michigan, for example, the Legislature in 1970 established the right of citizens to bring claims against those who pollute, impair, or destroy the air, water, and natural resources or the public trust in those resources. (To trace Michigan’s related history, seeThe MEPA Turns 50). So, there is the right, standing, and the claim by statute, and as described above, under the common law of public trust. Because these claims already exist, the declaration of the rights of Lake Erie or nature are an inspiration and aspiration, the public trust doctrine or statutes like the Michigan Environmental Protection Act (“MEPA”) provide the standing, claim, and remedy for damages or court orders to stop the conduct causing or contributing to the harm. The Environmental Law and Policy Center filed suit under the Clean Water Act and forced the U.S. EPA and State of Ohio to declare the open waters and shore waters of Lake Erie “impaired.” As a complement to an often long process to establish enforceable phosphorus limits, known as total maximum daily loads (TMDLs), the public trust doctrine and the MEPA provide immediate claim for impairment of Lake Erie based on these findings that Lake Erie is impaired.
If the connection between the rights and respect toward nature and the public trust in water underlying nature is recognized, and if they are married to each other, viewed as inseparable, then the rights of nature and the public trust doctrine become the umbrella, the backstop, the overarching framework to protect nature and humans as persons or beingness, as a whole. Under public trust law, people and natural beings don’t have to wait for a state or nation to enact a constitutional amendment or new law declaring “rights of nature,” people and nature’s commons don’t have to wait another 4 or 5 years for governments to adopt a phosphorous standard to end the destruction of western Lake Erie. They can bring a lawsuit, and ask the court to protect Lake Erie as a being or body of the trust, and the rights that they enjoy and depend on for drinking water, fish, economy, and sustenance of life.
In short, the rights of nature or rights of Lake Erie are the flags to rally around, and the public trust doctrine is the legal framework and set of principles to halt the undisputed impairment from toxic algal blooms of Lake Erie to protect the rights of nature. People and nature don’t have to suffer the continuing destruction of Lake Erie, they, as persons, have a right and remedy that saves Lake Erie:
It’s time for Mark Ruffalo to produce his next film, a sequel and love story— “The Marriage between the Rights of Nature and the Public Trust Doctrine!”
Iowa state agencies and officials to stand trial for breach of Public Trust duty to prevent harm to streams, fishing, swimming, and drinking water
Jim Olson, FLOW President and Founder
By Jim Olson
The foot-dragging by public officials to take action against deadly algal blooms and pollution from bad farming practices finally has reached a tipping point.
It was just a matter of time before a court would step in to force state government to implement a plan to stop the high concentrations of phosphorus, nitrites, and other harmful substances reaching our public lakes and streams from large corporate farm runoff.
Last year, a federal court dismissed a a similar lawsuit filed under federal law. This time, citizens and Food and Water Watch, represented by Public Justice, a national public interest law firm started decades ago by the late Dean Robb of Suttons Bay, Michigan, filed a lawsuit to protect the public trust in the navigable waters. When each state joined the Union (Iowa obtained statehood in 1846), the state took sovereign title and control over all of the navigable waters in a state in public trust for its citizens. Under this public trust the state as trustee has an obligation to protect these waters for fishing, navigation, boating, and swimming. Iowa trial judge John Hanson has ordered a trial to hear evidence on whether the state has abdicated its duty to prevent the impairment and subordination of these public rights by private interests. If the litigants are successful, the trial court will order state officials and agencies to implement a comprehensive plan to halt the continuous pollution of the source of drinking water for over 500,000 people.
Judge Hanson got it exactly right in letting this case proceed to trial. There is a legal duty under public trust law, there has been a continuing breach of that duty by the state, and it has resulted in harm and impairment to the public trust waters, resources, and public trust uses. The direct connection between the effects of activities on land that flow into public trust waters and resources is no different than if someone discharged pollutants or sediments directly into the water. In either instance, it is a direct result of needless human conduct that interferes with the natural water cycle—water falls on earth, percolates into ground, runs off into lakes and streams. Those who interfere with or harm the water in this cycle should be held accountable for damaging and failing to protect downstream public trust waters and the rights of citizens.
Watch out, Ohio officials, you’re next. I’ve argued in past blogs that the public trust in our navigable lakes and streams means that no one can pollute or impair these streams or sacrifice and subordinate the public’s rights and interests in drinking water, fishing, boating, and swimming to private purposes or interests. Ohioans and Michiganders have been plagued with annual dead zones for years now. Every summer a thick, toxic mat of green algae spreads across the western one-third of Lake Erie, endangering drinking water, killing fish, shutting down beaches, swimming, and tourism. Every year the governor of Ohio and state officials promise to do something. Every year nothing happens to stop the runoff.
Ohio’s governors and state officials have tinkered with laws to allow farmers to take voluntary actions, but have never taken action under the public trust duty to protect Lake Erie from harm, undisputedly the result of runoff of phosphorous from intensive corporate farms and extreme weather from climate change. When our leaders in the executive and legislative branches of government fail us, it is time for citizens to call on the judicial branch. Our democracy is founded on the checks and balances of three branches of government, not two.
Last week, FLOW’s senior policy advisor and noted Great Lakes policy expert Dave Dempsey called on citizens in Ohio and Michigan to take to the courts to put an end to Ohio’s truculence. I and others have argued that Ohio officials and the polluting big farms should be forced by the courts in Ohio and Michigan (Monroe County is on Lake Erie) to put an end to this blatant private confiscation of a treasured water resource that belongs to all citizens of these and surrounding states.
On behalf of all of us who live here in the Great Lakes Basin, our state government leaders must pass laws and file lawsuits to stop the dead zones and billions of dollars in damages to the businesses, cities and towns, and people. If our leaders fail us, then like the citizens of Iowa, it is time for citizens in Ohio, Michigan, and Ontario to file lawsuits under the public trust doctrine. The time for action is now.
Tuesday, FLOW submitted comments regarding the draft 2017 Lakewide Action and Management Plan (LAMP) for Lake Huron. We are concerned about the LAMP’s failure to address a major threat to the waters and ecosystem of Lake Huron: the Enbridge Corporation’s Line 5 pipelines traversing 4.6 miles on the bottomlands of the Straits of Mackinac.
A great article from the Blade, a Toledo newspaper, was just published which supports the need for a strong “waters of the US” rule under the Clean Water Act. This rule would insure that wetlands and tributary waters of the Great Lakes are not diminished, impaired, and the Great Lakes ecosystem and waters are not damaged. The article reminds us all that we share in the stewardship of the lakes, and that we should all strive to secure a safe and healthy future for our waters. Read more here.
In the spring, the U.S. EPA and Army Corps of Engineers issued a rule to clarify Clean Water Act Protections to wetlands and streams. The rule, also known as the Waters of the United States rule, has not yet been finalized. Since the EPA introduced the rule last spring it has been under attack from many sources, including the Farm Bureau. The rule is needed to clarify the extent of the Clean Water Act, helping to protect small waterways and streams whose protection is currently uncertain.
Contact: Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director
email@example.com or 231-944-1568
Public Trust Doctrine Policy Framework Encouraged in Final LEEP Report
FLOW Commends International Joint Commission as “Forward-Thinking”
TRAVERSE CITY, MI – FLOW lauds the International Joint Commission (IJC) for including public trust standards into its recommendations for solving Lake Erie’s harmful algal blooms in its 2014 final Lake Erie Ecosystem Priority (LEEP) report. FLOW’s comments to the IJC on its draft LEEP report (2013) urged state governments to apply public trust standards as a key strategy for restoring and protecting Lake Erie’s waters. FLOW congratulates the IJC for their forward-thinking approach, one that includes the public trust doctrine as a mechanism that extends beyond traditional regulations to eliminate the nutrient runoff loads causing of algal blooms.
Harmful algal blooms (HABs) – an issue once thought to be solved when legislation regulated public wastewater treatment facilities and outlawed phosphorus from soaps and detergents in the 1970s – created a “dead zone” the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined on Lake Erie in 2011. HABs emerge perennially in the summer months, and excrete toxins that pose hazards to swimmers, fish and fishers, boaters, tourists, and property owners. Under the premise that HABs interfere with these protected public water uses and impair water quality, state- and province-level officials can invoke the public trust and use it as a policy tool to achieve more aggressive reductions in phosphorus (and related nutrient) run-off from agriculture and municipal sewer operations in order to reduce and prevent future algal blooms.
In the final LEEP report, the IJC encourages states and provinces in the Great Lakes Basin to apply the public trust as a framework for future policy decisions in order to prevent and minimize harmful algal blooms (HABs) in Lake Erie. From the final LEEP report:
“The governments of Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Ontario should apply a public trust framework consisting of a set of important common law legal principles shared by both countries, as an added measure of protection for Lake Erie water quality; government should apply this framework as an added decision-making tool in policies, permitting and other proceedings…”
Functionally, the public trust guarantees each person as a member of the public the right to fish, boat, swim, and recreate in Lake Erie, and to enjoy the protection of the water quality and quantity of these waters, free of impairment. The effects of HABs – from “dead zones” that suffocate aquatic species, to toxic secretions that close beaches and pose health hazards to boaters, fishers, and swimmers – are clear violations of the public trust. Thus, as sworn guardians of the Great Lakes waters under the public trust, the states have a duty to take reasonable measures to restore the water quality and ensure that the public can fully enjoy their protected water uses.
“We applaud the IJC for its foresight and guidance on one of the greatest threats to the Great Lakes, and urge the states to immediately implement and evaluation actions necessary to address nutrient runoff problems,” says FLOW Founder Jim Olson. “The IJC’s sense of urgency and call for cooperation sets the tone for immediate action in reducing reactive phosphorus loading, aimed at the “hot spots” first,” he says.
“The call for a public trust framework recognizes a benchmark adopted by the courts of all eight Great Lakes states and Ontario,” he explains. “This benchmark means governments must act. They have an affirmative duty,” he says.
“It also means that all private interests involved with phosphorus management practices, farming, and the non profit organization sector must work together, because we share this common water held in public trust. Finally, it means that if the states, province, and those engaged activities that fall short of best practices or fail to reduce phosphorus by setting a limit for Lake Erie, then the citizens as legal beneficiaries may seek recourse to make sure that the continuing nuisance and interference with private and public uses of high value are protected,” he says.
FLOW has worked on the issue of public trust as it relates to HABs for several years. In 2011, Olson and Council of Canadians National Chairperson Maude Barlow authored and presented a report to the IJC on the application of public trust principles to the Great Lakes. In 2013, FLOW submitted comments to the IJC on their 2013 draft LEEP report that enumerated how the public trust framework can complement present regulations and cooperative efforts to prevent nutrient run-off from creating HABs in Lake Erie and elsewhere.
HABs are becoming an increasingly common problem in other Great Lakes regions including Green Bay, Saginaw Bay, and along some parts of the eastern shoreline of Lake Michigan. “Utilizing the public trust framework as a means for solving HABs in Lake Erie is just the first step,” says FLOW’s executive director, Liz Kirkwood. “Once the Lake Erie Basin states demonstrate the application and effectiveness of the public trust in solving HABs, it will be much easier for the rest of the Great Lakes Basin states to follow suit. This problem is not limited to Lake Erie.”
The IJC has taken a significant step to lead the governments and citizens and interested parties to a goal of reduced phosphorus loading of Lake Erie, to a point where the reactive devastating harm and public nuisance can be abated.