Former FLOW board chair Skip Pruss delivered the following remarks — inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech — on January 12 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Grand Traverse.
By Skip Pruss
I have a dream where the urgency of the climate crisis becomes a unifying force, enabling all to recognize our mutual interests and independencies, and awakening the best within us to common purpose.
I have a dream that we realize that we cannot burn our way to a better world; that we, forthwith, enable a historic transformation to carbon free energy sources where energy producing technologies like wind and solar work with nature and not against it; and where infinite nature-based resources displace oil, gas and coal — which are finite and ecologically and climatically toxic.
I have a dream that government will someday soon be wise enough to account fully for the economic and ecological costs of activities that affect the planet when formulating and implementing public policy. And that government will recognize the value of maintaining the functionality, vitality, and resilience of natural systems.
I have a dream that we recognize the fragility and complexity of the biosphere and that we finally have the political will and wisdom to embrace the “precautionary principle” and enact laws informed by science, and policy informed by deeper knowledge and circumspection.
I have a dream that decisions will be made based upon how they will affect our children and future generations and that we recognize the importance of intergenerational equity and fully embrace the adage, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children.”
Lastly, I have a dream where we all embrace an ethic of respect for all living things and a conscious appreciation of the gifts that nature provides; that the earth’s biodiversity and abundant resources are appreciated for the multiple benefits and ecological services they provide; and that we will garner the wisdom and the will to cherish the natural world, repair what we have broken, and begin to restore what we have lost.
Watch the full video below (Skip Pruss begins speaking at 27:30):
An angler speaks with a DNR creel clerk. Photo courtesy Michigan DNR
By Tom Baird
Many Michiganders overlook a state agency critical to the environment.
When we talk about water issues in Michigan, we usually think of environmental protection, especially related to pollution and public health.We tend to forget that environmentalism was born out of the conservation movement of the early 20th century. Water issues remain central to the mission of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to this day.
Water was an integral aspect of the early conservation efforts of Michigan, often related to fish and game issues, as well as agriculture. The Department of Conservation was created in 1921, and the DNR took its place in 1965. Michigan’s early environmental laws were assigned to the DNR, but under Governor John Engler the Department was split, with environmental functions going to the Department of Environmental Quality (now Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, EGLE), allegedly because the environmental staff at the DNR was too zealous in its enforcement of the law.
The DNR still has an active water program, covering areas of major concern. Under the new administration of Governor Gretchen Whitmer, several of these areas have seen renewed focus. And the DNR has a Senior Water Policy Advisor, Dr. Tammy Newcomb, who oversees many of these efforts.
PFAS pollution is an area generally within the purview of EGLE and the Department of Health and Human Services. The DNR has an important role in assessing contamination of water bodies and the fish and game that use them. Recently “do not eat” advisories have been posted due to PFAS contamination on Clark’s Marsh and the Au Sable River near Oscoda and the Huron River, for example. The DNR is critical in determining how PFAS compounds work through an ecosystem, and its half-life in various species of fish. Michigan appears to be the only place in the world that has tested white-tailed deer for PFAS contamination, resulting in a “do not eat” advisory for venison near Oscoda. Much of this work has been controversial, especially in areas where hunting and fishing are integral to the local economy, but the DNR has pushed hard when public health was at risk.
Water withdrawals remain another controversial area of concern where the DNR is involved. Applicants for high-volume ground water withdrawal authorizations use the Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool (WWAT) to determine whether a withdrawal will have an adverse environmental effect. This is based on a computer model that assesses the effect on nearby streams. Those streams are classified, in part, by their temperature, flow, and the type of fish living in them. Cold-water trout streams, for example, are highly valued, so a relatively small adverse effect (compared to a sluggish warm water stream) might trigger a denial. The DNR is responsible for characterizing each stream’s type, and identifying the fish that live in it. Recent water withdrawals by Nestlé for bottled water and by Encana for fracking in northern Lower Michigan, and for agricultural irrigation in the southwestern part of the state, have caused significant controversies and litigation. The WWAT is under continuing review.
The Water Use Advisory Council is back in operation. Its purposes include the study of groundwater use in Michigan, and review of the scientific basis and implementation of the WWAT. As noted above, the DNR has an integral role to play, and Dr. Newcomb is the DNR’s delegate to the Water Use Advisory Council. Important work on the WWAT will continue in 2020.
Invasive species are a never-ending challenge for the Great Lakes. A major focus is Asian carp. Intensive negotiations are continuing with Illinois and federal authorities to block their migration into Lake Michigan. The goal is to engineer and finance the “Brandon Road Locks Project.”Brandon Road is a system connecting Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. It could allow carp to invade the Great Lakes. The project involves measures such as an engineered channel and acoustic fish deterrent, air bubbles, electric currents, improved locks with flushing systems, specialized boat ramps, and other measures. Negotiations with Illinois are ongoing, with the DNR keeping up the pressure.
Climate change is a major emerging threat to Michigan’s fish, wildlife, and state forests. Warming temperatures and severe weather events threaten rivers, lakes, and streams, and their fisheries. The DNR Fisheries Division has been studying the issue for several years now. At some point, difficult decisions will need to be made regarding management of these resources in the face of these climate effects. For example, some streams will warm to the point that they will not be viable habitats for trout, causing management objectives to change. This will be controversial due to its effect on anglers and local recreational economies, and the DNR will play a central role in deciding how to manage these resources in the face of these changes.
The Department of Natural Resources remains integral to the study and management of Michigan’s water issues.Monitoring its work is critical to assure healthy and productive habitats and sustainable water uses.
Tom Baird, who serves on FLOW’s board of directors, is past president of the Anglers of the Au Sable and chair of the group’s legal and governmental relations committees. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From left to right, panelists Alan Steinman, George Heartwell, Skip Pruss and Dave Dempsey. Photo by Liz Kirkwood
FLOW held a community engagement session at the Grand Rapids Public Library on Thursday, December 5, to make the economic case for government’s role in protecting human health and the environment—both nationally and locally.
The Grand Rapids event featured presentations by Pruss, as well as Alan Steinman, who directs Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute, former Grand Rapids mayor George Heartwell, and FLOW senior policy adviser Dave Dempsey. FLOW executive director Liz Kirkwood opened the engagement session with introductory remarks and closed it with a panel discussion.
Pruss spoke about his early career in government and highlighted the then-prevailing spirit of public service, and public support for and confidence in government’s high aspirations for implementing change. Examples of that change include building the interstate highway system, reaching the moon, launching the war on poverty, and fostering a nationwide public education system which was at one time the envy of the world. Landmark environmental laws passed approximately 50 years ago demonstrated the value of well-conceived governmental interventions. Since its enactment in 1970. economic health benefits related to the Clean Air Act are estimated at $22 trillion.
Paradoxically, despite significant achievements, public confidence in government has declined in recent decades, said Pruss, who argued in his “Resetting Expectations” briefs that government should support the renewable energies of tomorrow rather than the dirty fossil fuels of yesterday.
Without government subsidies, the oil and coal industries are going bankrupt: they no longer make good business sense. Meanwhile, a report by the White House Office of Management and Budget demonstrates that environmental regulations have the best cost-benefit ratio of any federal rules. Those regulations also help to level the playing field, and eliminate free riders who don’t abide by the rules.
Across the political spectrum, economists agree that positive externalities—activities that result in additional benefits for society—should be promoted, and negative externalities, which indicate market failure, should be avoided. Negative externalities impose “spillover” costs on society that are not included in the cost of production.
To emphasize his point, Pruss quoted Sir Nicholas Stern, who said that “Climate change is a result of the greatest market failure that the world has ever seen.”
“It’s not just the release of hazardous substances and soil and groundwater contamination and the impact to health and wildlife, it’s also the irreparable loss of these functions of this landscape,” said Pruss while sharing a searing image of the destruction of the Tar Sands region in Alberta, Canada. “The benefits of this landscape that are now gone for future generations. We can’t afford to do that.”
Government environmental protection and investments pay off at the local level, too, added Dr. Alan Steinman and former Grand Rapids mayor George Heartwell.
Steinman opened his presentation with an image of a West Michigan sunset over Lake Michigan, which he said shows how economic development and environmental protection go hand in hand. Steinman then contrasted images of Muskegon Lake as an industrial hub and now, as a favorite recreation spot.
Steinman worked 10 years ago on a project to stabilize Muskegon Lake’s shoreline—a project whose funding didn’t originally intend to highlight economic impacts, but whose cascading benefits included “when the insects came back, the fish came back, and when the fish came back, the people came back.”
Ecosystem restoration is generally considered a 3-to-1 return on investment, but the Muskegon Lake restoration yielded a 6-to-1 return.
Former Grand Rapids mayor George Heartwell started his presentation on an upbeat note: “Let me start with a modest proposition—mayors will save the world!” he boomed. “The work that’s done by cities, by progressive mayors, by visionary and innovative mayors will turn down the thermostat on global temperatures.”
While these superheroes are saving the world, they must also address extreme rain events, flooded sewers and common issues facing cities like Grand Rapids.
Heartwell narrated a Grand Rapids story that evolved from spilling billions of gallons of combined storm water and sewage overflow into the Grand River to separating storm and sanitary sewers and creating storm water treatment systems in neighborhood green spaces that also serve as amenities.
Heartwell shared a litany of steps that Grand Rapids has taken to improve the urban environment and mitigate against the effects of climate change.
“I know it sounds like a very small step toward saving the human species but green infrastructure in every city will at least save us from storm water and flooding damage and buy us the time we need to do other climate change mitigation.”
“If every city did what Grand Rapids is doing, life on our planet would survive, and the seventh generation would look back at us with gratitude.”
Dave Dempsey stressed the economic value of groundwater to Michigan and the huge costs of failing to protect it from contamination. About 45% of Michigan’s population gets its drinking water from groundwater sources and industry and agriculture also use considerable groundwater for manufacturing and irrigation. Yet a legacy of contamination has cost Michigan taxpayers over $1 billion in cleanup costs, and there are 6,000 more orphan sites—where no private source is available—that may require taxpayer money to clean up.
Dempsey said Michigan needs stronger groundwater protection policies to support Michigan job creation and reduce health risks from chemically contaminated water supplies.
Above photo: Jane Corwin, US Commissioner/Chair of the International Joint Commission, speaks at a public hearing in Traverse City on July 24, 2019. Photo by Rick Kane.
By Liz Kirkwood
Editor’s note: FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood was recently appointed to be a member of the International Joint Commission’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board.
Liz Kirkwood, FLOW Executive Director
My colleague and mentor, Dave Dempsey, knows almost everything there is to know about the Great Lakes. He’s encyclopedic, you could say. He’s authored over 10 books, including a classic one entitled Ruin and Recovery (University of Michigan Press, 2001).
It’s the cycle we here in the Great Lakes are all too familiar with.
The book tells a story of Michigan’s environmental ruin that began to worsen in the early 1900s, followed by the recovery that began in the 1970s as the public clamored for a clean environment.
It is amazing to imagine that over one hundred years ago, as lax water pollution standards led to the fouling of the Great Lakes, the US and Canadian governments had the vision and foresight to craft an international treaty to address boundary water management and disputes. Known as the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, this pact established the International Joint Commission (IJC) to serve as the advisor to both governments in preventing, arbitrating, and navigating water conflicts. Of the nine major water basins shared by the US and Canada, the Great Lakes is the largest and has global significance because it contains 20 percent of the planet’s fresh surface water.
In 1972, with increasing international water pollution, the US and Canada entered into the seminal Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA). The Agreement called for binational action by the governments to reduce phosphorus pollution and meet water quality goals. It also set up the Great Lakes Water Quality Board (WQB) to assist the IJC in watchdogging Great Lakes cleanup.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the IJC was considered the moral authority on Great Lakes issues, candidly assessing progress and problems. Thanks in part to the Water Quality Board, the commission made a lasting contribution to Great Lakes cleanup by defining 43 “areas of concern” (AOCs)—bays, harbors, and rivers with severe legacy contamination—that needed sustained commitment to be cleaned up. Over 30 years later, work continues on the AOCs, along with congressional funding of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI).
The work of the Water Quality Board continues, too. The 28-member board provides advice to the IJC for the benefit of the 40 million people who rely on the lakes for drinking water, sustenance, and way of life. The IJC recently appointed me to serve on the Board.
The Board represents the crossroads of the Great Lakes, bringing together diverse viewpoints from tribal leaders like Frank Ettawageshik and water affordability advocates like Monica Lewis-Patrick. It is a pleasure to serve with them and to problem solve how we can bring the Great Lakes community together to respond to old and new problems in the Basin. This work depends on developing key priorities and scientific goals to measure progress, coordinating strong and committed implementation among federal, state, and provincial environmental agencies, building stronger and new partnerships and alliances across these lakes, lifting up silenced voices to ensure water justice for all, and educating and empowering all peoples about the vital importance of protecting the health of our common waters.
It’s been almost 50 years since the two nations entered into the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, and during this time, we have watched rust-belt contaminated urban cores rebound and polluted ecosystems revived. But we also have witnessed a rollback of major federal environmental regulations and laws, the Flint lead crisis, Detroit water shutoffs, lack of investment and crumbling regional water infrastructure, lack of safe, affordable drinking water, wetland destruction, water privatization, legacy and emerging pollutants like PFAS, and unprecedented climate change impacts.
Our challenge in this new century, then, is to break the constant cycle of ruin and recovery, and replace it with sustained protection and prosperity. This is critical in the context of the climate crisis where we are testing the capacity of our ecosystems to rebound. Instead, we must imagine the future we want, where natural and human ecosystems can thrive and prosper together.
To do this, we must challenge traditional assumptions and ways of thinking. We must draw not only on science but also on traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) is a relational process for indigenous peoples that is built through experience and relationships that are difficult to incorporate into non-indigenous information systems and decision frameworks. We must design and enact bold policies that acknowledge the interconnectedness of human health, economic prosperity, and ecosystems.
With public trust doctrine protection, we can steward our waters as a shared public resource from one generation to the next and ensure multigenerational equity. Healthy economies and communities depend on healthy ecosystems. It’s as simple as that. The future of the Great Lakes depends on a vision and plan based on a water-economy that embraces a new water ethic at its center.
I am honored to serve on the Water Quality Board for the IJC and it is my great hope that we can work together to develop recommendations thattranslate into meaningful bi-national actions designed to protect the long-term health of the Great Lakes.
This is the second of four policy briefs by former FLOW board chair, and former director of the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth, Skip Pruss that make the economic case for government’s role in protecting the environment. FLOW will unveil the last two briefs in the coming months.
The health and well-being of our state, our country, and our planet are dependent on maintaining the productive capacity of nature and the services it provides. Though not widely recognized or acknowledged, “natural capital” and the services provided by healthy ecosystems have always been the foundation upon which societies thrive and prosper.
The relatively new science of ecological economics now provides the means of assessing and quantifying the value of natural capital and related ecological services. The science indicates that natural systems endow trillions of dollars of annual benefits that society overlooks and takes for granted, yet undergird all global economies. Determining the value of natural capital and the associated ecological services provides a means of measuring and understanding the economic value of the natural world. Accurate data and unbiased information about the value of nature and the services natural systems provide are essential to inform public policy and legislative action.
Although there are many human impacts that impair and diminish natural systems, reducing the value and economic efficiency of natural systems, no greater threat exists than the warming of the planet caused by the continued emission of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, primarily from the combustion of fossil fuels. Recent assessments indicate that greenhouse gas emissions will cause future damages of more than $50 trillion by 2050, and the economic burden will disproportionally fall on developing economies. Decarbonization of the global economy by transition to clean energy sources is imperative. The good news is that there is a clear consensus emerging that the energy transition is not only technically and economically feasible, but also that the global economic benefits from decarbonizing the global economy are substantial, including safeguarding the Great Lakes freshwater system from the worst effects of climate change. Government’s role in accelerating the energy transition is essential.
Michigan’s water resources are a rich source of natural capital and provide significant ecological services that will become more valuable over time. Our abundant water resources will increasingly weigh to Michigan’s competitive advantage, but more likely than not, Michigan will face future challenges from states that will be stressed by inadequate water supplies and from water-dependent agricultural, commercial, and industrial interests. Our legal and moral authority to resist appropriation of our water wealth will be a function of how adept and effective we are as Great Lakes stewards in the conservation and protection of our water.
In this, governance in Michigan is failing. The Flint water crisis is a stark lesson in the pitfalls of overriding and ignoring government standards intended to safeguard public health and safety. The PFAS crisis is attributable to the inadequacies of existing environmental laws, exacerbated by failed government leadership that ignored the findings and recommendations of the scientific professionals. Both the Flint crisis and PFAS concerns are incidents of a much larger systemic problem—groundwater contamination that is pervasive, yet is being ignored by policymakers and political leaders.
The water-related exigencies Michigan is experiencing call for broader application of the Public Trust Doctrine to reestablish and reaffirm government’s responsibility to protect and safeguard water resources for the benefit of the public. Recognizing the interdependence of natural systems and the importance and value of the ecological services that water resources provide, the Public Trust Doctrine must be applied aggressively and proactively to address conditions that have the potential to harm or impair commonly held water resources.
Report’s Key Facts
Science informs us that nature and natural systems endow trillions of dollars of annual benefits that society overlooks and takes for granted, yet undergird all global economies.
Though not widely recognized or acknowledged, “natural capital” and the services provided by healthy ecosystems have always been the foundation upon which societies thrive and prosper.
There is not only an absence of tension between environmental protection and economic performance, but in fact, the health of the environment and long-term economic growth and prosperity are mutually dependent and inextricably interconnected.
Although there are many human impacts that impair and diminish natural systems reducing the value and economic efficiency of natural systems, no greater threat exists than the warming of the planet caused by the continued emission of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, primarily from the combustion of fossil fuels.
Recent assessments indicate that greenhouse gas emissions will cause future damages of more than $50 trillion by 2050 and the economic burden will disproportionally fall on developing economies.
Climate changes predicted for the Great Lakes Region include increased precipitation with a larger percentage of annual rainfall occurring in heavy precipitation events causing flooding, increasing soil erosion and nutrient loadings to tributary streams and rivers.More precipitation will also increase the frequency and amount of sewage overflows and further the propagation of algae, including cyanobacteria resulting in declining water quality and beach health.
Warmer lake water temperatures will affect the distribution of fish by advantaging warm-water species over cold-water species, change aquatic plants and benthic communities, and accelerate eutrophication.
Decarbonization of the global economy by transition to clean energy sources including safeguarding the Great Lakes freshwater system from the worst effects of climate change is imperative.The good news is that there is a clear consensus emerging that the energy transition is not only technically and economically feasible, the economic benefit of the global energy transition would range from $65-160 trillion by 2050.
Safeguarding water resources and the ecological services they provide will become more challenging in a world where rising demand encounters growing water scarcity.
Escalating future demand and competition for water resources, intensified by a warming climate, will enhance the value of Great Lakes water, potentially increasing the chasm between the water rich and water poor.
Policymakers must come to recognize the importance of applying the Public Trust Doctrine to modern societal needs, the imperatives of evolving science, and to ensure water equity.
FLOW advocates for an expanded application of the Public Trust Doctrine to act as a shield for protecting water resources against activities that would reduce the quantity or quality of water or threaten to diminish or reduce the value of the ecological services the waters provide to the public.
Government’s Role in Protecting Human Health and the Environment
Since the 1970s, history has shown that government interventions requiring protection for human health and the environment through more stringent environmental laws have not only improved baseline conditions of our environment like air and water quality, but have also improved overall economic conditions. These studies, some of which were described in the first policy brief in this series, demonstrate the economic value of government-mandated protective standards by quantifying the benefits of protections aimed at improving public health and safeguarding the environment, as well as the high cost to the economy and public health of failing to protect the environment through adequate regulation.
Our politics fail to take into account the overwhelming benefits accruing to the public by the protections and safeguards effectuated by environmental standards. Though the political narrative has recently evolved to the point where some political leaders publicly acknowledge that there is “no conflict between economic performance and environmental protection” recognizing that society can have both, the reality, clearly found in the relatively new field of environmental economics, is that economic prosperity, indeed the world’s economies, are ultimately dependent on protecting the planet and the valuable resources that well-balanced natural systems provide. In economic terms, there is not only an absence of tension between environmental protection and economic performance, but in fact, the health of the environment and long-term economic sustainability and prosperity are mutually dependent and inextricably interconnected.
It is imperative that political leaders, policymakers, and citizens come to understand this critical association.
A standing-room only crowd in excess of 200 people—the largest on the IJC tour so far—voiced its concerns for threats to the Great Lakes: Enbridge Line 5, nuclear waste storage, invasive species, bottled water, plastics and privatization, and harmful algal blooms.But the most threatening concern, one that drives or is exacerbated by the others, was the elephant in the room: the unprecedented record high water levels, which are causing havoc throughout the Great Lakes region.
To get to the IJC listening session, I decided to walk from my office, a normally direct path along East Front Street to the steps leading down through the memorial to Dr. Jim Hall and his son Dr. Tom Hall’s memorial—fitting given their constant work and passion for water and conservation—to the walkway along the Boardman River and under Grandview Parkway.It’s typically a 5-minute jaunt to the resort.But on this day an orange warning sign stopped me: The river overflowed the walkway with more than six inches of water. So I backtracked and dodged the rush hour traffic on the Parkway to the opposite side, and made my way to the meeting.
Photo: The Boardman River washes over the boardwalk in downtown Traverse City in July 2019.
Historical water level records for the Great Lakes show a general span of around 30 years from a significant low-level to high-level period.This year’s swing to a record high-water level in June from a record low-water level in 2013 took only six years.This year’s precipitation in Traverse City is trending 10-percent above the average rainfall so far. Farm fields, homes, businesses, and coastal communities are flooded.Shorelines are gone or shrinking, while erosion, more sediments, and high-water levels have destroyed homes and public beaches or infrastructure. Recent reports on the climate change impacts in the Great Lakes Basin project a 30-percent increase in precipitation, or an increase of nine inches a year or a total of 43 to 44 inches annually in Traverse City.If the current record high 10-percent increase is already wreaking havoc, what will happen when the increase is tripled?
Climate Change already impacting the Great Lakes system
The startling hydrological effects of climate change already are causing significant impacts to the Great Lakes, tributaries, their shores, and communities.These effects and impacts only will worsen as the water balance and quality begin to change because of the changes in the hydrologic cycle and watersheds, threatening massive destruction of natural resources and human habitats. It will amount to billions, if not trillions, of dollars in damage—perhaps the closure of Chicago’s fabled lakeshore trail and other waterfronts, the closure of water-dependent nuclear power plants, wetlands-turned-lakes, floodplains-turned-wetlands, flooded farmlands useless for crops, overwhelmed public water and sewer infrastructure. The list goes on and on—shoreline property damage, loss of beaches for swimming, health threats from flooded sewage, failed stormwater and erosion infrastructure, damage to state park and other public harbor and shoreline facilities, and runoff from contaminated properties all flowing into the Great Lakes.
How will people, communities, businesses, and natural systems cope with these water flows, levels, and loss of coastline, property, infrastructures, and public and private uses?All I had to do to make the meeting was dodge through traffic on Grand View Parkway.No big deal, right?Will the affected interests simply accept the loss and adjust, paying the millions or billions to adapt infrastructure and facilities or private homes? Will the governments fund adaptation programs to move or redesign harbor and waterfront facilities and other infrastructure?Will governments here and across the world revisit the Paris Climate accord, and finally reduce greenhouse gases along with massive expenditures to adapt and become resilient, necessary because reduction of greenhouse gases will only mitigate not prevent the oncoming damage?According to the most recent October 2018 Report from the UN International Panel on Climate Change, nations, states, and people have only a decade to take every possible action to stem and reduce the inevitable effects and impacts of climate change.
Climate Change pushing legal and policy frameworks to the limit
In addition to the oncoming harm and untold damage, the legal and policy regimes that protect the Great Lakes, and which all of us in the Basin and beyond support, are threatened—pressed to their limits is more like it. These include the Boundary Waters Treaty that set up the IJC in 1909 to protect water levels and prevent pollution of the Great Lakes; the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement that safeguards ecosystems, water quality, health, and recreation; and the Great Lakes Compact and a parallel agreement among the Great Lakes states and the provinces of Ontario and Quebec.
For example, the 1909 Treaty prohibits diversions out of four of the five Great Lakes that affect water levels without a rigorous review and approval by the IJC commissioners (Lake Michigan is not an international water even though, hydrologically, Lakes Huron and Michigan are one lake).We think of “diversions” as human-made transfers of water into or from a river or lake (sometimes groundwater) system from a dam, reversal of a river, a pipeline, or a drainage canal–such as the Chicago diversion out of Lake Michigan waters to the Mississippi River, or the Long Lac and Ogaki-Lake Nipigon diversions into Lake Superior that would otherwise flow to Hudson Bay, or Erie Canal out of Lake Erie across New York to the east coast. In each instance, the IJC, guided by water-level study boards, determines the effect on the levels of the Great Lakes to prevent adverse impacts to ecosystems, harbors, shipping, fisheries, public infrastructure, hydroelectric dams, recreation, and riparian public and private property.
But extreme changes in climate from the failure to reduce greenhouse gases now threaten to remove water into or out of the Basin far beyond what the IJC typically controls. Climate change or the Anthropocene was not on anyone’s mind when the Treaty was signed in 1909.The drought and record low levels 6 years ago diverted more water out of the lakes and this year’s increasing precipitation and record high levels are as much of a diversion affecting levels as a dam, canal, or pipeline. Unlike proposals to divert water on one side of the international boundary, these extreme weather events whipsaw the lakes and their ecosystems, causing serious ecological, infrastructure, property and economic damage on both sides of the border.
Climate Change is a diversion of water
For another example, the Great Lakes Compact bans human-made diversions of surface and groundwater outside the Great Lakes surface divide or boundary. The purpose of the ban is to protect the waters to assure a sustained quality of life and economy within the Basin.There are only a few narrow exceptions—diversions necessary for public water supplies in communities or counties that straddle the Basin with the requirement of treated return flow, emergency and humanitarian single-objective proposals, and the so-called “bottled-water loophole.”The Compact defines a diversion as a “withdrawal of water by human or mechanical means that is transferred from the waters in the Basin to a watershed outside of the Basin”—including the attempt of the Nova Group in 1999 to ship 156 million gallons of lake water a year in a tanker transport to China, the failed attempt several decades ago to divert water from Lake Michigan to the coal fields of Wyoming, or the oft-feared pipeline or diversion down the Mississippi River to save the Southwest or Ogallala Aquifer from overuse and drought.
But what is the difference if human-made mechanical means or uses heat up the atmosphere, which increase evaporation and precipitation, affects the jet stream, and whiplashes areas of the planet between drought and deluge? If we look at the water cycle as a single hydrologic system, which it is, the Great Lakes are an arc of the whole water cycle. We life in a hydrosphere. What happens to one arc of the cycle affects the water levels in the other arcs.Climate change is as much a diversion of water into and out of the Great Lakes Basin as any other human conduct.
Fortunately, both the IJC in its charge to protect water levels and prevent pollution under the Treaty of 1909 and the Council of Great Lakes Governors and Regional Body (governors of eight Great Lakes states and premiers of the provinces of Ontario and Quebec) are aware of the effects and impacts of the climate crisis, and have at least advisory, quite possibly regulatory, authority to address the threats of climate change to the Great Lakes.It would be irresponsible and impossible for any of these governing boards to ignore the effects of climate change on water level or water quality decisions that affect the waters of the Great Lakes Basin in the future. The IJC already has issued a report and warning on the coming effects from extreme weather; sections of the Compact require that direct and cumulative effects from climate change be taken into account, including authority to modify interpretations and application of the principles and standards.
The ban and narrow restrictions on diversions are premised on the fact that the Great Lakes and tributary waters are essentially non-renewable; that is, based on the historic normal ranges of highs and low levels of the Great Lakes, there is really no water to spare for diversions elsewhere.While this may hold true for the normal range of flows and levels in the Basin and its watersheds, it will not hold true for unprecedented increases in flows and levels, such as the highs experienced this year. Strangely, there is suddenly too much water, and it is directly attributable to climate change.If the Compact is designed to keep water in the Basin from demands from regions experiencing drought or water scarcity outside the Basin, what happens when the effects and impacts of climate change push water levels above normal flows and levels and cause or threatens devastating ecological, economic, infrastructure, and public health impacts and losses?Should water be diverted or in-flows reduced or reversed on an emergency basis? If so, on what terms, when, and for how long?
In short, there is not only an ecological crisis, but also a law and policy crisis, and there is an urgent need for action.
The Boundary Water Treaty of 1909
The Boundary Water Treaty vests authority in the IJC to regulate and take other actions, such as reviewing actions that affect water levels and preparing and publishing references, reports, and guidelines to protect and manage Great Lakes water flows and levels (quantity) and pollution (quality); the Treaty prohibits any diversion “affecting the natural level or flow” of water unless authorized by both countries and through the IJC. The Treaty also specifically recognizes that our international boundary waters are a shared commons to be kept and managed for navigation, travel, fishing, hydropower, and other public and private uses and enjoyment for public and private purposes consistent with the principles of the Treaty and laws of both countries.
The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1972, 1978, 1987, and 2012
The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) charges both countries—Canada and the United States—with a responsibility to protect the water quality of the Great Lakes from substances caused by human activity that adversely affect aquatic life; prevent debris, oil, scum and other substances that impair water quality and uses; and protect these waters and ecosystems against nuisance and toxic substances. The GLWQA also has established a protocol to address the existing and emerging effects from water flows and levels, including the significant increases in flows and levels from climate change. According to a former Senior Policy Advisor to the IJC, “this is critical because the IJC’s mandate is the only place where both water quantity and water quality come together in the Great Lakes Basin.”
The U.S. Common Law Public Trust Doctrine or Canada’s Right of Navigation and Fishing Doctrine
The legal regimes of both countries recognize a government obligation based on trust principles to protect navigation, boating, fishing, drinking water and sustenance, and related uses of the navigable waters within their countries and states or provinces. This trust protects these uses from interference or impairment, now and for future generations. The public trust doctrine provides a practical tool to evaluate and guide decision-making based on the existing and emerging effects from hydrogeological and land use watershed systems. The public trust standards that protect the waters and public and private uses from impairment provide the legal framework and process to embrace complex scientific evidence and to craft transboundary policy solutions that contemplate dynamic climate effects and various climate scenarios.
Over the past five years, the IJC has recognized and recommended implementation and application of the public trust doctrine as a framework or “backstop” set of principles to address the growing harms and threatened impact and impairment to the waters, ecosystem, and human use and enjoyment of the Great Lakes. These include the IJC’s 2014 Lake Erie report on Lake Erie algal blooms, the 2015 IJC 15-Year Review on Protection of the Great Lakes, and the 2017 Triennial Assessment of Progress under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.All three reports warn us of the “looming” threat to water quality, water resources, health, and quality of life in the Basin. And the Compact declares that the “waters of the Basin are precious public natural resources held in trust,” and are part of an “interconnected single hydrologic system.”
Click here to read FLOW’s full proposal formally submitted today to the International Joint Commission calling for an emergency pilot study. Click here to read a summary.
High Lake Michigan water levels have overwhelmed popular beaches, such as this one at East Bay Park at the base of East Grand Traverse Bay. Photo by Holly Wright.
By Dave Dempsey and Jim Olson
This spring, water levels on all five of the Great Lakes have reached, or are approaching, record highs.The result of unusually high winter and spring precipitation, increased winter ice cover and reduced evaporation, these new highs are the latest in a never-ending series of Great Lakes level fluctuations.The levels have typically fluctuated by as much as 7 feet in recent geologic times. However, studies show that climate change is causing or contributing to more rapid swings between high and low water levels.Just six years ago, Great Lakes levels were below normal, and in some portions of the Great Lakes watershed, citizens clamored for new underwater structures to hold back water in an attempt to boost upstream water artificially.
Now the problem is high water, which creates several concerns:
The residences of lakeshore property owners may be at risk of foundational erosion, flooding and even toppling into the lake.
Coastal infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, is vulnerable to erosion damage and destruction.
Public access to the shoreline may be limited, both because of inundation of prime publicly-owned coastal land and because high water will intrude beyond the ordinary or naturalhigh-water mark, the limit of access adjacent to private property.
Taxpayers may be asked to pay the bill for erosion control, moving of structures away from the lake, and/or damages.
In a recent article published in The Conversation (an online magazine devoted to “academic rigor and journalistic flair”), University of Michigan scientists Drew Gronewald and Richard Roodsay they “believe rapid transitions between extreme high and low water levels in the Great Lakes represent the ‘new normal.’ Our view is based on interactions between global climate variability and the components of the regional hydrological cycle. Increasing precipitation, the threat of recurring periods of high evaporation, and a combination of both routine and unusual climate events – such as extreme cold air outbursts – are putting the region in uncharted territory.”
Supporting their observations, water levels have also tumbled dramatically in the last several decades.In 1998-99, the water levels of Lakes Michigan and Huron dropped 25 inches in 12 months.
The public often asks whether governments can do something to raise or lower levels.But the fact is that human engineering can do little in this regard.While there are laws for setting or modifying inland lake levels, increasing outflow from one lake to the next often has a ripple effect downstream. The problem will only worsen with increased precipitation and water levels now experienced in the Great Lakes region. Similarly, manipulation of water level control structures to address lower water levels can, in turn, lower any one of the lakes only a few inches. Only one percent of the volume of the Great Lakes flows out of the system annually. Far bigger influences are precipitation and evaporation.
Members of the public also ask whether they can still walk the beach when water levels are above the ordinary or high-water mark that defines the boundary between state ownership and private riparian ownership. As a practical matter, the public should still be able to enjoy a right to walk the beach and shores of the Great Lakes—provided it is safe—so long as they remain in the zone along the water’s edge that is wet or compacted by recent wave and other natural forces of nature.
The International Joint Commission (IJC) observes, “Unlike oceans, where tides are constant and predictable, water levels on the Great Lakes can vary significantly in frequency and magnitude making them difficult to accurately predict.” A US-Canada treaty body, the IJC is responsible for maintaining control structures at Sault Ste. Marie, Niagara Falls and the meeting point of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.
A popular misconception is that warming temperatures associated with climate change will significantly lower Great Lakes water levels. But the effect of climate change on these levels is unclear. Warmer air holds more moisture, leading to an increasing number of heavy rain and snow storms. In fact, some models predict rising Great Lakes levels as a result of climate change.
To minimize our contribution to climate change and to protect our Great Lakes ecosystem, we should reduce our use of fossil fuels and we should push our elected leaders to act on climate change. However, given that human effort can do relatively little to alter quickly-changing Great Lakes water levels, adaptation should be our societal response.
When I sat down to finish this post this morning on the news about Michigan’s agreement with Enbridge to consider replacing an aging, dangerous Line 5 crude oil pipeline through the Great Lakes basin, I realized that what I should really be writing about is yesterday’s dire warning by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (www.ipcc.ch/) that if citizens, countries, communities, and businesses don’t act to reduce carbon dioxide levels by 45 percent before 2030, the world will tilt over the brink of massive destruction. We’ve been warned that the earth’s temperature must not increase more than 2 degrees C by 2050. Now scientists urge countries and citizens to mount an unprecedented historical shift in human actions to reduce that limit to 1.5 degrees C by 2030. If we do not engage in this historical shift, we but more so our children and grandchildren, will suffer untold loss. The narrative is clear: Future survival and prosperity are now dependent on enlightened water and energy policies; they are inseparable.
The IPCC report concludes that, “There is no documented historic precedent” for the scale of social and technical change that must occur for the world to survive. How ironic that our Governor and state agencies, with the advice of our Attorney General, signed a second agreement with Enbridge Energy last week to assure continued use of an aged, dangerous Line 5 in the Straits, and to propose a possible replacement tunnel in 7 to 10 years that would transport light and heavy tar sands crude for the next 99 years. Michigan should not be thinking about building a tunnel for Enbridge in the next decade, we should be taking immediate action to slash fossil fuel consumption by 45 percent.
Climate change aside, Michigan faces a serious risk of disaster from the aged, and failing original design of Line 5 in the Straits. To make sure we immediately address this risk, there are some critical realities beneath the rhetoric about the agreement that must be understood and avoided. If these realities are not avoided, Michigan citizens, communities, and businesses will face two disasters—(1) the intensity of catastrophic extreme weather from climate change and (2) an oil spill from Line 5 that would wreak massive irreparable damage and loss to Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, our drinking water, ecosystem, and economy.
This is not about meeting Michigan’s needs. Our leaders signed an agreement with recitals of fact claiming that “the continued operation of Line 5… serves important public needs by providing substantial volumes of propane to meet the needs of… citizens… and transporting essential hydrocarbon products, including oil to Michigan and regional refineries.” In fact, a number of modest adjustments would deliver propane via truck, train, or 4-inch-diameter pipeline to meet the needs of our rural residents. In fact, the existing pipeline network across southern Michigan and from Pennsylvania, Ohio, and the southern U.S. will meet the crude oil needs of Michigan and regional refineries. There are sensible, less costly alternatives within this existing pipeline network that render the need for Line 5 or a tunnel under the Straits imprudent and unnecessary. A number of independent studies, including FLOW’s, and the London Economics International (LEI) have come to this same conclusion: decommissioning Line 5 is not only economically feasible but is the best alternative because it would protect Michigan’s waters and natural resources, and it would have no noticeable impact on Michigan’s economy.
Enbridge’s pledge to operate consistent with its easement cannot be trusted. The agreement contains a recital that Enbridge “continues to operate and maintain such pipelines [dual 20-inch lines in the Straits] consistent with the terms of the  Easement as part of Line 5.” In fact, the state and other organizations and reports have proven that Enbridge has violated its obligations in the Easement to prevent scouring of lakebed beneath the pipeline designed to lay on the bottom of the Straits, to exercise prudence in order to prevent harm to public and private property, and to provide financial assurances, among others. Unfortunately, it appears our State leaders would rather weaken the State’s ability to enforce the 1953 Easement.
Near-term safety measures don’t address Line 5’s failing design. The agreement contains a recital that “near-term measures to enhance the safety of Line 5, and the longer-term measure—the replacement of Dual Pipelines—can essentially eliminate the risk of adverse impacts that may result from a potential release from Line 5 in the Straits.” However, those “near-term” measures will not address the failing design of the 65-year-old oil pipelines in the Straits. The State has allowed Enbridge to install 150 anchors, with a request for 48 more, to elevate the dual lines above the lakebed as a “repair” or “maintenance” because the original, “as built” design failed to account for the scouring of lakebed under the lines. The installation of anchors elevating the lines above the lake bed constitutes a totally new or changed design of these dual lines. Worrisome currents and natural forces have pulled some of the anchors from the lakebed. Worse, the design has never been evaluated or authorized by state agencies, as required by the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act (GLSLA) and Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA). So an unauthorized, aged line will continue to operate while a longer-term tunnel will be proposed and discussed and built, if at all, in 7 to 10 years. Quite a deal for Enbridge. The company gets to run a pipeline with a failing design full-tilt in exchange for a promise to talk about the idea of a tunnel, if at all, sometime in the future. In effect, by allowing Line 5 to continue in the Straits, the agreement mostly ignores the high-risk of an oil spill causing an estimated $2 to $6 billion in damages to more than 400 miles of shoreline across upper Lake Huron and Lake Michigan.
The State cannot truthfully say the agreement protects public trust resources. The State agreed to a recital that “the terms of the Second Agreement will both protect the ecological and natural resources held in public trust…” Agreements to locate or allow occupancy of pipelines or other structures on, under, or through the bottomlands of the Great Lakes require authorization under the GLSLA. Until the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality determines that the location or occupancy of a tunnel will not promote primarily a private purpose or not impair the public trust in Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, the agreement cannot even be implemented. Why not just require Enbridge to decide for itself what it wants to do, and demand the company apply for the required determinations under the rule of law of the GLSLA? Unfortunately, State officials signed an agreement that circumvents this rule of law and deprives the public of notice, participation, and their legal right that the State enforce our laws to protect the public trust and welfare of our communities and citizens. If the law would be followed, the Second Agreement would not have ignored the independent studies; instead, the agreement appears to favor the self-serving studies commissioned by Enbridge.
The agreement commits the state to a new Line 5 segment under the St. Clair River without any environmental review. Paragraph B of the Agreement authorizes Enbridge to replace the segment of Line 5 under the St. Clair River with a new horizontal directional drilled (HDD) pipeline. In fact, the State agreed to allow Enbridge to make a substantial investment in this segment, tacitly confirming the continued existence of Line 5 for decades to come. How can our State officials commit to a new tunnel under the St. Clair River without considering and determining the risk sand alternatives to the entire length of Line 5, including the Straits? The law prohibits breaking up projects into little pieces to avoid full review of the risks, dangers, potential damages, and alternatives that would eliminate those risks. However, our State leaders allowed Enbridge to skirt the legal requirements that it must prove no more than minimal potential harm and no alternative to Line 5 (even though studies demonstrate that other alternatives exist and Line 5 is not necessary).
The State and Enbridge mistakenly claim the agreement provides for a “replacement” of the dual pipelines with an alternative Straits Tunnel in 7 to 10 years. In fact, there is no agreement or obligation for Enbridge to do anything: In paragraph I.F, state officials and Enbridge only agreed “to promptly pursue further agreements…” for “a replacement for the Dual Pipelines” in the Straits segment of Line 5. This means that Enbridge can decide not to agree to a replacement and continue operating the existing high-risk dual lines in the Straits indefinitely. It also means the State has ignored the legal requirement that Enbridge must first prove there are no alternatives to Line 5 in the Straits and Great Lakes under the GLSLA.
Paragraph I.G. of the agreement proposes a “Straits Tunnel” that is a corridor for a new Line 5 under the Straits for at least another 99 years. It is only a “proposal” and Enbridge and the State only agreed to “initiate discussions… to negotiate a public-private partnership agreement with the Mackinac Bridge Authority for locating the Straits Tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac. This means, Enbridge does not have to reach an agreement for a Straits Tunnel at all, but can continue operating the existing dual lines in the Straits indefinitely. It also means that a future “public-private partnership” (PPP) agreement will be negotiated with Enbridge and the Mackinac Bridge Authority. What exactly is a PPP?
There is no definition of what is meant by a “public-private partnership” agreement among the State, the Authority, and Enbridge. But PPPs are a flashing red warning light. PPPs substitute and favor private corporations with obligations to generate profits for shareholders for government or other publicly owned systems that by law are obligated to deliver services to the general public at cost. PPPs often involve property transfers, long term leases, and other agreements turning over public control of public lands and facilities to private interests. PPPs can be required to indemnify the government and public from liability for damages, but these agreements are often underfunded and do not supplant the liability of the state or a public body like the Mackinac Bridge Authority.
The Mackinac Bridge Authority was created by the legislature in 1952 for the sole purpose of constructing the Mackinac Bridge for the people of Michigan and the public to enjoy vehicular travel between the two peninsulas. The bridge was, and is, a public project for the traveling and motoring public. The bridge authority law does not authorize construction of a new tunnel for a privately owned pipeline company or privately owned electric utility, simply because a state utility board gives them a certificate of public convenience. These companies have an obligation to generate profits and dividends for their stockholders. The Bridge Authority has an obligation to preserve the fiscal and physical integrity of the Mackinac Bridge for the general public.
There is no requirement to shut down Line 5. In paragraph H.I there is a provision for the deactivation of the existing Line 5 in the Straits. However, it is not required unless Enbridge agrees to a tunnel, constructs one, and opens it for operation. Until that happens, there is no requirement for shutting down Line 5 in the Straits; the high risk of the aged, failing design will continue indefinitely into the future.
Enbridge’s financial assurance is at best vague and inadequate, at worst a sham. In paragraph I.J., Enbridge is supposed to provide a combination of assets and general liability insurance policies to cover a worst-case scenario risk assessment that estimates $1.878 billion in damages. In fact, another independent damage report puts the number at $6 billion, so the state accepted assurances at the low end of the range of estimated damages. Further, the estimated coverage is not adjusted for inflation over the next 10 years, and general liability policies often contain pollution exclusions that do not cover clean-up costs, restoration costs, and associated natural resource damages.
It appears the state has surrendered the water resources and pocketbook of the State and its taxpayers to Enbridge on flimsy financial assurance provisions. In paragraph I.J, the state also agreed that “Enbridge’s compliance with the requirements under this Paragraph I.J. satisfies its financial assurance obligations specified under Paragraph J of the  Easement.” In short, the State has waived its leverage to enforce the financial assurance obligation in the current Easement.
Jim Olson, President and Legal Advisor
So, here we are in a world facing a “historically unprecedented” challenge to rapidly reduce greenhouse gases, and Michigan has signed a mostly non-binding agreement for the possibility of a tunnel in 2028, the same time-frame that the state and country must slash its fossil fuel consumption by 45 percent. From an eagle’s eye view, Michigan energy policy is to foster the expansion, of production and consumption of crude oil and increase in greenhouse gases at a time when the world is on the brink. From a fiscal point of view, the agreement commits the State to an investment in a tunnel and continued high risk of catastrophic damages or loss from the existing Line 5, at a time when most likely the world and national markets for fossil fuels will decrease, likely to the point that the pipe dream for a tunnel will never happen, or if it does, the State and its taxpayers will end up with an obsolete and unaffordable relic. One way or another, citizens will suffer harm, and taxpayers will suffer loss under an Agreement that favors Enbridge, not Michigan.
In an end-run around the public participation process they established, Governor Rick Snyder and Enbridge, Inc., the owner and operator of Line 5, are exploring the possibility of building a $500 million tunnel to replace the stretch of 65 year-old Line 5 pipeline that runs under the Straits of Mackinac.
While a tunnel, properly designed and engineered, may be able to prevent harm in the event of a pipeline breach under Lake Michigan, there are compelling reasons why a tunnel should not be built.
First, the five-mile segment of a tunnel running under the Straits of Mackinac represents less than 1 percent of Line 5’s total length of 645 miles. Long segments of this aging infrastructure run parallel to the Lake Michigan coast in the Upper Peninsula, crossing 400 rivers and streams that are tributary to Lake Michigan and numerous other water bodies. Records from the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration indicate that in the last 50 years, there have been at least 29 spills along the length of Line 5 outside of the Straits, resulting in the release of over 1 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids.
The threats to our freshwater lakes and streams will escalate over time as the other 640 miles of Line 5 age and degrade.
Second, aside from the fact that Line 5 crosses Michigan largely to serve markets outside our state, a tunnel for Line 5 is a fundamentally unsound investment – one that is unneeded, economically imprudent, and may soon be functionally obsolete.
Major new pipeline infrastructure investments assume the continued demand for transportation fuels. But our fossil fuel-based economy is in transition and will be completely transformed within the coming decades.
Recent petroleum sector forecasts by firms specializing in energy trends like Bloomberg, Navigant, and Goldman Sachs, predict that the transition to electric vehicles will accelerate quickly with a corresponding, precipitous drop in the demand for transportation fuels.
The world’s major auto manufacturers are validating these predictions. General Motors, VW, Volvo, and others are making clear that petroleum-free electric drivetrains will dominate their future manufacturing investments and that future product offerings will not use transportation fuels.
At the same time, sovereign nations are intent on extinguishing demand for petroleum. England, France, Norway, Netherlands, Slovenia, India and China have announced their intentions to ban future sales and, in some cases, the use of vehicles with internal combustion engines. Ireland has gone even further, announcing that it will divest its sovereign interest in all oil, gas and coal.
And while Enbridge boasts that it transports 63 percent of all Canadian oil to the United States, Big Oil sees the writing on the wall. Seven international oil companies – Exxon Mobil, Conoco Phillips, Statoil, Koch Industries, Marathon, Imperial Oil and Royal Dutch Shell – will not need Enbridge’s future pipeline services as they have announced that they are writing off tar sand assets in Alberta.
The confluence of these trends will result in demand for transportation fuels declining precipitously, rendering a Line 5 tunnel project a costly albatross.
Third, climate change is the elephant in the room. Continued investment in fossil fuel infrastructure is fundamentally at odds with the global consensus on the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The findings of our National Climate Assessment are unambiguous – decarbonization of the global economy is an imperative, entailing a “fundamental transformation of the global energy system” to one that is no longer dependent on fossil fuels. As the need to address climate change becomes more acute, new pipelines proposals will be met with the scrutiny they deserve.
Finally, we should all be able to agree that there are exceptional places and natural features that are deserving of special protections. Just as we would not allow a foreign corporation to build a tunnel under the Grand Canyon, the Great Lakes should be off limits to fossil fuel infrastructure.
Our Great Lakes are a globally-unique natural resource, the largest interconnected freshwater system in the world, containing 84 percent of all surface water in North America. Recognizing that certain natural resource endowments are invaluable and irreplaceable gifts of nature, both state and federal law already prohibit all oil and gas development, even if done laterally from inland areas.
Skip Pruss, FLOW Chair
Building a tunnel to perpetuate Line 5 makes little economic or environmental sense. The decisions we make about how to use and protect our freshwater seas will ultimately be judged on whether they do or do not protect the ecological, social, cultural, and economic interests of future generations.
Simply put, our Great Lakes merit extraordinary protection, and their bottomlands must be off limits to oil and gas pipelines.
FLOW’s organizing principle is the public trust doctrine. What sounds like an exotic concept is quite simple. This centuries-old principle of common law holds that there are some resources, like water and submerged lands that by their nature cannot be privately owned. Rather, these commons – including the Great Lakes — belongs to the public. And governments, like the State of Michigan, have a responsibility to protect public uses of these resources. We explicitly address public trust concerns on what we’re calling Public Trust Tuesday.
The words “public trust” appear in many news and social media articles these days, and the meanings of the phrase often overlap as they should.
First, for those who follow FLOW’s mission and work or the news about the world water crisis, there is the public trust in our bodies of water, like our lakes and streams, or the groundwater that replenishes them. This is known as the public trust doctrine, an ancient principle in our common law that imposes an affirmative duty on government officials to protect the paramount rights of citizens concerning fishing, aquatic wildlife and habitat, boating, swimming, and access to safe and affordable drinking water. A breach of this public trust duty is legally enforceable when government fails to act or acts in a way that interferes with these rights or impairs these waters and uses. Government cannot sell off the bottomlands and waters of the Great Lakes, for instance, for a purely private purpose or gain. Government can’t authorize a landowner to fill in the bottomlands of a lake for a permanent private deck, because it would exclude the right of the public to the use of the surface of the lake for these protected public trust rights and uses. A private cabin owner can’t fence a stream and block fly fishers from wading and casting for fish. Cities can’t divert a tributary stream that impairs a downstream navigable lake. A federal judge in Oregon recently ruled that the public trust in bodies of water can force the government from dragging its feet to implement the reduction of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, which contributes to global warming, and extreme weather that interferes with or harms citizens’ right to drinking water, fishing, swimming, and boating.
Second, public trust refers to a public official’s conflict of interest or self-dealing, or breach of governmental office. This most often means an official in her or his official capacity uses that capacity to help approve a business contract for a partner or family member. Or, it might mean an official takes a bribe to vote for a lobbyist’s pet project or to influence an agency to grant a permit for a land development, mall, or perhaps a new urban water infrastructure deal that forces local governments to go along with privatizing the water services system, because the city can’t raise the taxes or collect enough user fees to fix a broken system or find a new water source.
Third, there have been charges of breach of public trust over state and federal agencies’ callous inaction or deliberate indifference toward the health and well-being of citizens– that is, the failure of government to fulfill its duty to promote the common good and public health, safety, and welfare. This could well encompass what happened in the Flint water tragedy, where officials rushing to transfer Flint’s water supply from the established Detroit system to a local water plant that withdrew water from a seriously polluted river. Or, perhaps, it would cover the Detroit water shutoff of tens of thousands of poor home occupants who cannot afford a $200 a month water bill.
All of these charges of breach of public trust have one common denominator: the breach of a legally enforceable duty or ethical expectation and duty to protect the common good in public land, water, health, and the general welfare. Regrettably, with increasing frequency, these breaches of public trust overlap. The water in Detroit is withdrawn from the Detroit River and Lake Huron, both public trust bodies of water. The State forced Detroit to suspend and transfer its power to an emergency manager appointed by the governor to fix the city’s bankruptcy. The emergency manager began getting rid of deadbeat customers by cutting them off from the water services, because they didn’t pay. Within a year, the once highly regarded Detroit regional water system ended up in the hands of a government created Great Lakes Water Authority, controlled by the suburbs, so Detroit could exit bankruptcy. In Flint, inaction or deliberate indifference by state and federal officials failed to prevent continued exposure to lead in the drinking water when another emergency manager, appointed to take charge of the city, hurried the switch to the Flint River. The same inaction has led to the continuing massive algal blooms that have ravaged western Lake Erie. Here, the breach of the traditional public trust duty toward protecting the destruction of fishing, boating, swimming, and recreation in Lake Erie soon led to the exposure of more than 400,000 residents served by Toledo’s public water system, a deliberate refusal to take action against influential corporate farming interests to reduce phosphorus loading from fertilizer runoff exacerbated by extreme weather caused by climate change.
All three of these meanings of public trust point to one thing: more and more, governmental officials are fixated on protecting and promoting profit, gain, and private interests over the common good of the public– whether breach of public trust in our common waters, a breach of a duty and charge to protect the health of citizens or peddling and using influence to ignore doing the right thing in favor of a personal favor.
Jim Olson, President and Founder
Perhaps, upholding the public trust in our water, health, ethics, and the common good is the litmus test for the coming decade for anyone elected or appointed for public office. Ultimately, it is up to citizens to see, claim, and enforce the public trust for the good of all. It might even make for better business, jobs, economy, and quality of life that will be more lasting.