Water is on the Ballot, Too

Now that the primary election is behind us, Michiganders will pay increasing attention to this fall’s all-important electoral choices.  FLOW is contacting the nominees for Governor, Attorney General, and northwest Michigan House and Senate seats this week to inform them of the water and public trust issues we think they should tackle.  We are looking for them to provide voters their views on these issues before the November election.

Here are the key challenges we believe the Great Lakes State faces in protecting its public trust assets:

Shut down Line 5 at the Straits of Mackinac.  These antiquated 65-year-old pipelines convey almost 23 million gallons per day of petroleum products along the public bottomlands of the Straits.  They pose an unacceptable risk of a spill that could cause ecological devastation and deliver a more than $6 billion blow to Michigan’s economy.  The Legislature should amend Public Act 10 (1953) to require any utility easement authorized under this Act to reapply under the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act and public trust laws governing occupancy of our public waters and bottomlands.

End Nestlé’s profiteering off public water and secure public water benefits.  At a cost of $200 per year in state fees, Nestle is making hundreds of millions of dollars in profit annually by pumping, bottling and selling groundwater that would otherwise feed wetlands and streams.  In effect, Nestle is selling back to the public its own water at a markup of more than 2000%.  The Legislature should subject all private capture and sale of municipal water and groundwater to state regulation, impose royalties to benefit public water needs, and prohibit withdrawals that have unacceptable impacts on sensitive water resources.  

Prevent and remediate Michigan’s groundwater contamination.  About 45% of Michigan’s population drinks water from groundwater supplies. Unfortunately, there are 6000 legacy groundwater contamination sites for which there is no state cleanup funding, an estimated 130,000 failing septic systems, thousands of private water wells contaminated with dangerous nitrate, thousands of sites that pose a risk of indoor toxic vapor intrusion, and a staggering number of potential sites (estimated at 11,000) where groundwater is contaminated with PFAS compounds.  The Legislature should enact laws to address ongoing threats to groundwater quality and create a fund of at least $500 million to clean up legacy contamination sites.

Assure access to clean, safe, affordable water for all Michigan citizens.  It is simply wrong that in a water-abundant state, thousands of households are priced out of access to basic water services in communities like Flint and Detroit.  The Legislature should provide seed money and mandate public utility water pricing that assures all citizens can afford basic domestic water services.

We also expect them to address funding for drinking water and sewage treatment infrastructure; bringing the public back into state environmental decision making; and supporting Blue Communities.  For a copy of our full list of concerns, click here.

When we cast votes in November, we should remember that more than candidates are on the ballot.  In a very real way, so are water and the public trust.


A Tunnel for Line 5? – That Would be a Big Mistake

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.

Friday Favorites – Pyramid Point

Friday Favorites is our new series where we explore some of our favorite places to play in and around the Great Lakes.

Traverse City residents might be rolling their eyes at the suggestion of Pyramid Point as one of my favorite places in the Traverse City area, but hear me out. This (not so) secret trail has been a staple during my time in northern Michigan, always one of the first places I take my friends and family who come to visit. Every time I turn off M22, I grin like a kid who finally caught the ice cream truck, so excited to show off this awesome lakeshore some of us get to call home.

A favorite place doesn’t have to be the most secret, “locals only” spot that nobody else knows about. We all have those, where we go when we want to escape the craziness of summer festivals, need a quiet stroll without boisterous families, or just want to sit and watch the water roll in and out in peace.

Pyramid Point is none of those things. It is, unless you go early or in the off season, consistently full of dogs, kids, and visitors. The 0.6 mile climb up from the parking lot is mellow enough that I have brought friends and family from all areas of my life up there. We have meandered up the path, stopped to chat with folks on the way, raced to see who could make it up first, identified wildflowers, snowshoed in the winter, and trail run laps on the longer loop before heading into Glen Arbor for pizza.

Everyone’s face lights up when they first see the endless expanse of turquoise water. “Wait how is this not the ocean??” they demand, barely taking their eyes off the water to gauge my response. I usually shrug and point out the Manitou Islands, making a joke about lake sharks. Surrounded by kids snacking, dogs gulping water, and friends posing together for the perfect instagram, we wander across the dune face and down the trail for a bit of peace (and sandwiches).

Kaitlyn Bunting, Communications Coordinator

Last summer one of my best friends came to visit from New York. The weather had been rainy and freezing, but we were tired of being cooped up so we headed out to Pyramid Point. After booking it up the trail to get warm, we sat tucked into the dune, watching the sky change from gray to an ominous black. Huge raindrops and hail quickly made us question our choice, our conversation changing from Alaskan adventures to the current weather. After devouring every granola bar and all the hot coffee we’d brought, we raced back down the trail, laughing and shrieking all the way to the car like we used to when we were kids.

Sharing these magical places with my friends and family reminds me of how lucky we are to live here.

Hopefully this series inspires you to enjoy the public land and water we have in northern Michigan, and return to old favorites or check out somewhere new!


Using Art to Explore Our Relationship with Water

Sarah Bearup-Neal is the Glen Arbor Arts Center’s Communications/Gallery Manager. She graduated from Michigan State University in 1978 with a BFA in Studio Art and has maintained an active studio practice focused on fiber art since 1999. Sarah lives in Benzie County.

Each year, the Glen Arbor Arts Center mounts a “New Views” exhibition in which we identify an issue of local and regional concern, and dig into it. This year we focused on water. Exhibitors were asked to look deeply at their relationship with the water around us, and create a work of 2D or 3D art that expressed a new view of that relationship. The exhibition “New Views: Water = Life = Art” showcased the work of 25 painters, sculptors, photographers, printmakers, and mixed media practitioners from June 1–August 4.

The GAAC’s “New Views: Water” show also offered four different companion programs that explored the exhibition’s theme from the platforms of the visual and performing arts, literature, poetry, and science; through panel discussion (FLOW Founder Jim Olson was one of three water activists who sat on this July 15 panel); question and answer sessions; and lectures. Each of the programs provided a different way into the subject, and made it possible for a wider array of people to partake of the exhibition.

It is one of the great delivered truths that the arts “matter”; that they elevate – almost through osmosis – the human spirit. But the one thing the arts do really well – and for which they are not often credited – is to provide us with powerful tools for looking at difficult issues. The arts allow us to consider even the most spirit-crushing realities in ways that pure fact cannot. Data have their place, but they are by no means unfailingly persuasive. To whit: Picasso’s Guernica. This mural-sized oil painting was created in response to the bombing of a Basque country village in Northern Spain by the Nazis and Italian Fascists at the request of the ruling Spanish Nationalists. Upon completion in 1937, Guernica was exhibited at the World’s Fair in Paris, and then at other world venues. The touring exhibition was used to raise funds for Spanish war relief, and focused the world’s attention on the Spanish Civil War.

Guernica mobilized the world in a way that data could not. Picasso synthesized the horror and gave it new, albeit fully recognizable, form. Viewers didn’t require the photographic realism of blood, guts, and dismemberment that follow a days-long bombing campaign to persuade them of its depravity. Instead, Picasso depicted the bombing through painted, abstracted figures of splayed cows and villagers, and left no doubt about what happened. Without watering down the facts, Picasso provided the viewer a way to begin to consider this shattering violence. This is the essence of the arts: They’re like a raft on top of which one lies and floats around the sometimes-challenging waters of ideas and events. The arts don’t provide operating instructions. Instead, the arts engage — the senses, the body and the mind — and make the world palpable. And this felt feeling may spur thinking, engagement, and even action.

Tacit and central to the GAAC’s “New Views: Water” exhibition is the fact that everyone in Glen Arbor has a relationship with the local lakes and rivers. These waters are definitive natural features, and form the community’s sense of self. That collective affection and relationship brings people to the gallery to view the exhibition. We use the artwork as a springboard to launch related discussions, to shift the focus to other aspects that are less pleasing, but no less a part of the water that is our world up here: about the conflict between a healthy lake and green, riparian lawns; about Line 5 leaking 200 miles north of Glen Arbor; and why bottled water is a violation of the public trust. The arts create ways to connect dots; but more than that, the arts are pack mules, capable of doing the heavy intellectual and emotional lifting that is change making.

Protecting Traverse City’s Tap Water

Anyone who visits Traverse City can easily see how important freshwater is to this region. The iconic Grand Traverse Bay, numerous inland lakes and the Boardman River winding through downtown make freshwater an essential part of Traverse City’s landscape and culture. Our unique freshwater resources provide remarkable recreational opportunities that bring thousands of visitors to the shores of Traverse City every summer. One of the major benefits from our freshwater that often goes unnoticed, is its use as tap water in our everyday lives.

Even as a longtime resident who is very passionate about water, I had to ask myself, do I know where the water from my tap comes from? Well, if you live in the city limits of Traverse City, the answer is the Grand Traverse East Bay (“East Bay”). Traverse City pumps an average of 5.19 million gallons a day from East Bay to supply the growing demand for freshwater.[1] This freshwater is taken out of East Bay through a steel and wood crib that sits about 40 feet below the water surface off the Old Mission Peninsula.[2] The water is pumped to the City’s water treatment plant, then distributed through roughly 120 miles of pipes to serve an ever-growing customer base of approximately 40,000 people.[3]

Planning the Future

Given East Bay’s significant role as the source of Traverse City’s tap water, it is important for us as a community to become engaged in planning for the future of East Bay and the surrounding Grand Traverse watershed.

This is no small task. The Grand Traverse watershed is approximately 976 square miles, covering portions of Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Antrim, and Kalkaska counties, including 132 miles of shoreline.[4] However, as vast as those numbers might seem, it is imperative that we understand and manage our freshwater at the watershed level to properly care for East Bay and the source of our tap water. A Watershed is defined as an area of land that drains all the streams and rainfall into a common outlet.[5]Watershed protection is critical to the long-term health of East Bay because the majority of East Bay’s water comes from tributaries throughout the watershed, including 180 billion gallons of water per year from the Elk Rapids Chain of Lakes.[6]

Fortunately, The Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay and other organizations in the Northern Michigan area implemented a Grand Traverse Bay Watershed Protection plan in 2003.[7] The Protection Plan sets six broad goals that range from protecting the integrity of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems within the watershed to improving the quality of water resources within Grand Traverse Bay and its watershed.[8] In addition, the 2003 Watershed Protection Plan has resulted in more than $7 million worth of watershed management projects, and has “prevented more than 16,230 tons of sediment, 9300 lbs. of phosphorous and 14,940 lbs. of nitrogen from entering the Grand Traverse Bay and its watershed.”[9]

What Can You Do?

This community-driven Watershed Protection Plan plays a crucial role in our management of East Bay, helping protect against issues such as invasive species, storm water run-off, and wetland protection. The Watershed Protection Plan from 2003 is currently being updated with citizen input by the Watershed Center. Although the Watershed Center’s community meetings regarding the new protection plan have already occurred, the Watershed Center is still accepting public input until July 31st through a public survey.

Julius Moss, Legal Intern

I encourage everyone to take a few minutes this weekend, reflect on the importance of water in our area, and share your ideas and concerns with the Watershed Center. We are fortunate to have an abundance of freshwater around us, we must continue to protect our valuable resource and together as a community prepare for the future of East Bay, the Grand Traverse Watershed, and our tap water.

[1] See http://www.traversecitymi.gov/watertreatmentpl.asp

[2] See http://www.traversecitymi.gov/watersource.asp

[3] Id.

[4] See https://www.gtbay.org/about-us/watershed/

[5] See https://water.usgs.gov/edu/watershed.html

[6] Id.

[7]  The Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay, Grand Traverse Bay Watershed Protection Plan, Dec. 2003, https://www.gtbay.org/resources/watershed-protection-plan/.

[8] Id.

[9] See https://www.gtbay.org/about-us/achievements/

The Right of Passage

After more than 30 years of working on environmental policy, I moved to within a few hundred feet of one of the Great Lakes.  Given the opportunity to stroll along the shore as often as I wanted, I suddenly realized I didn’t know what I could legally do when the water’s edge traversed private property.  I only knew the courts had been taking up disputes regarding this issue.

One local I consulted said you could walk the first 10 feet of the beach.  Another said you had to keep one foot in the water at all times.  I knew I couldn’t assume anything.

Fortunately, Jim Olson was available.

FLOW’s founder and president is one of the nation’s leading authorities on the public trust doctrine, the tenet of common law that holds that our Great Lakes, their submerged lands and their shores are publicly owned — and that government has a responsibility to act as our trustee to protect them.

Jim has set forth the state of that doctrine as it applies to Michigan’s Great Lakes shores.  Simply put, the Michigan Supreme Court has upheld the right of the public to traverse the beach up to the ordinary high water mark.  No private property owner can exclude the public from that strip of public land.

Dave Dempsey, FLOW Senior Advisor

With that access comes responsibility.  Not just the respect for our great waters and shores that should always apply, but also respect for shoreline private property owners.  Shoreline access is not a license to litter, make noise, or otherwise disrupt the private property owner’s enjoyment of his or her rights.

With that knowledge, I have trod the shores of the Great Lake I live near, savoring the sounds of swishing water and the panorama of sky and inland sea.  It’s a sacred gift.  And the public trust doctrine protects it.

Read our beach walker’s guide, and enjoy your Great Lakes shoreline.

“Old-School Conservationist” and a New Book

Editor’s note:  Tom Bailey has served as executive director of the Little Traverse Conservancy for more than 30 years.  He retires next month. Michigan State University Press has published a collection of Tom’s essays, entitled North Country Almanac.  Tom will be signing and discussing his book Saturday at Horizon Books in Traverse City from 4 to 6 pm.

Tom Bailey is not just another advocate.  He is a leader in the land conservancy community and an independent – sometimes controversial – thinker on conservation issues.  He is putting those opinions on display in a new book published by Michigan State University Press, A North Country Almanac: Reflections of an Old-School Conservationist in a Modern World.

Tom has been Executive Director of the Little Traverse Conservancy in the Petoskey area since late 1984. He currently serves on the Board of Trustees of Lake Superior State University, appointed by Governor Rick Snyder in 2016.  He was a member of Governor Snyder’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Michigan State Parks and Outdoor Recreation in 2011-12 and remains on the Michigan State Parks Advisory Committee. He has served on the National Land Trust Council of the Land Trust Alliance, was co-founder of the Top of Michigan Trails Council.  He received his Bachelor of Science degree in Park and Recreation Resources from Michigan State University. Before joining the Conservancy, Tom spent six years with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and served prior to that as a citizen representative and lobbyist for several local, state and national conservation groups.  He is a former National Park Ranger.

We asked him to explain the book and to discuss current conservation issues.


What message or meaning would you like a reader of your new book to take away afterwards?

It would be hard to suggest a single takeaway for people because the essays in the book deal with a variety of topics from a variety of viewpoints. Some readers might prefer descriptions of the simple joy of being outdoors—appreciating the beauty of an eagle in flight, the glorious beauty of the night sky, memories of outings with my father as a child, or the special delight my son took in being outside in a snowstorm.  Others might find that they’re most interested in different perspectives on issues like environmental laws and economics.  I would hope that others might enjoy observations on how the environmental movement has evolved since the first Earth Day, perspectives on hunting, or reflections on the relationships between fathers and sons. 


How did these essays come to be?

Most of them were written as quarterly columns for the Little Traverse Conservancy’s newsletter.  There are a couple of essays that were written for the newsletter but never published, and a few pieces were written to tie things together for the book.  The column on becoming a military family was actually written for a local newspaper when my son enlisted in the Army.


It seems as though family life has shaped much of your writing. Can you talk about the influence of your father and the meaning of your son in your writing?

Because of my father’s work as a wildlife biologist, I had the good fortune to grow up in a household where conservation was an everyday word.  Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac” had an honored place on our family bookshelf, with his landmark “Game Management” nearby.  We had orphaned animals show up when people didn’t know what else to do with them, and it wasn’t unusual to go out with Dad on a dark night to hold the flashlight while he autopsied a road-killed deer or picked up a dead bird destined for the federal research center in Maryland to determine chemical content and cause of death. 

Because he loved hunting, I was able to learn at an early age how to shoot and hunt.  Dad took me fishing, and our family camped on many vacations from Maine to the Rocky Mountains and from the Keweenaw Peninsula to Mammoth Cave. One of my fond memories of early camping trips in northern Michigan is my mother cooking morel mushrooms on the Coleman stove.  And when I developed an interest in go-light backpacking as a teenager, Dad was happy to take it up with me. 

When my son came along, I wanted to give him the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors, but I didn’t want to force it on him.  As it happened, he took to hunting, fishing, shooting, camping and outdoor life like the proverbial duck to water. 

Another important influence was their military experience.  My Dad was a WWII vet, having been through rough action in the greatest air-sea battle in history off Okinawa.  He saw shipmates killed, and survived a terrible kamikaze attack.  When I talked about enlisting in the military he talked me out of it, saying that what he wanted most for me—and what he fought for in WWII—was for me to go to college and make a life and career for myself. So, that’s what I did.  My son didn’t so much ask his mother and me about military service as he told us that he was going to enlist.  As a student in middle school when the 9/11 attacks took place, he was profoundly affected by those events and determined that he would one day serve to defend our nation.  He rejected the comparatively easy route of ROTC and took the toughest training the Army had to offer, in the infantry.  He volunteered to serve in Afghanistan, and served on the front lines.  Because of their service, their bravery and their sacrifice, both my father and my son are my heroes. 


What is the significance of calling yourself an old-school conservationist?   How would you distinguish yourself from other conservationists and environmentalists?

I grew up in the tradition of the Aldo Leopold,/Theodore Roosevelt conservation science, ethics and appreciation of my father.  I’ve been a hunter, a fisherman and old-fashioned outdoor type: some would say a “hook and bullet” conservationist.  I’m proud of the fact that hunters and anglers were the first to call attention to the damage being done by overharvesting of game and fish, and that hunters and anglers stepped up to tax guns, ammunition and equipment in order to pay for conservation.  I was proud every year to buy my hunting license and federal duck stamp to pay for conservation. When the environmental movement took off in the early 1970s, My Dad and I were both impressed and also somewhat amused that people had suddenly discovered the importance of the environment and ecology.  I was happy to be part of it, but have been disappointed at times by the political orthodoxy that has found its way into the environmental movement. Many “environmentalists” have criticized the hunters and anglers who advanced conservation science and paid for conservation for decades without themselves stepping up to put their money where their mouth is.  Sometimes I think environmentalists make too many demands and don’t offer enough solutions. When I went to Washington in the early 1970s, I saw a number of environmental activists demonstrating and protesting on the capitol steps and outside the House and Senate office buildings.  But they didn’t bother to go in and speak with their representatives and testify at hearings; they just shouted.  Meanwhile, people like my father dedicated their careers to protecting natural resources and when policy debates flared, they did their best to work within the system to make things better.  So I consider myself more of an old-school conservationist than an environmentalist. 


Do you think Michigan has maintained or lost its way in terms of conservation and environmental policy? And why or why not?

I’m sad to say that Michigan, once the leading state in conservation and the environment, has lost momentum, lost focus, and lost initiative.  Michigan’s State Parks were once the envy of the nation, but now we have more than $300 million in deferred maintenance as the quality of our campgrounds and other facilities deteriorates.  We had a wonderful state Wilderness and Natural Areas program that has been ignored for decades.  And while things like our clean air act, clean water act, endangered species act and submerged lands protection acts need to evolve, we really haven’t kept up with the latest science of conservation. 

Why?  Several factors.  For one, as I like to put it we have not yet reversed the institutional momentum of Manifest Destiny.  There’s a persistent and misguided mentality that labels land “development” as a good thing while protection or preservation is at best a luxury and at worst a waste.  It’s just not that simple: there is certainly good development but there is a lot of irresponsible development too—just look at the empty malls and strip developments in many communities.  Conservation is not a waste it’s a long-term investment that benefits future generations.  It made sense in the 19th century to protect civilization from the ravages of the wild, but in the 21st century, we need to protect what’s left of the wild from the ravages of civilization.

Another factor in the loss of momentum is that our institutional approach to land use is still rooted in the 19th century.  Our financial system, our tax system, our zoning system and other institutions tend to encourage development which is often not able to pay its way.  This results in deteriorating infrastructure as we subsidize development of open space over re-using and repurposing our existing developed areas.  We used to call it “sprawl,” but there’s more to it than that. We need to establish a balance between land development and land conservation so that for every new subdivision that’s created, there’s a park or nature preserve.  We need to ensure that for every stretch of road where the scenic view is obliterated, there’s a stretch where it is preserved.  We need to turn around the subsidies that make it cheaper to convert farms to businesses than it is to redevelop abandoned developed areas. 

Fortunately, though, the news is not all bad.  Our legislature and voters had the foresight to create the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, which captures revenue from oil, gas, and minerals on DNR-administered public land and invests it for the benefit of future generations. The Trust Fund is the envy of the nation and it represents a truly enlightened approach that enables future generations to benefit from the resources we are extracting and burning today.  That is unprecedented in Michigan and is a great success story.  Another success story is that rather than repeating the sad history of cut-out-and-get-out logging, our State Forests have been well managed and have largely recovered from the devastation of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 


What do you regard as the most significant accomplishment of your career? 

I’d have to say that the most significant accomplishment has been to help Little Traverse Conservancy grow from a small community organization into a major community institution.  I helped to establish collegial relationships with our state natural resource agency, the DNR, and with the Forest Service and many local units of government.  We helped them acquire land for parks, forests and open spaces.  We also established positive relationships with the business community, helping to enhance the tourism and resort trade in our service area, reinforcing the idea that land conservation is not only good business but good for business.  I was able to integrate hunting, fishing and forest management with preservation so that we took an inclusive approach to our work rather than an exclusive one.  We were also able to establish an important education program that takes thousands of school kids out on to our preserves to learn about the outdoors in the outdoors, and not only to we offer these programs at no charge but we also reimburse at least some of their travel costs.  We’ve accomplished a lot.  Much of this was possible because I was the second person in the state outside of the Nature Conservancy to get paid full time to do land conservation and so there was no pattern to follow.  I was able to work with our board and members to chart an entirely new and unique course in conservation.


And the most significant disappointment? How have things change since you first got involved?

Biggest disappointment?  I think that would be that I haven’t been able to get the former Big Rock Point Nuclear Plant site into public ownership as a park.  There’s a lot of positive momentum for that to happen, and I hope it does.

How have things changed?  One of the most gratifying things I’ve seen in the 34 years I’ve been here is that land conservation has become a profession in its own right across Michigan. Leelanau Conservancy, Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy, Southeast, Six Rivers, Legacy, the list goes on.  I was the second person to get paid full time to do land conservation for a non-profit conservancy in Michigan but now there are dozens.  More and more people are recognizing the importance of keeping a healthy balance between land development and land conservation.

On the down side, the political climate is more polarized and more difficult than it was.  “Compromise” has become a dirty word.  There are a couple of issues now, however, that offer opportunities to transcend partisan and ideological differences and I’m hopeful that perhaps there’s a breakthrough coming that might lead to more cooperation to come.


Looking ahead, what is the biggest challenge to Michigan’s environment, the nation’s environment, and the world’s environment?

In Michigan and the United States, one of the big challenges that remains is to replace the 19th century “conquer the land” mentality with a more enlightened approach to balancing development with conservation.  We need to protect what’s left of the great American landscape that shaped our character.  We need to ensure that future generations will be able to hike, camp, ski, ride horses, hunt, fish, and live the outdoor life that is a fundamental part of the American experience. 

Worldwide, we need to recognize that while it may not be politically fashionable to address it, explosive growth in the human population is the greatest threat not only to the environment but also to our quality of life.  We’re at risk of fouling our nest because 11 billion people can’t all have 3,000 square foot homes, granite countertops, three automobiles and unlimited jet travel.  At the same time, we can’t be anti-technology and anti-human.  It’s about balance.  We need to harness our technology to develop more environmentally friendly ways to harness energy, to get from place to place and to live a healthy, secure and satisfying life. 

“Environmentalism” has become a toxic term in some circles, associated with the radical political left.  “Conservation” is, at its heart, a conservative approach to managing capital resources in a manner reminiscent of how one manages financial capital: prudently, and with the long term in mind.  At the same time, conservation resonates with environmentalists and social activists.  It is my hope that we can forge a new, trans-partisan consensus around managing our natural resources as one manages valuable capital, in a manner that appeals to all political persuasions. 


Tell us a little about your illustrator! (Tom’s fiancée is painter Heidi Marshall, whose works are featured in the book.)

Heidi is an amazing plein air painter.  Her work has been recognized at the local, state, national and international levels in competitions, gallery shows, university shows and by fellow artists.  She has a gift for seeing the beauty of the land, water and sky and capturing not just a photo-like image in her paintings, but the deep feeling of places, of weather, and of the moods of the land.  It’s no coincidence that her National Park paintings were displayed last year alongside the world-famous exhibit of Ansel Adams Masterworks: the both capture not only the look but also the feeling of the outdoors in their work.

We were introduced by friends in what one might call a “setup.”  We were both widowed, we weren’t interested in the dating scene and neither of us really expected to find love after grief.  But it happened, and it is one of the greatest blessings of my life. 


The Public Trust Doctrine Percolates into State Courts, Legislators, and Commissions to Protect Groundwater, Streams, Lakes, Economies and Quality of Life

“Water Justice Flows Like Water.”[1]

Law professor Sprout D. Kapua’ala, borrowing from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I’ve Been to the Mountaintop speech in 1968 (“justice rolling down like waters”), captures decades of conflict over the streams and waters of Hawai’i, siphoned and dried from a century of withdrawals and diversion ditches cut across the landscape for corporate massive production of sugar and fruit exports. This unbridled exploitation of Hawai’i water has distressed stream and wetland ecosystems and overwhelmed native and public water uses, including the native rights to small-scale Kalo cultivation, gathering, and citizen rights to fishing, swimming, drinking water, and recreation protected by the public trust doctrine. 

For the past two decades, the Hawai’i Supreme Court has faced head on the collision between the near total loss of the Makapipi and East Maui rivers because of numerous ditches across the land to transport water for corporate sugar. In 2000, the Court ruled that state water board decisions that allowed water diversions for large corporate farming were subject to the public trust doctrine under the Hawai’i constitution and common law.[2] The court ruled that under the public trust doctrine, basic stream flows had to be maintained to protect public trust uses, such as small-scale native farming, fishing, and drinking water. Scientists and citizens recognized that small-scale cultivation of Kalo requires steady flows of groundwater and streams, and in turn the native production and uses of water sustain culture and communities. Since the Court’s Waihole I decision in 2000, the public trust doctrine has been applied to the state water board and even the land use and zoning boards of municipalities to protect drinking water and other public trust uses from land and water intensive development. [3]

As a result, the legislature passed laws requiring designation of groundwater aquifers or streams for special protection of flows and levels to support public trust protected uses. Native, environmental, and community organizations joined together to petition a state water board to declare groundwater and streams subject to special public trust protection through maintaining stream flows or groundwater migration and levels. Large corporate farming and other interests contested these designations. The Court continued to respond by recognizing and upholding at least minimum flows and levels of freshwater sources, balancing public uses against large volume water diversion and use for farming and development.[4]

Our mission at FLOW, as most of you may know, is to seek adoption of the public trust doctrine principles in every state and beyond. The primary principles under the public trust doctrine are: promotion of a public purpose, such as a public drinking water supply, fish restoration, or public beach access, and non-impairment of water, ecosystems, and public trust uses, such as those mentioned above. A universal understanding and application of public trust principles offers a way out of the world water crisis, which is worsening every day as a result of global warming, pollution, waste and abuse of water resources, increased population and demand for food and clean, safe water. Irrigation and water diversions for agriculture account for 70 percent of human use of fresh groundwater, lakes, and streams, industrial and steam-generated electricity another 20 percent, and municipal and residential use the remaining 10 percent. Massive diversions of water across continents have become too expensive and disruptive to sustain any longer.

Future survival, economies, and quality of life will require sustainable practices with a primary goal of assuring the integrity of flows and levels within each watershed and region of a country. Public trust principles impose limits on exploitation of flows and levels, or private subordination of protected public trust uses. If we understand that water is a commons owned or held by each state as sovereign for the benefit of people and the overarching public interest, and apply these principles, we will make very good decisions about human survival, environment, economy, jobs, and quality of life.

Recent Developments

In the last two weeks, the realization and importance of the public trust doctrine has come home to ordinary citizens in Hawaii. The relationship of public trust to groundwater and public water uses has been percolating in the legislatures and courts of Vermont, Arizona, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Rhode Island, as well as South Africa, Pakistan, and India. Massive groundwater withdrawals or land use practices and water diversions like the Colorado River, Chicago diversion from Lake Michigan, the loss of the Aral Sea in Russia, or Yangtze in China, that impair public trust waters and drinking water, fishing, swimming, or other important uses are subject to public trust principles that prevent privatization and impairment.  The public trust does not prohibit industrial or agricultural withdrawals, or the privatization, diversion and sale of water, but it subjects these uses to an overarching backstop framework[5] that assures and sustains the flows, levels, and underlying uses of water, both human, environmental, and businesses, within watersheds and communities.

On June 20, 2018, in a historic decision, the Hawai’i Commission on Water Resources Management ruled that stream flows must be restored in the Makapipi and East Maui rivers, which will require the closing of several irrigation diversion ditches and significant limitations on others. [6]The corporate holding company, Alexander and Baldwin, of Hawaiian Commercial Sugar, argued for diversified agriculture and planning for water use for its land holdings. The Water Commission came down on the side of local, public trust uses by restoring stream flows diverted for more than a century.  Going forward, Hawaii companies, municipalities, and land developers must look at limiting water uses to sustain the basic water uses assured all people under the constitution and public trust doctrine.

What does this mean for the waters of the Great Lakes basin, the waters of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin (and two Canadian provinces)?  We have significant protection of waters of the basin from diversion under the Great Lakes Compact diversion ban. Recent large-volume diversions of Lake Michigan to Waukesha and now approved for the Foxconn complex outside the basin show there are gaps or loopholes. The MDEQ in Michigan approved diversion of another 210 million gallons a year from the headwaters of two cold water trout streams for Nestlé’s bottled water export operations; this, too, was under a “bottled water” exception in the Compact and Michigan law.  The same MDEQ just permitted the loss of 600 million gallons of water near a wetlands, creek and lake to mine potash, even though it is widely available elsewhere. The Michigan legislature just passed a law signed by Governor Snyder to circumvent water standards and public permit proceedings that would safeguard streams, lakes, and groundwater from excessive withdrawals and water loss for large corporate farms growing corn and crops for biofuels and other industries.  To put things in a global perspective, Saudi Arabia, China, India and other water-scarce, industrial, high-population countries are buying millions of acres of land in water and soil rich countries, like Brazil and the United States, to use large volumes of water here to export food to their people at home, because they don’t have the water or want to use the water they do have for continued development and industrial growth. How will these competing, high demands for water play out in watersheds, streams, rivers, lakes, wetlands or domestic farming, drinking water, and protection of fishing, local land uses and development?

The Hawaiian experience is fertile well-watered ground for those of us in Michigan, the Great Lakes, or elsewhere, to understand the importance of water, stream flows, levels, and watersheds to our own environment, heritage, economy, and culture. The place to start is fashioning a well-crafted, clear, concise statement for protection of the public trust in our waters where we live and survive. The sooner we do this, the sooner we will be prepared to withstand the coming global, regional, and local conflicts over water. If we fail to do this, citizens, cities and towns, farming, and tourism or recreation like fishing, swimming, boating, and even golfing will be subordinated to unpredictable, thirsty, large private and international interests.

Jim Olson, President and Founder

Putting public trust principles at work now, by simple, articulate laws or constitutional provisions will provide the protection we need. We will not lock up our water, but we will assure its sustainability in our rural, urban, and regional Great Lakes watersheds and communities. Our life and livelihoods here in Michigan and the Great Lakes depend on the integrity of flow and levels of our groundwater and streams.

[1] Sproat, D Kapua’ala, Water Justice Flows Like Water: The Moon Court’s Role in Illuminating Hawai’i Water Law, 33 Univ. Hawai’i L. Rev 537.

[2] In Re Water Use Applications (Waihole I), 94 Hawai’i 97 (2000).

[3]  Waihole II, 105 Haw. 1 (2004); In re Kukui (Molaka’i), 116 Haw. 481 (2007).

[4]  Id.

[5] Protection of the Great Lakes: 15-Year Review (International Joint Commission, Jan. 2016).

[6] Petition to Amend Interim Instream Flow Standards for Honopou et al., State of Hawaii, Commission on Water Resource Management, Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, & Decision and Order, Case No. CCH-MA13-01, June 20, 2018 (300 pps.).

Enjoying the Great Lakes This Summer

Summer in northern Michigan is one of our favorite things, and we are trying to enjoy it to the fullest while it is here. With all of the busyness this season, it does become a conscious effort. It’s not unusual to hear this around the FLOW office: “Wow, is it really already July?”

There are many important things to do. Submit your comments on the fate of Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac. Write your lawmakers about important Great Lakes concerns. Spread the word about Getting Off the Bottle. But after you do these things, make sure you are also enjoying those Great Lakes that you work hard to protect. That is just as important.

Our updated Beachcomber’s Guide to the Great Lakes has information that may be helpful to you the next time your feet are in the water along Michigan’s coast. The public trust doctrine holds that Michigan’s Great Lakes shoreline is open to public access. It is meant for public use and enjoyment, so what are you waiting for? Grab your guide, and head to your favorite Great Lake!

Water: the Great Uniter

Last Thursday, July 6, was FLOW’s second annual An Evening for the Great Lakes hosted by amazing co-organizers Cammie Buehler and Jeremy Turner at the beautiful Cherry Basket Farms near Omena.

What a fantastic night! We want to extend a huge thank you to everyone who made the event such a major success. Special thanks to incredible musician Chris Thile for the amazing concert!

Thanks to all of the sponsors who made the night possible: Patagonia, Patagonia Chicago The Magnificent Mile, Patagonia Chicago Lincoln ParkEpicure Catering & Cherry Basket FarmStifelIdyll FarmsArbor Brewing Company, Baia EstateIron Fish DistilleryArt’s Tavern Glen ArborImage360 – Traverse CityOryana Community Co-opHawkins OutfittersGoSili / SilikidsVada Color, Shoe Nami Art.

FLOW’s executive director, Liz Kirkwood, opened the program with remarks that are excerpted here:

“As part of tonight’s program, I’d like to share a little about our work at FLOW.

We all know these are times of great division and strife. But common purpose is still possible.

Take the State of Michigan as an example – two peninsulas of varying history, geography, geology, natural heritage and character – but made one by a majestic bridge that joins them. One Michigan.

Take the water that we share as another example. When it comes to water, political and partisan differences dissipate like dirt and grime washed clean in a rainstorm.

Water is a uniter. We need it to live. We all want access to safe, clean, affordable drinking water. We all appreciate its beauty. We differ only in how to go about achieving this goal. 

Support for protecting water resources is strong and consistent across diverse constituencies, bridging partisan divides. Polling and focus group work show in Michigan and the Midwest that support for policies protecting water resources, water quality and water quantity are very strong among self-identifying liberals and conservatives.

That’s where FLOW comes in.  

As many of you know, our foundational principle is the public trust doctrine. It’s an ancient tenet of law, but more relevant than ever.

Its premise is that some things by their nature cannot be privately owned, and instead belong to the public.

One of those things is water.

That includes the water of the Great Lakes – 20% of the available fresh surface water on the planet.

It also applies to the land beneath those waters. Those, too, are part of the public trust.

Michigan has 38,000 square miles of land under the Great Lakes. We have more land under water than some states have above water. Our submerged Great Lakes lands are bigger than the State of Indiana.

And it’s all yours – and ours.

Think of it as our biggest state park. And imagine a pipeline pumping 23 million gallons of petroleum a day through your favorite state park – whether that’s Hartwick Pines, Porcupine Mountains – or the Straits of Mackinac. That’s one reason FLOW is involved in the battle to decommission Line 5.

FLOW was founded for this very reason – to embrace a stewardship principle to protect these sacred waters and submerged lands of the Great Lakes – and the uses the public makes of them — for now and future generations.

There’s certainly plenty to work on. We need to address looming and daunting challenges: invasive species (like Asian carp), legacy and emergent contamination (like AOCs and PFOAs), water diversions and exports, drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, wetlands destruction, urban development, growth, and resilience. 

But thanks to generous support from people like you, I’m happy to report FLOW has racked up a number of accomplishments in the last year.

  • We helped stop further moves by politicians to put factory fish farms in the open waters of the Great Lakes. 
  • We launched our successful Get Off the Bottle awareness campaign, educating the public about the bad deal bottled, privatized water means to them – and about the plastics that increasingly plague our Great Lakes.   
  • We formed and strengthened new alliances with sovereign tribes and with citizens of communities with water crises, like Flint and Detroit. 
  • We helped develop the legal theories and factual bases enabling tribes to commence litigation to shut down Line 5 in the Straits (yes, you heard that correctly), and to challenge Nestle’s water withdrawal permit. 
  • Because of our science-driven law and policy work, we have become a go-to source for the media, legislators, agencies, partners, and citizens.  

I think you’ll see from these issues and accomplishments that we’re not just against things. Yes, we oppose the continued risk that Line 5 represents to the Great Lakes and Nestle’s water grab, but we’re also positive. We offer alternatives and we work constructively with diverse groups.

That’s the beauty of the public trust – it is founded on a vision of clean, abundant public water, shared by all.

That is what we work to protect.

That is what we all believe in.

Jean-Michel Cousteau said, “Clean water, the essence of life and a birthright for everyone, must become available to all people now.”

This is our vision, but it is a bigger vision. Water unites us and I am glad it has united us tonight, here in this beautiful place, here in the heart of the Great Lakes.”