Photo: from left-to-right, Miles, Liz, and Ella Kirkwood
Haiku to My Children
By Liz Kirkwood, FLOW Executive Director
Toe. Dip. Jump. Splash. Smile.
Brave you are. I am in awe.
Water unites us.
By Diane Dupuis, FLOW Development Director
Diane Dupuis (in red) and family walking the shore, above, and kayaking below.
My daughter filling the kettle to make my scratchy throat a cup of tea, my son topping off my water bottle along with his before we set out on a hike: Small gestures that signal I have successfully trained my children to pamper me, not just on Mother’s Day, but every day.
In their 20s now, they carry with them memories of an early childhood backyard on a canal of Lac Ste. Claire; grade school years traveling from a home on an inland lake in Grand Traverse County to a K-8 school with shoreline on Grand Traverse Bay and Leelanau County’s Cedar Lake; high school defined by the campus between Green Lake and Duck Lake.
They—we—remember the years when we made a habit of visiting Lake Michigan on each family birthday—deep winter, early spring, late summer. We relish memories of the summer we swam in all five Great Lakes, camping our way out to the Gaspé and back. We keep sight of the time a rip current left us badly shaken south of Elberta, the same day it took lives in Leland.
My children have become paddlers, sailors, a lifeguard.
The next time we are walking the beach together, though—whenever that becomes possible—I will still be the first to spy a Petoskey stone; I always am.
To alleviate the rising threat to the safety and economic security of Upper Peninsula residents, a state energy task force at its April 13 online public meeting should act with urgency to adopt, prioritize, and schedule the implementation of the 14 recommendations in its draft propane supply report. Swift action is needed in order to end reliance on the risky Line 5 pipeline, dismantle the Canadian energy monopoly over the Upper Peninsula, and secure more diverse and renewable energy choices, said FLOW (For Love of Water) in formal public comments sent Monday to state officials.
FLOW’s letter to the U.P. Energy Task Force, which Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer created last June, comes at the deadline for the public to review the March 20 draft report on propane supply options. FLOW is urging the task force to act immediately on both short-term and long-term recommendations for the State of Michigan to resolve the clear and present danger to public health and the Great Lakes posed by Line 5.
FLOW finds that the most reliable, secure, lowest-cost, and lowest-risk alternative for propane supplies in the short term is a combination of the recommendations on rail and truck, plus an increase in propane inventory in the Upper Peninsula. Highest priority should be given to recommendations with a full range of diverse alternatives that are not dependent on the decaying Enbridge Line 5 pipeline, which crosses the Upper Peninsula and the open waters of the Straits of Mackinac.
FLOW also urges the task force to evaluate all of the environmental and health impacts and risks that each alternative poses to air, water, and land resources. The Great Lakes and other natural resources remain at grave risk with the continued daily operation of Line 5, and impacts to these public trust resources must be fully considered in the final propane report.
FLOW also calls on the task force to expedite its work and complete its renewable energy plan in 2020, well ahead of its March 2021 deadline for reporting to the governor. Michigan and the Great Lakes cannot wait another year for more studies as Line 5 continues to age.
“The U.P. Energy Task Force draft propane report concludes that both short-term and longer-term feasible and prudent alternatives exist to decommission Line 5 and to secure reliable, safe, and affordable energy to U.P. residents based on adjustments within the energy system,” said Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director of FLOW, the Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City. “Given the current propane monopoly and lack of backup alternatives to Line 5, U.P. residents are exposed to substantial financial and safety risks. Moreover, Line 5 also poses unprecedented and devastating economic, environmental, and public health risks to the Great Lakes.”
With the help of the task force to prioritize recommendations and advance much needed energy planning, the State of Michigan can work as expeditiously as possible to decommission the aging Line 5 pipeline and transition to safe and affordable energy alternatives for U.P. residents.
The U.P. Energy Task Force, formed by Gov. Whitmer’s Executive Order 2019-14, is charged with “considering all available information and make recommendations that ensure the U.P.’s energy needs are met in a manner that is reliable, affordable, and environmentally sound.” The Order also directs the Task Force to examine “alternative means to supply the energy sources currently used by U.P. residents, and alternatives to those energy sources.”
The precipitating force behind this urgent energy analysis is Enbridge’s increasingly risky 67-year-old Line 5 pipeline, which has ruptured or otherwise leaked at least 33 times since 1968, and the failure to date to prioritize and assure a backup alternative for delivering propane in the Upper Peninsula. Line 5 is operating far past its life expectancy and continues to threaten the Great Lakes, public health, and drinking water supplies for thousands of Michiganders. With no backup plan for delivering alternative propane supplies to the U.P. in the event of a catastrophic Line 5 pipeline rupture, including in the dead of winter, the outdated pipeline also endangers the safety, security, and energy independence of Upper Peninsula residents who rely on propane to heat their homes.
FLOW Urges Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority to Halt Action on Unauthorized ‘Line 5’ Oil Tunnel
Proposed project Fails to Comply with Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act and Public Trust Law
FLOW, an independent Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City, Michigan, filed formal comments today with the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority, calling on the body to halt any further implementation of Enbridge Energy’s proposed Line 5 oil pipeline tunnel until the authorizations and approvals required by public trust common law and statute have been applied for and obtained.
The Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority and Enbridge have not applied for, nor received, the required legal authorization from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy to proceed with the oil pipeline tunnel. Canadian-based Enbridge hatched the tunnel scheme with the former Snyder administration to replace the 67-year-old decaying Line 5 pipelines in the open waters of the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron.
“The oil tunnel negotiators and parties’ attempt to bypass the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act (GLSLA) and the public trust law constitute one of the most egregious attacks on citizens’ rights and sovereign public trust interests in the Great Lakes in the history of the State of Michigan,” saidFLOW Founder and President Jim Olson.
“The Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority must understand that it is subject to the public trust doctrine and law that applies to the Great Lakes and the soils under them,” said Olson, a water law and environmental attorney. “When Michigan joined the United States in 1837, it took title as sovereign for its citizens under the ‘equal footing’ doctrine to all of the navigable waters in its territory, including the Great Lakes, and ‘all of the soils under them’ below the natural ordinary high-water mark. These waters and the soils beneath them are held in, and protected by, a public trust.”
The public trust doctrine means that the state holds these waters and soils beneath them in trust for the public for the protection of preferred or dedicated public trust uses of navigation, fishing, boating, swimming, bathing, drinking water, and other recreation. There can be no disposition, transfer, conveyance, occupancy or use of any kind of these public trust waters and the soils beneath them, unless there is a statute or law that expressly authorizes that action.
The State and Enbridge must first obtain authorization under the GLSLA for the public-private partnership to establish a long-term agreement for the 99-year lease and occupancy agreement for a tunnel or pipeline in or through the soils and bottomlands of the Straits of Mackinac.
FLOW, as well as a coalition of state-wide public interest organization making up the Oil & Water Don’t Mix campaign, contends that boring an oil tunnel in and through the soils for an oil tunnel is not only subject to these public trust laws, but that crude oil pipelines in the or under the Great Lakes are not a solution given the risks and threats to the Great Lakes, its people, businesses, and communities. FLOW, OWDM, and other communities and organizations have also called for the shutdown of the 67-year old existing line 5 because of the immediate threat to the Straits and the risks posed by the pipeline’s more than 400 stream and river crossings in the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. Enbridge’s proposal to allow electrical lines and other infrastructure to occupy the proposed oil pipeline tunnel is a bad idea that poses an explosion risk. There is adequate capacity in the thousands of miles of the Enbridge crude oil pipeline system to meet its needs for Michigan and Canada without the perilous existing Line 5 or crude oil tunnel for another 67 years.
Above: Nature Change’s Joe VanderMeulen and FLOW’s Liz Kirkwood welcome attendees to the Michigan Septic Summit on Nov. 6, 2019, at Northwestern Michigan College’s Hagerty Center in Traverse City. All photos by Rick Kane.
We really didn’t know what the level of public interest would be when FLOW started working with Joe VanderMeulen of Nature Change—as well as a variety of expert presenters, co-sponsors, and community partners—to develop a day-long summit devoted to Michigan’s septic dilemma.
Would people show up for a whole day to talk about old and failing septic systems? And sit still through an intestinal-bacteria presentation during lunch? Was our estimate of 150 registrants realistic?
Those questions were answered with a resounding “yes” on Wednesday, at our first-ever Michigan Septic Summit, which overflowed with more than 160 attendees and interest in:
Exploring the latest septic system research on the human health and environmental risks,
Learning about local and regional programs and regulations adopted in response to surface water and groundwater quality threats, and
Fostering dialogue toward more effective and geographically extensive efforts to reduce risks from septic system waste.
More than 160 people from around Michigan turned out and tuned in to presentations, panel discussions, and peer-to-peer conversations around regulating Michigan’s septic waste.
On the same day that the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case that delved into septic tanks, Michiganders demonstrated we care about public health and water that’s safe for drinking, bathing, swimming, fishing, boating, and beachcombing. We care about finding equitable solutions to one of humankind’s oldest problems in communal living—disposing of human waste safely in Michigan, the only state that lacks a uniform sanitary code requiring periodic inspection and maintenance of septic systems—even though 30% of Michiganders rely on such systems.
Scott Kendzierski, Director of Environmental Health Services at the Health Department of Northwest Michigan, in his presentation on “Construction and Maintenance of Septic Systems,” identified an emerging issue in septic management: the seasonal rental scenario, in which a three-bedroom home with a septic system designed and permitted in the 1970s for perhaps six occupants is now accommodating more than three times that many people as vacationers, overtaxing an aging or possibly failed system.
Scott Kendzierski presents at the Michigan Septic Summit on construction and maintenance of old and new septic systems in Michigan.
A slide from the presentation by Scott Kendzierski at the Michigan Septic Summit.
Dr. Mark Borchardt, a research microbiologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, Marshfield, Wisconsin, detailed a fascinating story of forensic detection in the case of disease outbreak in a Wisconsin restaurant with a new septic system that failed and contaminated the restaurant’s well and customers.
An audience member asked Borchardt about how high water levels affect septic-system effectiveness in deterring the spread of pathogens. He responded that ideally a system would put maximum distance between a septic drainfield and groundwater level; the higher the water table, the shorter the distance for microbes to travel from wastewater to drinking and surface water.
Jon Beard of Public Sector Consultants, a non-partisan public policy firm in Lansing, revealed perhaps the worst canine job in the world: Source-tracking bacterial contamination. He also shared a startling mid-Michigan survey result: 30% of residents with a septic system did not know they had one. And even more alarmingly, later presenters judged this figure to be too low.
A Michigan Septic Summit participant ponders suggestions from attendees regarding potential solutions for Michigan’s poorly regulated, old and failing septic systems.
Afternoon panels increased our understanding of the complexities facing local communities, all of which are united in the desire to protect groundwater from contamination. Rob Karner, watershed biologist at the Glen Lakes Association in Leelanau County, offered, “I have yet to find anybody who says, ‘I want to pollute the water. I want to drink contaminated water.’ It all comes down to this: Loving the water.”
FLOW’s Executive Director Liz Kirkwood echoed, “We’re having these conversations because we love the Great Lakes. Michigan is the Great Lakes State, and despite our infrastructure crisis, Michiganders really care about clean water. Wherever you are on the political spectrum, we’re here because we love these waters.”
In reflecting on the success of the Septic Summit, FLOW’s founder and famed environmental attorney Jim Olson, summed up the summit this way: “The need to come together never ends. A conference on an important matter concerning our water and the common good goes beyond the adoption of a particular septic system law or code.”
“It brings together a wide spectrum of people, diverse speakers with diverse backgrounds and something to say, and demonstrates the value of education, bringing people together—people who not only care about groundwater and the tens of thousands of failing septic systems, but also about the world and the water, environment, and quality of life in which they live,” Olson said. “I drove home in wonder over the conference and the inspiring feeling from being in a room of people who authentically care, share, and listen at a critical time for our communities and the world.”
FLOW’s Senior Advisor Dave Dempsey facilitates the Michigan Septic Summit’s closing panel discussing, Where Do We Go from Here?
What’s next in the wake of the Septic Summit? Stay tuned as FLOW and allies from around the state, including Michigan Clean Water Action, Michigan Environmental Council, and many others, intend to support more local and regional education and build backing for legislative action to develop and pass a statewide septic code.
Ted Curran and his wife Marcia walked into my life and FLOW’s life during the fight by the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) for the soul of Michigan’s public water and the Great Lakes in its lawsuit against bottled water-giant Nestlé.
I served as legal counsel in MCWC’s battle, and it was during a citizens’ meeting in the lower level of Horizon Books in downtown Traverse City that Ted and Marcia showed up to support us. When they introduced themselves after the meeting, and offered their assistance, I realized they were there because they cared not just about a single issue, but cared deeply about the common good.
Ted became a stalwart supporter of FLOW during our early years from 2009-2011 when we formed as a coalition to work to close the dangerous loopholes in the Great Lakes Compact diversion ban for bottled water and water as a product. Little did I know when I first met Ted that when he chose to work on something, he wouldn’t stop until he saw it succeed.
Thankfully, Ted, along with our other MCWC board members, meant just that. Then he continued as a founding member of FLOW’s Board of Directors. Our mission—“Keep it plain and simple,” Ted urged: Save and sustain the waters of the Great Lakes Basin from diversion, impairment, and private control by establishing a framework and body of principles for generational stewardship.
This framework and body of principles are rooted in what is known as the common law public trust doctrine— principles that impose a duty on government, as trustee, to protect the integrity of common public waters like the Great Lakes, for citizens, as beneficiaries, from one generation to the next. Ted understood the importance of these principles, but he also understood the majestic beauty and importance of 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water.
He rolled up his sleeves, attended most every meeting, and began to demand that we continually define and hone our mission and goals. Shortly after we formed FLOW, Ted invited me to his home on the Lake Michigan shore near Frankfort to talk over coffee. He stressed clarity in our work, and contacts with others, especially in raising funds. He urged me to reach out and follow up, and to not shy away from asking for donations, something I’ve never been very good at. He cared for FLOW, but he knew caring and missions also demanded professionalism for an organization to succeed and serve the common good.
Ted was a mentor, sharp observer, astute organizer, and quiet leader—he encouraged, asked questions to force you to think clearly, and guided strategy and direction. Ted drew on his wealth of diplomatic experience around the world—often in hot-spots like the Middle East–during his career as a one of the highest-ranking members in the United States Foreign Service, and on his deep passion for peaceful solutions in serving the common good throughout his life.
Ted’s idea of peace was not quietism when he was with us. As FLOW co-founding member Bob Otwell, former Executive Director of TART Trails, recalled, “Ted was a warm, gracious man, and at board meetings, his comments always helped move us forward with more wisdom.” Former FLOW Board Chair Mike Dettmer said, “Ted’s work, dedication, and involvement cannot be overstated. He was, and always will be a guiding light, someone who kept us moving in the right direction, and when we strayed, he gently, firmly called us on it.”
As FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood said, “Ted was there in the early days, for meetings, events, outreach, and fundraising. He would always take me aside, reminding me about details, people to contact, and always to keep raising funds. His words and actions were, and remain, an encouragement and reminder that good things come about with faith and action.”
These qualities of clarity, grace, wisdom, and a keen sense of the right thing to do, and then to do it, are something that he and Marcia seemed to have shared throughout their entire life of more than 60 years together.
Ted, you lived for community and the common good of humanity. We miss you. Thank you for your solid, kind service and friendship to all of us here in Northern Michigan. We’ll always think of you when we look at the majestic Great Lakes that you cherished. You have been, and will continue to be, a beacon of light.
A memorial service is planned at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, Beulah, Michigan, for 2 p.m., Friday, Aug. 23, 2019. For more on Ted’s full life, read his beautiful obituary here.
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.
“The Great Lakes belong to all of us. It’s in our DNA,” said FLOW executive director Liz Kirkwood. “We know that those waters that surround us, that bathe us, that nurture us underneath our feet, are inalienable rights for all.”
During this high-water month of July, FLOW will publish video postcards each weekday that feature Michiganders (and citizens of the Great Lakes Basin) explaining what the Public Trust Doctrine means to us and how our precious, publicly-owned fresh water shapes our lives and relationship to this place we call home.
“We chose July because this is the height of summer and the connections people have with our waters,” added Kirkwood. “This is an opportunity for us to renew our commitment to the Great Lakes and think about what stewardship really means. What will we do to make sure these waters are protected for our children and our children’s children?”
At its core, the Public Trust is a set of legal principles establishing the public right to our natural resources. It also establishes the government’s responsibility to protect public health and public rights to use those natural resources. Our goal is to increase everyday awareness about the Public Trust and make it feel less like a legal term and more like an existential code by which we all live.
We saw the Public Trust Doctrine in action last week when the State of Michigan and Attorney General Dana Nessel took the important step of defending the Great Lakes by suing Enbridge and alleging that its occupation of Line 5 violates the Public Trust.
“When Michigan and other states joined this country, the states took title to all navigable waters and the soils beneath them like the Great Lakes in trust for the benefit of its citizens,” said Jim Olson, FLOW president and founder and nationally recognized expert on public trust law. “This means the State has a duty to protect these waters, soils, natural resources, and the rights and uses of citizens from one generation to the next.
“Every citizen is a legally recognized beneficiary for use and enjoyment of these public trust resources for fishing, boating, drinking water, bathing, swimming, and other recreational activities. Governments and private persons cannot interfere with, impair, dispose of or alienate these public trust resources or preferred public rights and uses.”
Olson underscored the importance of the Public Trust Doctrine and its principles at this time in history.
“Whether oil pipelines in the Great Lakes, toxic algae and ‘dead zones’ in Lake Erie, Green Bay, or along Sleeping Bear Dunes, the sale and private control of public water, changes in water levels, erosion, flooding and damage to piers, docks, roads, water infrastructure from global warming and climate climate, the public trust in our waters offers all of us a path forward to address the existing damage and threats, and the world water and climate crisis. When government fails or others refuse to change, citizens have the right to enforce the law to protect their rights and the common good of the community, and their children and grandchildren.”
Our Public Trust video postcards this month will feature everyone from a U.S. Senator and a state Attorney General, to leading environmental advocates, to poets and dancers, to boaters and fishermen, to everyday citizens recreating, beach walking and swimming in their public waters. Through these videos, we hope to empower citizens, educate people about beach access rights, discuss the importance of protecting our groundwater, and reinforce the importance of protecting our freshwater in the age of Climate Change.
On the Fourth of July, we’ll also unveil an online “Public Trust Passport” that you can view, download or print, and use as a handy guide to learn more about your freshwater recreation rights.
Stay tuned to FLOW’s social media feed to learn why Sen. Gary Peters loves backpacking at Isle Royal National Park, why poet Anne-Marie Oomen loves to paddleboard, why toddler Judah Heitman digs swimming and kayaking, and the lifelong resonance of fly fishing with her father on the Boardman River for dancer Sarah Wolff.
In celebration of the Traverse City Cherry Festival and the warm days ahead, we wanted to highlight one of our favorite summer activities. For many, picnicking in a park or near Lake Michigan is a summer tradition. In keeping with our #getoffthebottle campaign and dedication to reducing our single-use plastic footprint, we've made some easy swaps to make your family's picnic zero waste.
Zero waste picnic
Before: sandwich, chips, pear, carrots, fruit salad, cookies, water
Before: sandwich, chips, pear, carrots, fruit salad, cookies, water
After: Tupperware, reusable water bottle, cloth napkins, metal silverware
After: plastic wrappers, single-use plastic bags, single use-plastic water bottle, plastic silverware, paper napkins
We were really surprised at how much trash we generated from what we thought would be a pretty low-impact picnic. Some of these items can be recycled (bottle, some of the plastic containers), but it's not always easy to find a recycling bin, and often these items end up in the trash. We hope that these images make us think twice about our plastic footprint.
Tips for a zero waste picnic:
Plan out foods that don’t need a lot of waste.
Finger foods make great picnic fare! Sandwiches, crackers, cheese and meats, whole fruit and vegetables, cookies.
Bring an apple and an orange instead of a pre-cut fruit salad that you would eat with a fork.
If you do want a salad (greens, potato, pasta, etc), put it in a tupperware and bring your own reusable forks and spoons.
Be creative in packaging like putting chips or crackers in a tupperware container (versus a single use plastic bag), or wrapping items in a cloth.
Bring your own water bottle filled with water or a summer drink, like lemonade or tea.
This is the first of four reports 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 one report each month.
How We Got Here: The Rise of Modern Environmental Protection
Fifty years ago—on June 22, 1969—industrial waste covering the surface of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, burst into flames. The fire was so intense it badly damaged two railway bridges crossing the river.It was not the first time the Cuyahoga had caught fire. Described by Time magazine as a river that “oozed rather than flowed,” the Cuyahoga had erupted in flames many times over decades, with the largest fire dating back to 1952. Yet it was the 1969 fire that ignited public concern and helped galvanize political action, culminating in the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972.
The Cuyahoga emptied its industrial wastes into Lake Erie as did the Detroit, Sandusky, Raisin, and Maumee Rivers. Many other rivers delivered nutrient loadings of nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural watersheds and municipal sewer systems. Untreated wastes and nutrients took their toll, and Lake Erie, an integral part of the largest freshwater system in the world, was declared dead.
The foundational laws and regulations in the modern era aimed at protecting public health and the environment were born in crises.
The last half century has witnessed sweeping changes in the public perception of government and its role in advancing the public interest and improving public welfare. Surveys today show public trust in government is in sharp decline and criticism of government has become a bipartisan social norm. To many, “government regulation” connotes undue interference with markets, competition, and the economy, yet, at the same time, surveys show overwhelming bipartisan support for the protection of air, water, public lands, and natural resources – an essential function of government.
To explain these contradictory outlooks, FLOW is publishing a series of four policy papers that trace the history of environmental regulation, illustrating how it protects individuals, families, and communities while fostering innovation and economic gains.FLOW advocates for greater application of the Public Trust Doctrine, a model for stewarding public resources, addressing the growing challenges of maintaining water quality and confronting the climate crisis, and at the same time, restoring public trust in government’s critical oversight role.
FLOW’s four policy papers—to be published once a month between late June and late September—will articulate the costs and benefits of environmental regulatory systems, explain how environmental regulations prevent harm, narrate how regulations protect people and support our economy, and cover market failures, subsidies, and negative externalities.
Report’s Key Facts
Surveys show overwhelming bipartisan support for the protection of our air, water, public lands, and natural resources. But the public lacks confidence in the effectiveness and competency of government to afford such protections.
“Deregulation” has become a meme that resonates to many as a desirable goal and a public good, but is rarely contextualized as undoing necessary, appropriate, and successful government interventions.
Absent from the public dialogue are informed discussions of the purpose and value of the protections afforded by regulations and the wide array of benefits that regulatory structures provide to the public.
Studies show that the quantifiable benefits of environmental regulations greatly exceed the costs imposed on business and the economy.
The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), under President Trump, has found that the benefits of major regulations have exceeded costs by hundreds of billions of dollars.
OMB also found that the benefits provided by EPA regulations are the most efficientin terms of providing the most benefits at the least cost.
Environmental protections afforded by federal law are under siege as the Trump administration aggressively pursues efforts to broadly roll back environmental regulations and expedite fossil fuel development, while expressing open contempt for climate concerns.
Government, according to the Michigan Supreme Court, has a “high, solemn and perpetual” fiduciary responsibility as trustee, under the doctrine, to protect and preserve the trust for future generations.
The accepted means of determining the economic impact of regulations—cost-benefit analysis—has been subverted under the Trump administration, producing an imbalanced accounting of costs over benefits.
The Public Trust Doctrine has the potential to apply as a compelling legal framework to protect the public interest in all commonly held natural resources—our air, our non-navigable waters, wetlands, forests, and public lands.
Using the Public Trust Doctrine to fight the war against government
Environmental regulations are often assailed as unduly interfering with free markets, undermining competitiveness, and adding unnecessary costs to the production of goods and services. At the same time, public surveys and polling show strong and consistent support for efforts to protect natural resources and the environment.
While the public at large displays a strong consensus for measures that protect our air and water, the public has less appreciation for the full array of benefits government regulations provide and lacks confidence in the effectiveness and competency of government to afford such protections.
The benefits of government regulation are measurable and are overwhelmingly favorable in the realm of environmental protection, where the quantifiable benefits of regulations greatly exceed the costs imposed on business and the economy.
The discontinuity between the need for regulatory interventions to protect human health and the environment and the distrust of government’s regulatory mandate is attributable, at least in part, to a strong line of critical commentary from conservative “think tanks” and right-of-center media animating suspicion and distrust in government’s effort to advance the public interest.
Environmental protections afforded by federal law are under siege as the Trump administration aggressively pursues efforts to broadly roll back environmental regulations and expedite fossil fuel development, while expressing open contempt for climate concerns. Meanwhile, former Governor Rick Snyder in late 2018 signed into law a bill that limits new regulations in Michigan to the weakened regulatory standards defined by federal law.
The field of government regulatory activities is vast. This paper provides a historical perspective on environmental regulations, illustrating the many ways government regulatory systems provide cost-effective interventions that protect human health and the environment. The effect of regulations can and should be measured and monetized as a means of ensuring sound government policies that minimize harm to the public and avoid imprudent and costly impacts.
Environmental regulations are intended to protect every citizen’s common interest in this wondrous natural resource heritage and to prevent further harm so that future generations can continue to enjoy and derive the same benefits we have today. We have charged government with this awesome responsibility and the corresponding “duty to protect” and safeguard our common natural resources is deeply embedded in Michigan’s jurisprudence.
The Public Trust Doctrine is the legal framework to protect shared natural resources also referred to as “the commons.” The Doctrine holds that the Great Lakes and their tributary waters, and by extension, all water-dependent natural resources, are held in trust for the benefit of the people. Government, according to the Michigan Supreme Court, has a “high, solemn and perpetual” fiduciary responsibility as trustee, under the doctrine, to protect and preserve the trust for future generations. In so doing, public trust in government can be enhanced as well.
Michigan lies at the heart of the Great Lakes—the most magnificent freshwater system on the planet. The good news is that there exists a broad public consensus to protect this extraordinary natural resource endowment, as well as the availability of a long-standing set of legal principles that, if better appreciated and activated, can empower our citizens and leaders to hold government accountable for protecting our commonly held natural resource heritage.
The paper offers the long-recognized Public Trust Doctrine as a legal framework to address the challenges of protecting and enhancing our natural resources and combatting climate change while rebuilding public confidence in the role of government.
Mike Vickery recently became Chair of the Board of Directors at FLOW (For Love of Water), the nonprofit Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City. Vickery is an advisor on strategic environmental communication, community engagement, and organizational capacity building. He is an Emeritus professor of Communication, Public Affairs, and Environmental Studies at Alma College, where he was founding chair of the Department of Communication and served as Co-Director of the Center for Responsible Leadership.
Vickery holds a PhD in Communication. His graduate work focused on public discourse and controversies related to technical and social value-conflicts. He has taught graduate and undergraduate courses at the University of Texas-Austin, the University of Arizona, Texas A&M University, and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. His areas of teaching, consulting, and applied scholarship include environmental rhetoric, risk communication, public health communication, and organizational communication.
“We are excited by Mike Vickery’s ascension to serving as FLOW’s Board Chair, where his well-honed skills in strategic communications, public engagement, and capacity building are sure to strengthen our reach and influence,” said Liz Kirkwood, executive director of FLOW. “Our future is bright with Mike at the helm, guided by his deep commitment to the Great Lakes and safe drinking water for all.”
Lisa Wyatt Knowlton
Lisa Wyatt Knowlton has joined FLOW’s Board of Directors. Wyatt Knowlton’s Education Doctorate includes specialties in management and policy. She holds a Masters of Public Administration and Bachelor of Arts in International Relations. Twice she has served as CEO; with a trade association and a foundation. Additionally, her work history includes extensive assignments as senior counsel for a broad range of management and leadership issues in the private and public sectors. Past clients have included the Gates, W.K. Kellogg, Ford, and Ball foundations, as well as renowned associations, non-governmental organizations, and network charities such as Feeding America.
Wyatt Knowlton has managed complex change initiatives and has served as a strategic planner, facilitator, and trusted advisor. As a Kellogg Leadership Fellow, she worked in Central America, Europe, and Asia focused on microenterprise. Her areas of specialization include organization effectiveness, leadership, change management, systems thinking, and strategy. Wyatt Knowlton is a learning leader. She speaks Spanish, is an adjunct university faculty (Notre Dame and Grand Valley State University), and authored a text on logic models used by Harvard University, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Bank, Packard Foundations, and leading development institutions worldwide. Wyatt Knowlton is managing principal for Wyatt Advisors, a resource for effective people and organizations. She is an advocate for adoption, Great Lakes protection, and an avid cyclist. Wyatt Knowlton is a board member with a refugee-serving collaborative. Recently, she established an education fund for girls in Peru.
“Lisa Wyatt Knowlton is an extraordinary agent for change,” said Kirkwood. “As FLOW enters a period of growth and opportunity, Lisa is just the leader we need to help us tackle complex problems, identify systemic solutions, and maximize our impact in protecting the Great Lakes and the public’s right to clean water.”