Tag: great lakes

FLOW Urges Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority to Halt Action on Unauthorized ‘Line 5’ Oil Tunnel

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:                                                                                                   March 5, 2020

Jim Olson, Founder and President                                                             Email: Jim@FLOWforWater.org
FLOW (For Love of Water), Traverse City, MI                                                     Web: ForLoveofWater.org
Cell: (231) 499-8831                                                                                             FLOW Office: (231) 944-1568


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 Corridor Authority, which is housed in the Michigan Department of Transportation, will meet Friday, March 6, at 10 a.m. in St. Ignace to discuss past and ongoing planning for the location and construction of the oil tunnel and new pipeline in the state public trust soils beneath the waters of the Great Lakes—the Straits of Mackinac.

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,” said FLOW 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.

For more information, see FLOW’s:


How Big is the Plastics Problem in the Great Lakes?

By Dave Long

Many people realize the world has a serious problem with plastic pollution. The crisis has been featured on television, in movies and articles in National Geographic and many other publications. For example, the news has featured the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which has been estimated to be the size of the state of Texas.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is largely made up of plastics. It contains single-use plastic waste, old fishing nets and buoys, and many other plastics from around the earth that have been caught up in the ocean currents. There have been several efforts to collect the plastics and reduce the volume of the garbage patch, but these efforts have not been very successful. The sad fact is three other garbage patches have been identified in the oceans, and many small islands have been destroyed by plastic waste.

The Great Lakes contain approximately 20% of the world’s surface fresh water. Compared to ocean plastics, not much has been reported about the amount of plastics in the Great Lakes. Based on the 2016 US Geological Survey (USGS) reports, significant volumes of plastics enter the Great Lakes every year, and they are not going away. The United States and Canada together discard 22 million pounds of plastic into the waters of the Great Lakes each year, according to a 2016 Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) study. Much of it washes up along the shores, accounting for 80 percent of the litter found there. Researchers report that Chicago, Toronto, Cleveland, and Detroit are the worst contributors to plastic pollution. Half of the plastic dumped into the Great Lakes—11 million pounds—goes into Lake Michigan. Lake Erie places second, receiving 5.5 million pounds. Lake Ontario gets 3 million pounds of plastic waste a year, with Lake Huron and Lake Superior receiving smaller amounts.

Plastic pollution in Lake Michigan represents approximately the equivalent of 100 Olympic-sized pools full of plastic bottles dumped into the lake every year. Most of the particles from Chicago and Milwaukee end up accumulating on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan, while the particles from Detroit and Cleveland end up along the southern coast of the eastern basin of Lake Erie.

According to an article in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, tiny pieces of harmful plastic called microplastics are prevalent in many rivers that flow into the Great Lakes. Results are also illustrated on a new USGS microplastics website. This study characterized the quantity, size, and shapes of floating micro- and macroplastics in 29 Great Lakes tributaries in six states with adjacent land being forested, farmland, and urban areas. Water contributions came primarily from runoff and wastewater effluent. Rivers ran through areas with varied population densities and hydrologic conditions. Plastic particles were sorted by size, counted, and categorized.

Microplastics were found in all 107 samples, with a maximum concentration of 32 particles/m3 and a median of 1.9 particles/m3. Ninety-eight percent of sampled plastic particles were less than 4.75 millimeters in diameter and therefore considered microplastics. Urban watersheds had the highest concentrations of microplastics, but microplastics were also present in streams in forested and agricultural areas.

In summary, the USGS found 12% of fish from the Great Lakes contained plastic particles, 1,285 plastic particles in a square foot of river sediment, and 112,000 particles per square mile of Great Lakes water.

Where do microplastics come from? One source is photodegradation and/or mechanical breakdown of larger items, such as Styrofoam, plastic bags, bottles, wrappers, cigarette butts, and tires. As these plastics are exposed to sunlight, wind, waves, and water currents, larger pieces get smaller and smaller. Unfortunately, filters from cigarette butts are one of the most common types of plastic pollution found on a beach and lake bottom. Many smokers simply flick their cigarette butts on the ground, or worse, in the lakes. Some 95% of cigarette filters are made of tightly packed white cellulose acetate (a plastic). These small fibers break down into smaller and smaller particles, but it takes hundreds of years for cigarette filters to degrade.

Another source of microplastics, a subgroup called microfiber, comes from washing machines. Mark Browne’s research demonstrated a large percentage of the microplastic pollution comes from synthetic fabrics like nylon and acrylic fabrics. Patagonia, in its self-funded study by the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, analyzed water and sediment samples from around the world and concluded “Microfibers are ubiquitous in the aquatic environment.” Patagonia in its own laundry study verified that large quantities of microfibers were released when washing synthetic garments, especially fleece. They also verified that wastewater treatment plants receive large quantities of microfibers and the majority of the microfibers pass through wastewater treatment plants because they are too small for treatment plants to filter.

Knowing that aquatic wildlife eat these microfibers is one thing; but seeing the impact on an individual fish brings this crisis to life—or rather, death. Sherri Mason, a professor of environmental chemistry at the State University of New York at Fredonia, is an expert in plastic pollution, having studied its impact on the Great Lakes ecosystem for several years. Through Mason’s research, she has seen the significant impact of the food chain in the Great Lakes. Cutting open fish, she was alarmed at what she found.  The body cavity of the fish was filled with synthetic fibers. Through the microscope, they seemed to be weaving themselves into the gastrointestinal tract.

What are the known risks from microplastics? We know that microplastics and microfibers can be harmful to wildlife. They are often ingested by birds, fish, oysters, mussels, and zooplankton. Ingestion is often a physical hazard blocking the intestine, interfering with reproduction, and even causing death.

They can also be a toxic hazard. Plastic particles can accumulate contaminants such polychlorinated organics, polycyclic hydrocarbons, and pesticides, which can be associated with endocrine disruption and cancer. These contaminants can accumulate within the food chain and end up in the fish we eat. Microfibers from garments have often been treated with toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, brominated flame retardants and fluorinated fabric treatments. In a 2012 study, Mason found Lake Erie had higher concentrations of microplastics than any other body of water on Earth. Absorbed on these tiny pieces of plastic they found pollutants, such as DDT, polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), too small for treatment plants to filter out.

Are those living around the Great Lakes ingesting microplastics and microfibers? If humans are eating fish and other wildlife from the Great Lakes, they are likely consuming microplastics. Your favorite beer, if manufactured with Great Lakes water, likely contains microplastics or microfibers. Microfibers have been found in bottled water derived from the Great Lakes and microplastics and microfibers have been found in small quantities in some public water systems. Unfortunately, to date, very little research has been conducted on the effects of microplastics being ingested by humans. Much research will be required to determine the health or physical impacts to human ingestion of microfibers and microplastics.

David Long is the founder of Environmental Sustainability Solutions, LLC (ESS) that provides consulting services for environmental, sustainability. He will address potential methods to reduce the volume of plastics entering the Great Lakes and its tributaries in a future article.

Michigan Septic Summit Draws Packed Crowd to Traverse City

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.

The results of unregulated septic waste are devastating to Michigan surface water and groundwater. An estimated 130,000 septic systems in the state are failing, releasing 5.2 billion gallons of sewage annually into Michigan waters. Numerous Michigan rivers and lakes have detectable levels of fecal bacteria. Groundwater, too, is contaminated by septic wastes. And conventional household waste isn’t the only thing polluting our waters. Emerging contaminants like pharmaceutical residues and endocrine disruptors are also found in household wastes. Little monitoring is done to identify these substances in groundwater.

Some of the many highlights of the Michigan Septic Summit, which was streamed live by Traverse Area Community Media and available to watch now on Facebook, include:

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?

 

You can view the entire slide show 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.


Government Must Protect the Great Lakes, our Greatest Source of Natural Capital

Report author Skip Pruss

By Skip Pruss

This article is excerpted from the second of four policy briefs by former FLOW board chair, and former director of the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth, Skip Pruss that make the economic case for government’s role in protecting the environment.

The second policy brief, “Resetting Expectations: The Value of Natural Systems and Government’s Role in Protecting Water,” is available here to read or download as an executive summary or full report. FLOW will unveil the last two briefs in the coming months. (Pruss’ first report in the series also is available here in executive summary and in full.)

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Michigan lies at the heart of the Great Lakes, the largest fresh surface water system in the world. Harboring 95 percent of all fresh surface water in United States and 84 percent of all fresh surface water in North America, the Lakes are an enormous source of natural capital, providing direct health, economic, environmental, and ecological services to 40 million people. The Great Lakes system is a magnificent natural endowment. Sculpted by ancient retreating glaciers that left the largest interconnected body of fresh surface water in the world, the Great Lakes are truly globally unique.

We in Michigan are water rich. The Great Lakes support a $6 trillion regional economy. Water is our most valuable source of natural capital, bestowing billions of dollars in ecological services by providing fresh, potable water for consumption, recreation, agriculture, and industry. Freshwater aquatic ecosystems — our lakes, streams, rivers, groundwater and wetlands — provide drinking water, produce fish, nourish unique biological niches at the land and water interface, and provide diverse recreational opportunities. Wetlands are prolific biological nurseries harboring birds, insects, waterfowl, and aquatic organisms throughout the food chain, while purifying water, storing stormwater, recharging aquifers, and buffering nutrients — essential services that are largely unknown and unappreciated. Great Lakes fisheries alone provide more than $7 billion in annual economic benefits and support more than 75,000 jobs.

Photo: Great Lakes fisheries alone provide more than $7 billion in annual economic benefits and support more than 75,000 jobs.

With our water wealth comes special obligations of stewardship. The Great Lakes and their tributary rivers and streams belong to the public and are held in a public trust. Government, as trustee, has the responsibility to protect the trust waters from impairment and cannot allow diminishment of water quantity or water quality. Our people, our businesses, and our economy depend on the health and viability of our Great Lakes, and others less gifted by geography will set their sights on the Great Lakes. There will soon come a time when discussions about human rights in water, growing water scarcity, and the need for a more “equitable” distribution of Great Lakes’ water wealth will elevate in Congress and state legislatures.

A recent study conducted under the Resources Planning Act, a federal law requiring periodic resource assessments on forest lands and rangelands, indicates that of the 204 water basins in the United States, 145 basins will show decreases in yield over the coming decades and nearly half may experience monthly water shortages. While climate change is projected to increase precipitation in some northern regions of the United States, increased frequency of droughts will result in reduced river flows, less reservoir capacity, and decreases in soil moisture. Globally, the situation is much worse. The United Nations reports that today “over 2 billion people live in countries experiencing high water stress, and about 4 billion people experience severe water scarcity during at least one month of the year.”

Our abundant water resources will increasingly weigh to Michigan’s competitive advantage, but, more likely than not, Michigan will face future challenges from states that will be stressed by inadequate water supplies and who will look to our region with the belief and expectation that our water resources need to serve a larger geography. Our water wealth will be certain to attract a broad universe of water-dependent agricultural, commercial, and industrial private interests as well. At the same time, the chasm between the water rich and the water poor will grow. Great Lakes freshwater resources and the vital services they provide will only increase in value in a future where national and international water supplies become more stressed and attenuated.

Government, as the fiduciary charged with the protection of public trust resources, must use the tools and resources it has in terms of laws, regulations, and best practices to conserve and protect our water as a public good. Greater public understanding of the vital services water resources provide would empower citizens to participate more effectively in the political process and demand that policymakers and legislators take active measures to protect water. Intelligent, sensible water management and conservation practices and effective application of laws and regulations on the part of government to protect the waters upon which we all depend are imperative. Ultimately, our legal and moral authority to resist appropriation of our water wealth will be a function of how adept and effective we are as Great Lakes stewards in the conservation and protection of our waters.

And we must learn from our mistakes.

Line 5’s Failing Design – Anchor Supports, Anchor Strikes, and the Rising Risk of an Oil Spill Disaster in the Great Lakes

Above: An underwater image from Canadian oil transport giant Enbridge shows deep grooves in the Straits of Mackinac lake bottom, going up and over one of the twin Line 5 oil pipelines and leaving damage to the pipe’s outer coating, the result of an April 1, 2018, anchor strike.
(Photo: Enbridge via U.S. Senate)


By Jim Olson

The disclosure by Enbridge that 81 feet of Line 5 has been undermined by powerful currents and is slumping points to something far more serious—and dangerous: The 66-year-old dual pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac are failing and also at risk of rupture from a ship’s anchor drag that hooks and rips the pipeline wide open. It is also a violation of the law that governs the protection of the public trust in the Great Lakes and the soils beneath them.

Since at least 2001, Enbridge has known of these risky violations of the easement that the State of Michigan granted in 1953 to conditionally authorized Enbridge to pump oil through twin pipelines, and changed the pipeline’s design by adding anchor supports to shore it up.

At first, it was a few anchors, but between then and now, Enbridge has added a total of 202 supports that elevate 3 miles of dual oil pipelines that were designed to lay on the lakebed of the Straits. The former Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) under the Snyder Administration was an accomplice allowing the supports, but without requiring authorization under Michigan law based on a necessary risk, impact, and alternative assessment.

Rather, the MDEQ until now has looked only at the impact to the lakebed from the screw anchors, nothing more. In other words, a completely new design is being built in the Straits for this dangerous Line 5 that carries nearly 23 million gallons of crude oil daily, and the design has never been evaluated or authorized by the DEQ, now the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE). 

The State of Michigan now finally recognizes the greater risk of an anchor strike from the change in design; one dented the dual lines in three places in April 2018, and the State cited this serious risk in its lawsuit filed June 27 against Enbridge to shut down Line 5.

With 3 miles (almost 40 percent) of the Line 5 crude oil lines in the Straits now 2 to 4 feet above the lakebed, the next strike has a strong likelihood of hooking and rupturing the lines; causing a massive release that will devastate hundreds of miles of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan; shut down Mackinac Island, ferries, ships, drinking water, fishing, boating, and recreation; and destroy the habitat and ecosystem and economy for years to come—to wit: the Deep Horizons blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.

Fortunately, we have new leadership in Governor Gretchen Whitmer (call her office at 517-373-3400, or share your opinion here) and EGLE Director Liesl Clark (call her at 800-292-4706), who can correct this attack on the public trust rights of citizens in the Great Lakes, and restore the rule of law that was abandoned by the Snyder administration for 8 years.  What should you do?  Email or call Governor Whitmer and Director Clark , and urge them to take action immediately by sending a letter to Enbridge demanding it apply for authorization of this major change in design not covered by the 1953 easement, and never evaluated or allowed.

Jim Olson is FLOW’s Founder, President, and Legal Advisor.

Shaping Niagara Falls: Engineers, Hydropower, and Sustainability

Contemporary Aerial View of Niagara Falls (American Falls to the left, Horseshoe Falls to the right). Photo by author.

By Daniel Macfarlane

Last month marked the 50th anniversary of the temporary turning off in 1969 of the American Falls, the smaller of the main cataracts at Niagara Falls. There was a precedent for this bold move: In the 1950s, engineers had re-plumbed the much larger Horseshoe Falls, shrinking it and diverting the majority of the water before it plunged over the precipice. All this may not seem very “green” — but the point was primarily to funnel water to hydropower stations. Thus, the modern history of Niagara Falls raises some interesting questions about what sustainability looks like in the Great Lakes basin.

Let’s jump back a bit. After decades of failed diplomatic agreements to remake Niagara Falls, in 1950 the United States and Canada finally inked the Niagara River Diversion Treaty. This accord authorized the binational construction, with International Joint Commission (IJC) oversight, of the International Niagara Control Works. These remedial works consisted of various weirs, dams, excavations, and fills, designed to facilitate greater hydro-electric production (and diminish the erosion that annually moved the Falls upstream 3-7 feet) by diverting the majority of the water destined for the Falls. Indeed, depending on the time of day and season, either half or three-quarters of the river flow is diverted around the waterfall via massive tunnels to hydropower stations.

GIS image showing past crestlines, and rate of recession (in years), at the Horseshoe Falls. Map created by Jason Glatz and Daniel Macfarlane.

Stealing most of the water from the waterfall would obviously harm its scenic appeal, as well as the local tourism economy. Thus, the engineers from both nations simultaneously sought ways to use the aforementioned remedial works, based on scale models, to “beautify” Niagara Falls by reshaping the curtain of water as it dropped over the brink so that it would at least give the “impression of volume” (and reduce the mist and spray that had led to many visitor complaints).  For example, the crestline of the Horseshoe Falls was chiseled out and shrunk by 355 feet; parts of these crest fills were fenced and landscaped to provide prime public vantage points (such as Terrapin Point).

Work on the Canadian flank of the Horseshoe Falls in the 1950s. Used with the permission of Ontario Power Generation.

With the Horseshoe Falls facelift accomplished, a campaign began in the mid-1960s to address the “unsightly” talus (the rock that gathered at the base of the American Falls). In 1967, Canada and the United States asked the IJC to investigate and report on measures necessary to preserve or enhance the beauty of the American Falls, specifically with regard to the talus. In 1969 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shut off the American Falls for about half a year (see the images, as well as this video). The outright removal of the 280,000 cubic yards of talus was considered, as was the placement of a dam downstream from the Falls that would drown the talus. But the engineers concluded that the talus was probably propping up the face of the waterfall. Based on this, as well as an estimated cost of approximately $26 million and uncertainly that the public would actually notice if the talus was gone, in the mid-1970s the IJC decided to keep the talus

The American Falls dewatered in 1969. Used with the permission of the Niagara Falls Public Library (NY).

Dewatered talus at the American Falls. Used with the permission of the Niagara Falls Public Library (NY).

The IJC admirably noted that it seemed “wrong to make the Falls static and unnatural, like an artificial waterfall in a garden or a park” and added that “man should not interfere with the natural process.” Of course, making the Falls “like an artificial waterfall” is precisely what technocrats had done in previous decades. Moreover, the dewatering provided an opportunity to stabilize the rock face of the American Falls with bolts and cables, and install electronic rockslide sensors. In the following years, other major engineering modifications were also performed on Luna Island and Terrapin Point.

Thus, even though additional major interventions were disavowed, representing a major conceptual shift, Niagara Falls had nonetheless already been heavily manipulated. This natural spectacle was, in many ways, decidedly unnatural.

I am personally conflicted about the history of Niagara Falls, specifically, and the role of engineered solutions and big technology in general. To my mind, claims that technology is the answer to our environmental problems seem to conveniently forget that technology is all too often the very cause of the problems. I can’t deny that the engineers have done a very impressive job with Niagara Falls. You could certainly argue that the end result was a compromise that provided a societal good – i.e., sufficient preservation of the scenic beauty coupled with electricity generation.

However, it feels unethical. Moreover, the engineering of famous landmarks like Niagara Falls gives license to messing with any natural system, feeding our technological hubris. Moreover, in recent years it has become apparent that hydroelectricity is not nearly as environmentally benign as has often been touted. In addition to the enormous impacts on the riverine ecosystems and the organisms that count on it for habitat, large reservoirs emit methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

The American Falls in 2019. Photo by the author.

An energy system like that of Niagara Falls relies on expensive and elaborate infrastructure, along with the extreme manipulation of a waterfall and river – this system would quickly break down and cease to work without constant upkeep, maintenance, and intervention. Can that really be considered sustainable? I’m convinced that the only real long-term sustainable solution will be drastically reducing our society’s energy consumption. Renewable energy and sustainable energy are not necessarily the same thing.

Niagara’s history represents the traditional “hard path” approach to water: a focus on supply-side options, particularly enormous and capital-intensive infrastructure. But sustainable water policies and infrastructure will need to follow the “soft path,” which entails smaller and localized sources, as well as consideration of the water-energy nexus, and water policies and laws based on public trust, water as a commons, and right-to-water principles.

Daniel Macfarlane is an Associate Professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at Western Michigan University. His research and teaching focus on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, and he is the author or co-editor of several books, including authorship of a forthcoming book about the history of modifying Niagara Falls. He has written about Niagara Falls in numerous other academic publications, as well as in Slate, The Washington Post, and Toronto Star, which can be accessed here.

Reflections on Independence – Liberty, Water, and the Public Trust Doctrine

By Jim Olson

July is “Public Trust Month” at FLOW, a time to gather views and inspiration from people from all walks of life who live, use, enjoy, or depend on the waters of the Great Lakes Basin for life, recreation, and livelihood.

This is because FLOW’s mission is to assure that decisions and actions that affect the Great Lakes are undertaken in the framework of ancient principles, embedded in our law as deep as the Great Lakes and the soils beneath them. These principles, known as the public trust doctrine, recognize the duty of government as trustee to protect, and the rights of the public as beneficiaries to enjoy, these public trust waters and their paramount public nature and uses from one generation to the next.

On July 4, my wife Judy and I hosted a large family picnic at our house in Benzie County. After enjoying the food and multiple conversations going on at once, some of us, with pant legs rolled up above the knees, found ourselves wading in the Platte River with several grandchildren. Watching them totter and frolic in the fast current—their ages ranging from 3 to 23—I had this thought: Liberty includes the gift of freedom to enjoy public trust waters like the Platte River, here in Michigan, and the Great Lakes, and waters throughout the United States and beyond. The public trust in our water resources is a principle that protects and passes on this gift from one generation to the next.

The public trust doctrine is often traced from the Justinian Code 1,600 years ago: “By the law of Nature, these things are common to [humankind]: the air, running water, the sea, and consequently the shore of the sea.”  The doctrine reappeared in 1215 in that “Great Charter of Liberty,” the Magna Carta, to restore the custom and rights of the people to access to the rivers and sea for food and sustenance.

On July 4, 1976, the Declaration of Independence declared:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The U.S. Constitution was adopted and ratified between 1787 and 1788, and not long after, the Bill of Rights  in 1791 declared that no government—federal, state, or local—can deprive a person of the right to “life, liberty, and property” or “other rights [not listed] retained by the people.”

In 1821, in the first of a long line of decisions adopted in similar form as the common law of the people by the courts of every state, the Supreme Court of New Jersey nullified an attempt by a landowner to exclude the public from the seabeds, navigable waters, and their near shores because these waters and special lands were public common property held in a public trust for the benefit of all citizens of a state.

In 1892, the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed the public trust doctrine in the navigable waters, the soils under them, and the shoreline below the high water mark. An influential railroad company hoodwinked a compliant Illinois legislature into granting it almost one square mile of Lake Michigan for a private industrial complex. This didn’t sit well with Illinois residents, especially those who lived in Chicago, and the next session of the legislature repealed the grant.  The company, of course, notified the state that it was too late; they owned the bottomlands and waters of Lake Michigan.

The Supreme Court rejected the company’s claim, and in a landmark decision ruled that the grant to a private company or person was void because the special common public waters and lands owned and held by the states in public trust were “inalienable”! This means that no government can pass a law that deprives a citizen of the inalienable rights, as beneficiary of the public trust, to enjoy and use these waters and special trust lands for fishing, navigating, boating, swimming, bathing, and sustenance—drinking water and growing food.

Imagine that, an inalienable right derived from Roman law, the Magna Carta, and English common law came down to this country because of the “inalienable rights” covered by the Declaration of Independence and American Revolution, and that this “inalienable right” is protected by the public trust doctrine. It is a right that cannot be taken away or repealed, and it is protected by the rights to “life, liberty, and property” and the “other rights of the people” in our Constitution! 

Today, courts around the country are recognizing that the rights of citizens to an individual and indivisible right under the public trust doctrine fall within our “life, liberty, and property” protected by our Constitution.

Talk about a gift for all of us to celebrate during the afterglow of Independence Day and throughout FLOW’s “Public Trust Month” of July. This is one to be thankful for, exercise, and protect for ourselves, our children, grandchildren, and all future generations.

Jim Olson is FLOW’s founder and president. 

The Changing Great Lakes: Living with Fluctuating Water Levels

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 Rood  say 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.

Resources

Great Lakes water level update, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Great Lakes water levels, International Joint Commission

Great Lakes Water Levels and Related Data, Government of Canada

Jim Olson is founder and president of FLOW; Dave Dempsey is senior advisor.

The Public Trust and YOU

“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.

Actress Amy Smart and writer and producer Geoff Johns urge Michigan Gov. Whitmer to protect our Great Lakes and shut down ‘Line 5’

 


Actress Amy Smart and comic book writer, screenwriter, and film and television producer Geoff Johns urge Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer to protect our Great Lakes and shut down Enbridge’s Line 5 oil pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron.


Amy: Hi, I’m Amy Smart.

Geoff: Hi, I’m Geoff Johns.

Amy: And we’re here to urge you, Governor Whitmer. We’re so excited that you are the governor of Michigan, and we’re so excited that you believe in the Great Lakes and keeping them clean. We both grew up — you grew up in Michigan.

Geoff: I grew up in Michigan. I have a lot of family still in Michigan. I love Michigan, and Michigan is known for its lakes. It’s the Great Lakes State, and there is nothing more important than those lakes to the whole state and the people in it.

Amy: Yes, nothing more important. I now am a resident of Michigan, and we really need your leadership more than anything to shut down Pipeline 5. It’s way too risky, and it would be completely catastrophic if anything happened, so it’s urgent right now that you do that. We also would highly recommend not letting Enbridge build a tunnel because we don’t need any oil problems in our lakes at all.

Geoff: We don’t want to risk it, and we know you’re in a really tough situation right now, but we ask you to please use your judgment and make the right call. Thank you!

Amy: Thank you!