FLOW’s organizing principle is the public trust doctrine. What sounds like an exotic concept is quite simple. This centuries-old principle of common law holds that there are some resources, like water and submerged lands that by their nature cannot be privately owned. Rather, these commons – including the Great Lakes — belongs to the public. And governments, like the State of Michigan, have a responsibility to protect public uses of these resources. We explicitly address public trust concerns on what we’re calling Public Trust Tuesday.
The words “public trust” appear in many news and social media articles these days, and the meanings of the phrase often overlap as they should.
First, for those who follow FLOW’s mission and work or the news about the world water crisis, there is the public trust in our bodies of water, like our lakes and streams, or the groundwater that replenishes them. This is known as the public trust doctrine, an ancient principle in our common law that imposes an affirmative duty on government officials to protect the paramount rights of citizens concerning fishing, aquatic wildlife and habitat, boating, swimming, and access to safe and affordable drinking water. A breach of this public trust duty is legally enforceable when government fails to act or acts in a way that interferes with these rights or impairs these waters and uses. Government cannot sell off the bottomlands and waters of the Great Lakes, for instance, for a purely private purpose or gain. Government can’t authorize a landowner to fill in the bottomlands of a lake for a permanent private deck, because it would exclude the right of the public to the use of the surface of the lake for these protected public trust rights and uses. A private cabin owner can’t fence a stream and block fly fishers from wading and casting for fish. Cities can’t divert a tributary stream that impairs a downstream navigable lake. A federal judge in Oregon recently ruled that the public trust in bodies of water can force the government from dragging its feet to implement the reduction of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, which contributes to global warming, and extreme weather that interferes with or harms citizens’ right to drinking water, fishing, swimming, and boating.
Second, public trust refers to a public official’s conflict of interest or self-dealing, or breach of governmental office. This most often means an official in her or his official capacity uses that capacity to help approve a business contract for a partner or family member. Or, it might mean an official takes a bribe to vote for a lobbyist’s pet project or to influence an agency to grant a permit for a land development, mall, or perhaps a new urban water infrastructure deal that forces local governments to go along with privatizing the water services system, because the city can’t raise the taxes or collect enough user fees to fix a broken system or find a new water source.
Third, there have been charges of breach of public trust over state and federal agencies’ callous inaction or deliberate indifference toward the health and well-being of citizens– that is, the failure of government to fulfill its duty to promote the common good and public health, safety, and welfare. This could well encompass what happened in the Flint water tragedy, where officials rushing to transfer Flint’s water supply from the established Detroit system to a local water plant that withdrew water from a seriously polluted river. Or, perhaps, it would cover the Detroit water shutoff of tens of thousands of poor home occupants who cannot afford a $200 a month water bill.
All of these charges of breach of public trust have one common denominator: the breach of a legally enforceable duty or ethical expectation and duty to protect the common good in public land, water, health, and the general welfare. Regrettably, with increasing frequency, these breaches of public trust overlap. The water in Detroit is withdrawn from the Detroit River and Lake Huron, both public trust bodies of water. The State forced Detroit to suspend and transfer its power to an emergency manager appointed by the governor to fix the city’s bankruptcy. The emergency manager began getting rid of deadbeat customers by cutting them off from the water services, because they didn’t pay. Within a year, the once highly regarded Detroit regional water system ended up in the hands of a government created Great Lakes Water Authority, controlled by the suburbs, so Detroit could exit bankruptcy. In Flint, inaction or deliberate indifference by state and federal officials failed to prevent continued exposure to lead in the drinking water when another emergency manager, appointed to take charge of the city, hurried the switch to the Flint River. The same inaction has led to the continuing massive algal blooms that have ravaged western Lake Erie. Here, the breach of the traditional public trust duty toward protecting the destruction of fishing, boating, swimming, and recreation in Lake Erie soon led to the exposure of more than 400,000 residents served by Toledo’s public water system, a deliberate refusal to take action against influential corporate farming interests to reduce phosphorus loading from fertilizer runoff exacerbated by extreme weather caused by climate change.
All three of these meanings of public trust point to one thing: more and more, governmental officials are fixated on protecting and promoting profit, gain, and private interests over the common good of the public– whether breach of public trust in our common waters, a breach of a duty and charge to protect the health of citizens or peddling and using influence to ignore doing the right thing in favor of a personal favor.
Jim Olson, President and Founder
Perhaps, upholding the public trust in our water, health, ethics, and the common good is the litmus test for the coming decade for anyone elected or appointed for public office. Ultimately, it is up to citizens to see, claim, and enforce the public trust for the good of all. It might even make for better business, jobs, economy, and quality of life that will be more lasting.
FLOW’s organizing principle is the public trust doctrine. What sounds like an exotic concept is quite simple. This centuries-old principle of common law holds that there are some resources, like water and submerged lands, that by their nature cannot be privately owned. Rather, these commons – including the Great Lakes — belongs to the public. And governments, like the State of Michigan, have a responsibility to protect public uses of these resources. We explicitly address public trust concerns on what we’re calling Public Trust Tuesday.
Between 2010 and 2016, several groups of young people filed lawsuits in different regions of the United States, claiming the states and federal government had failed to fulfill their higher duties under their authorized powers to do something about CO2 and greenhouse gases (GHGs) that have fired warming of the planet, extreme weather events—climate change—causing devastating harm to their lives, homes, families, waters, fishing, and communities.
Federal and state governments stonewalled their efforts, claiming that they could not be compelled to take action because the children did not have a liberty or property interest protected by the Constitution, and that they had no right or interest – standing— to bring a lawsuit. At first, the government succeeded, and then one or two courts recognized that these children’s lives and interests were threatened, and that climate change was a clear danger if not the cause of serious injuries and damage, and opened the door for litigation. But none of these efforts resulted in a clear recognition that these children, or other people threatened or harmed by climate change induced extreme weather, had a constitutional interest in “liberty” or “property,” or an interest as beneficiaries of a public trust imposed on government to protect vital interests—like drinking water, property and home, and fishing, boating, or farming.
A Watershed Moment
Nothing much happened, that is, until Kelsey Cascadia Rose Juliana and other children, through their legal guardian, climate scientist James Hansen, filed suit in the federal court in Portland, Oregon in early 2015. The child plaintiffs charged that the federal government had violated their constitutional and public trust rights – a generational right to non-impairment of their beneficial rights in water and use of water for essential needs based on the public trust doctrine. The children charged that the government and EPA had failed to take sufficient action to stem the harm and dangers of climate change, that the window for action to prevent increasing catastrophe was short, and requested an order from the court to compel the government to develop and implement a comprehensive plan to reduce CO2 and effects of climate change.
Once more, the federal government, joined by intervening industry organizations, moved the court to toss the suit because there was no legal precedent for these claims, and even if they existed, the children lacked standing or any real interest to protect, and that the students were interfering with the exercise of political discretion left to the government. In sum, the government argued the claims even if real were not the students’ business or the stuff that courts should decide.
But this time, the federal government lost. The magistrate ruled that the children had stated facts, endangerment, and harms sufficient for the early phases of the suit to proceed. But government and industry, now threatened by the suit, filed motions before the federal district judge assigned to the trial of the case. In an enlightened opinion in late 2016, Judge Aikens rejected government and industry contentions, adopted the magistrate’s earlier decision, and ruled that the children plaintiffs had the right to bring the suit. He also ruled that the children had properly stated the critical dangers of climate change, the deliberate indifference on the part of the government, and properly claimed a violation of “liberty” under the constitution and the government’s high duty under the public trust doctrine to protect the children’s present and future from threats of rising oceans and impairment of the nation’s waters.
Judge Aikens considered the threat to the children was real, had already caused serious damage, and posed imminent danger to them and humanity in the near future. Exercising what he considered the traditional role of the courts, because the judiciary can’t ignore a “wholesale failure” that unchecked would result in a “collapse” of humanity. Judge Aikens ordered the parties to prepare for a trial that would determine the basis of climate science, the children’s claims, and apply the law and Constitution.
Hurricanes Harvey and Maria
More recently, Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and Hurricane Harvey, and the raging fires in California, have jolted us into the realization that global warming and extreme and increasingly chronic effects have caused and are causing devastating and chronic harms and interference with communities, property, and water. To list a few, rising sea levels wreaking havoc in coastal cities, flooding, drought and heat and fires, endangered public health, shut off of public services and water systems, landslides and other damage to property and lives.
Closer to home, in the Great Lakes region, including Michigan, we’ve seen climate change effects exacerbate and foster algal blooms that have shut down Toledo’s drinking water for 400,000 people, and more in Monroe, Michigan. We’ve seen extreme rainfall events overwhelming stormwater controls and drains, resulting in sewage overflows and serious flooding.
In the last century, some courts still held fast to the idea that the air was the atmosphere, lakes and streams were surface waters, and the water beneath our feet—groundwater—was simply “out of sight, out of mind.” In the last 30 years, hydrogeological and weather scientists have made one thing clear: We live in a water cycle, the hydrosphere, where every arc of the water cycle is connected to the others. The arc of precipitation falls to the earth; the arc of runoff flows over the land surface to drains, gullies, and into creeks, streams, rivers, and lakes. The water percolates into the earth and forms aquifers—water sources—and groundwater, another arc, which then discharges through seeps, springs to form creeks, streams, rivers, and lakes. Then, these surface waters flow to the ocean. From the arc of evaporation—from the surfaces of vegetation and water bodies, transfers water into the atmosphere. In the atmosphere, water is diverted into the arc of the air or our hydrosphere, in the form of concentrated “rivers” and “lakes” of moisture and water.
Climate change is not just an air pollution question, it is also a water question– hydrosphere—climate change directly affects the hydrology and movement of water in every arc of the water cycle, and interferes with and impairs water, land, homes, community, and people everywhere. The effect of climate change on water and earth and life dispel any doubt that we and everything else are inextricably connected by the flow and movement of every arc of the water cycle.
Yet despite efforts to do something about climate and water and to become more resilient to live as best we can with the coming changes and impacts from climate change, the federal government continued to drag its feet. The federal government was forced and prodded by the federal courts to treat CO2 as a “pollutant” under the Clean Air Act, but our current President has thumbed his nose at climate change rules and denounced the Paris Climate agreement. It is not unreasonable to conclude there has been a deliberate indifference on the part of governments and industries to reduce the rising dangers and imminent threat to millions of people, water and the hydrosphere.
Constitutional Rights and the Public Trust in Water
In 2011, For Love of Water (FLOW) and the Council of Canadians (Canadians) filed a formal report and request with the International Joint Commission (IJC) to recognize the legal interest of citizens and the duties of both countries and state governments to protect water quality, flows, levels, and its protected uses that citizens rely on for their lives, sustenance, and livelihood based on the public trust doctrine. The public trust is a well-established ancient principle that protects navigable waters and the rights of fishing, navigation, drinking water, swimming, bathing, and sustenance. Because current laws and the governments’ ability to address increasing systemic threats to the Great Lakes and all tributary waters–like algal blooms, Asian Carp, rises and drops in water levels from extreme weather, toxic chemicals, and algal blooms from nutrients and climate– FLOW and the Canadians asked the IJC to recognize the public trust doctrine, and urge governments to fulfill their duties as trustees of these waters and public trust natural resources. After supplemental reports and considerations, the IJC issued a report in 2016 that recommended the public trust as a “backstop” to fill the gaps and limitations of existing laws and efforts.
At about the same time, Michael Blumm at Northwest Law School in Portland and Mary Christina Woods at University of Oregon pioneered claims that the public trust doctrine should be applied to the atmosphere in order to force governments to drastically reduce CO2 and GHGs.
Even without extending the public trust doctrine to protect the atmosphere, FLOW argued that because the arcs of the water cycle formed a single hydrological system—hydrosphere– the traditional application of the public trust doctrine to navigable waters could be used as a basis to reduce CO2 and GHGs, because the effects on the hydrosphere had a direct effect on streams, lakes, and the oceans, and impaired if not destroyed fishing, drinking water, and other life-sustaining public trust uses. Judge Aikens followed similar reasoning in accepting the children’s public trust claim in the Juliana suit.
Trump Administration Climate Change-Deniers Try to Torpedo the Children’s Trust Lawsuit
In a last-ditch effort to avoid a trial over the children’s climate change suit, newly appointed federal officials and their lawyers looked for a way to deep-six the Juliana lawsuit before federal district court Judge Aikens. Justice Department lawyers filed an unorthodox request with a federal court of appeals to take over control of Judge Aikens’ handling of the lawsuit, and peremptorily dismiss the case. But the Seattle federal appeals court slapped down the federal government’s bid, ruling that their attempted appeal was a “drastic remedy” on the claims brought by the children because the issues would “be better addressed through the ordinary course of litigation.”
Commentators everywhere exclaimed that the appeals court ruling affirmed the federal district court that the children could proceed and signaled a landmark ruling on the science and causation of greenhouse gases and climate change. In a classic traditional role, the courts– our third branch of government—have stepped in to interpret what the law is to remedy the unjust deliberate indifference of government and climate deniers. Since Juliana and twenty-one other children filed their suit in 2015, the cities of New York and San Francisco filed suits against Chevron, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips and Royal Dutch Shell to pay for the damage and infrastructure needed to combat climate caused by the sale and burning of fossil fuels. Like in the lawsuits against the tobacco industry, the fossil fuel industry has known fossil fuels have heated the climate beyond acceptable levels and endangered cities, water, and the planet. And like the tobacco industry, they’ve done what they can to foster denial and obstruction to the required shift to renewable energy and rapid reduction of CO2 and greenhouse gases.
Jim Olson, President and Founder
In a way, climate change denial by government and industry is reminiscent of the Scope’s trial, fictionalized by Spencer Tracy as Darrow and Frederick March as Bryant in the 1960s movie Inherit the Wind. But the passion of Bryant was based on a genuine belief in the deeper role the Genesis story in defining the human’s place in a world created by God. The coming climate change trials are not so much a denial of science or genuine passion of belief, but a corporate defense of a fossil-fuel grip on the economy, to protect a financial empire that is causing damage and a growing danger of the collapse of humanity with a shorter and shorter period to do anything about it.
Congratulations to lead attorney in Juliana v U.S., Julia Olson (no relation), and Professors Michael Blum (Northwest School of Law, Lewis and Clark, Portland) and Christina Woods (University of Oregon, Eugene), and so many others. Is there any question that the effects of intense storms on the people of Puerto Rico and Houston or the raging fires in California are attributable to climate change? The Children, their lawyers, scientists, and so many organizations and people are bringing justice to those injured by breach of government affirmative duties to protect water, atmosphere, life, and the public trust. We are grateful. The public trust in water and our hydrosphere are the heart of our mission and work. www.flowforwater.org. Join us, read up on background articles, and share. The time for mitigating climate change effects is short.
 E.g. Alec L. v. Jackson, 853 F Supp. 2d 11 (D.D.C. 2012).
Juliana et al. v. United States, 2016 WL 183903 (Magistrate., Ore. D. Ct., Order, Jan. 14, 2016).
 The public trust doctrine imposes a “solemn” duty on governments, as trustees, to protect certain waters—oceans or inland lakes and streams of the state, or their tributaries, from impairment or from interference with boating, fishing, swimming, bathing, drinking, navigation and other public uses of these waters. See Illinois Central R Rd. v Illinois, 146 U.S. 387 (1892); Joseph Sax, The Public Trust Doctrine in Natural Resources Law: Effective Judicial Intervention, 68 Mich L. Rev. 471 (1970); James Olson, All Aboard: Navigating a Course for Universal Adoption of the Public Trust Doctrine; 15 Vermont J. Env. L. 135 (2014); see generally, Flow for Love of Water, a Great Lakes law and policy center dedicated to the preservation of citizens public trust in water and nature. www.flowforwater.org.
 See Mary Christina Woods, Nature’s Trust (Cambridge Univ. Press 2013).
 James Olson and Elizabeth Kirkwood, FLOW Report to International Joint Commission on “Draft International Joint Commission 10-Year Review on Protection of the Waters of the Great Lakes Basin,” (June 30, 2015).