Tag: algal blooms

Faceoff over Farm Runoff Heads to Iowa Court

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.

Food and Water Watch, a national public interest organization, and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement have teamed up in Des Moines to file a lawsuit to force Iowa state officials and commissions for violating their duty to protect the Racoon River and the drinking water of 500,000 people.

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.

FLOW Comments on the Draft 2017 Lake Huron Lakewide Action and Management Plan

Line 5 Pipeline

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.  

You can read our full comments here.

FLOW Comments on Draft 2017 LAMP

Yes: Ohio farmers’ harvest depend on healthy waters, Toledo Blade

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.

Thanks to the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition (HOW Coalition) for sharing and supporting such an important issue!

Public Trust Doctrine Policy Framework Encouraged in Final LEEP Report

Click here to view and download the full press release as a PDF

February 27, 2014


Contact: Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director
liz@flowforwater.org 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.