Tag: jim olson

Supreme Court Decision: Let the Country Burn

Photo courtesy of PublicDomainPictures.net.

Editor’s Note: The following is the opinion of Jim Olson, FLOW’s founder and senior legal advisor.


Jim Olson, FLOW’s Founder and Senior Legal Advisor

Temperatures soar to record highs, fires rage across the West, drought and deluge plague cities and countryside, and unprecedented water scarcity endangers hydration, food, health, and life itself. 

No one credibly disputes the alarming increase in global temperatures and the untold suffering and cataclysmic havoc attributable to greenhouse gas pollutants. One of the primary pollutants causing this unfolding collapse of humanity and the Earth’s climate is carbon dioxide or CO2. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report in February 2022, urgently warning government leaders and people across the globe that we have 10 to 15 years to drastically reduce greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide or CO2.

Unfortunately, our newly constituted Supreme Court acted more like “supreme rulers” than an independent judiciary, choosing politics and their fixation on narrow legal ideology over the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gasses under a realistic and fair reading of federal law—the Clean Air Act (CAA). The CAA delegated authority to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to evaluate and require the “best systems” available to reduce greenhouse gasses at U.S. coal and natural gas power plants. As a result, until Congress corrects the problem, carbon dioxide- and methane-polluting power plants in the United States will continue to release those greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere from burning coal and natural gas.

Until citizens elect a responsible Congress, it is up to the states, local governments, and us in every way possible to immediately reduce greenhouse gases and protect ourselves, our children, and grandchildren.

Anyone who has been exposed to the machinations of Congress in the last 20 years knows very well that Congress isn’t going to correct the problem any time soon. This means, it is up to the states, local or regional governments, and citizens—you and me, to lead the way on the epic energy transition needed to address climate change. Our children and grandchildren, and theirs, depend on it. 

How Did We Get Here?

In 1970, Congress passed the Clean Air Act (CAA) to authorize the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reduce the emission of pollutants from sources of air pollution, including coal-fired power plants. Carbon Dioxide is a pollutant. Under the CAA, EPA can adopt the “best system of emission reduction” (BSER) to require power plants to reduce CO2

During the Obama presidency in 2015, because technological fixes to reduce CO2 at power plants were ineffective to achieve needed reductions in CO2, EPA adopted a combination of three “best systems” or BSERs to require utilities to reduce CO2 at coal power plants: (1) technological fixes; (2) shift to natural gas from coal; and (3) inclusion of solar and wind generation. Each of these approaches are “best systems” to achieve the necessary reduction of emissions, and as required by the CAA, the Environmental Protection Agency adequately demonstrated these systems would work and are viable. The coal and utility industries and several coal-dependent states opposed EPA’s BSERs and appealed to the courts.

Looking more like “supreme rulers” than a Supreme Court, the conservative majority violated their own ideology that abhors judicial activism. Who is actually legislating here?

In 2019, sticking to Trump’s political agenda, the EPA repealed the three BSERs. Despite the Clean Air Act’s broad grant of authority to EPA to adopt “best systems” to reduce CO2, Trump’s EPA claimed that the use of the word “system” by Congress meant only on-site power plant technological fixes, concluding that the CAA did not authorize EPA to require utilities to reduce CO2 emissions by shifting some of their energy production to natural gas, solar, or wind. In 2021, when President Biden took office, EPA announced plans to revoke the Trump repeal of the Obama EPA three-pronged CO2-reduction plans. Before Biden’s EPA plan took effect, however, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked it and granted the appeal by the utility industry and several states.

On June 30, 2022, in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency, one of the most important climate change cases in a decade, the U.S. Supreme Court’s new 6 to 3 conservative majority established under former President Trump ruled that the CAA term “best system of emission reduction” means only technological improvements at existing coal plants. In effect, the Court ruled that the key words “best systems” did not give EPA the authority to require the utilities that own or operate plants to add more natural gas, solar, and wind energy systems to their energy portfolios to reduce greenhouse gasses. As a result of its decision, the Court shackled EPA’s authority to combat climate change by reducing CO2 from power plants.

The failure of the Supreme Court to accept the broad grant of power by Congress to the EPA with the words “best system” in the face of the reality of CO2 emissions, global warming, and cataclysmic climate change effects has no legal or moral justification. As the famous Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once observed to the effect, “The life of the law is not logic, but experience.” – In fact, the current Court’s conservative majority failed to draw upon either one.

No one credibly disputes the alarming increase in global temperatures and the suffering and cataclysmic havoc caused by climate change are attributable to greenhouse gases. As a result of the decision, the EPA’s authority to combat climate change by reducing CO2 from power plants has been shackled. 

The W. VA v. U.S. EPA decision can be explained only in terms of politics and ideology. Politically, the Court followed Trump’s and his corporate cronies’ continuing denial of climate change. Ideologically, the Court followed the litany of a minority of ultra-conservative academics, lawyers, and judges who believe the size and authority of government should be diminished wherever possible, no matter the chaos or burden heaped on people and the Earth. True to its ideology, the majority of the Court decided that EPA, within the executive branch of government, invaded the powers of Congress by exercising “legislative power” when it interpreted the words “best systems” to include requiring utilities to shift to natural gas, wind, and solar energy systems.

Looking more like “supreme rulers,” the conservative majority violated their own ideology that abhors judicial activism by engrafting the words “technological improvements at existing power plants” to the phrase “best system.” The Court itself interfered with the legislative power of Congress by judicially amending the CAA to achieve its end: keep fossil fuel power plants running by shackling the authority of EPA to reduce pollutants like CO2. If we have a constitution that forbids one branch of government from interfering with the powers delegated to another branch, our Supreme Court’s decision in West Virginia v EPA was unconstitutional. The decision will not withstand the test of time and urgency of climate change. The Court placed itself above the law and Constitution, deciding, in effect, to let our country, its people, and communities burn and suffer the grave impacts to their lives, health, community, environment, and world. Until citizens elect a responsible Congress, it is up to the states, local governments, and us in every way possible to immediately reduce greenhouse gasses and protect ourselves, our children, and grandchildren.

FLOW Press Statement—Today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in West Virginia v. EPA

Traverse City, Mich.— The following is a press statement from Jim Olson, Senior Legal Advisor at FLOW (For Love of Water), the Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City, in response to the United States Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision today in West Virginia v. EPA, which cripples the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to limit greenhouse gas emissions under the federal Clean Air Act from existing coal plants to combat climate change.


“It appears the Supreme Court has chosen a political agenda over the law and legal precedent established since the 1970 passage of the Clean Air Act, which authorizes the EPA to set standards on emissions from air pollutants. The Supreme Court previously ruled that the EPA has authority to set standards on emissions because greenhouse gasses are pollutants. Today, the Supreme Court departs from this precedent by weakening EPA’s authority to limit emissions from coal-fired power plants.

“The effect of the Supreme Court’s decision cannot be overstated: At a time when coal plants are being shut down as states, the nation, and world shift to renewable, clean energy, the Court has sponsored the continued burning of coal that will accelerate the climate crisis.

“It is now even more important that states like Michigan step up to defend and strengthen their environmental safeguards. Fortunately, under the Clean Air Act, states can continue to limit and force the shutdown of existing coal plants under state laws and regulations. Just last week the Michigan Public Service Commission, after nearly a decade of contested energy and legal issues, approved a settlement and order that will require Consumers Energy to shut down its remaining coal-fired power plants within 3 years.”

FLOW’s Jim Olson and Dave Dempsey Honored by IAGLR for Great Lakes Protection Efforts

Photo: FLOW’s Jim Olson (left) and Dave Dempsey.


Note: This is a FLOW media release issued June 21, 2022. Members of the media can reach FLOW’s:

  • Jim Olson, Founder & Senior Legal Advisor at Jim@FLOWforWater.org.
  • Dave Dempsey, Senior Policy Advisor, Dave@FLOWforWater.org.
  • Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director, at Liz@FLOWforWater.org or cell (570) 872-4956 or office (231) 944-1568.

Traverse City, Mich.— FLOW’s Founder and Senior Legal Advisor Jim Olson and Senior Policy Advisor Dave Dempsey on June 15, 2022, were awarded prestigious honors for their career-long efforts to protect the waters of the Great Lakes and the environment and to educate and build support among the public and decision makers.

The awards were bestowed during an online ceremony by the International Association for Great Lakes Research (IAGLR).

IAGLR is a scientific organization made up of researchers studying the Laurentian Great Lakes, other large lakes of the world, and their watersheds, as well as those with an interest in that research. The new award recognizes and honors individuals whose work has made significant contributions to sharing the social, economic, and ecological understanding of the large lakes of the world. The complete list of those honored at the IAGLR Awards Ceremony is here.

Jim Olson, FLOW’s founder and senior legal advisor, received one of the inaugural Large Lake Champion Awards for his “tireless efforts in protecting the environment in and around the Laurentian Great Lakes region, including his founding of the organization For Love of Water (FLOW).” 

​In announcing the award, IAGLR Awards Committee Co-Chair Neil Rooney expressed “appreciation for Jim’s extraordinary knowledge of environmental, water, and public interest law, and how he has used his skill set to advocate for the protection of these unique and essential ecosystems.” The complete list of Large Lake Champions is here.

Olson received the news with the same humility he has brought to his decades of work protecting the public waters of the Great Lakes—at the surface, in the ground, and from the tap.

“This caught me by complete surprise,” Jim Olson said. “So many dedicated people around our Great Lakes are deserving of this honor. I receive it in recognition of the many clients, organizations, people I’ve worked with over the years, especially the inspiring staff, Board, and supporters of For Love of Water. This is as much theirs as it is mine.”

“Thank  you, IAGLR, for this award,” Olson said. “Over the years, it has been those scientists within our Great Lakes region who have spent their lives in search of the truth of the mysteries and graces of our natural world—ultimately, the measure of how well or not we humans inhabit it—who have made a difference.”

IAGLR honored Dave Dempsey, FLOW’s senior policy advisor, with its John R. (Jack) Vallentyne Award, which recognizes “significant efforts to inform and educate the public and policymakers on large lakes issues to raise awareness and support for their protection and restoration.” The award is named for long-time IAGLR member and environmental scientist and educator, John R. (Jack) Vallentyne.

“Dave Dempsey is an unmatched Great Lakes resource,” wrote Lana Pollack, former US Section Chair of the International Joint Commission, in her letter nominating Dempsey for the award. “Deeply curious and wholly identified with the Great Lakes, he has devoted his life to understanding and helping others understand the Basin. An innately generous person, for decades Dave has stepped up to inform and assist colleagues, resource managers, legislators, reporters, educators, environmental advocates, business and labor interests, and of course countless students—all of them seeking well-founded information on a myriad of resource management and environmental policy issues.”

“He is not only a talented and well-respected policy advisor, but a gifted author and storyteller,” notes John Hartig, Visiting Scholar at the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research at the University of Windsor, in his nomination letter. “His writing is a unique blend of his 30-year career shaping Great Lakes policy and his passion for inspiring a stewardship ethic for our inland seas.”

In receiving the award, Dave Dempsey said, “I’m very humbled by this award for two reasons. First that it comes from IAGLR, which I have great respect for. And I’m also humbled because to have my name associated with Jack Vallentyne in any way is a remarkable thing.” 

Dempsey recalled speaking with Vallentyne when doing research. “He impressed me not only as one of the fathers of the ecosystem approach to Great Lakes management, but he also was a very effective educator of young people. I think that’s what we all need to be.”

FLOW Executive Director Elizabeth Kirkwood called Olson’s Large Lake Champion Award “a richly deserved recognition of a career spent defending the Great Lakes and educating thousands of people across the continent on the importance of these precious fresh waters and the rights of the public to protect these waters under a legal principle known as the public trust doctrine. Everyone at FLOW is proud to be associated with Jim.”

“Dave Dempsey’s encyclopedic knowledge, clarity of conscience of what is good and right, reasoned voice, and gifted ability to speak and write in sparring, well-chosen words about the environmental history of, and policies related to, the Great Lakes are remarkable,” said Kirkwood. “It is the reason why lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, citizens, resource managers, business leaders, journalists, and lawyers have sought Dave’s advice for over three decades.” 

“Dave’s contributions to the protection of the Great Lakes are abundantly clear, and I can think of no other more deserving of such an honor as the Vallentyne Award than Dave Dempsey,” Kirkwood said.

FLOW’s Jim Olson Honored with Large Lake Champion Award

Jim Olson, the founder and senior legal advisor of FLOW, has received one of the first Large Lake Champion Awards presented by the International Association for Great Lakes Research (IAGLR), the organization announced Monday.

IAGLR is a scientific organization made up of researchers studying the Laurentian Great Lakes, other large lakes of the world, and their watersheds, as well as those with an interest in that research. The new award recognizes and honors individuals whose work has made significant contributions to sharing the social, economic, and ecological understanding of the large lakes of the world. 

“We want to express our appreciation for Jim’s extraordinary knowledge of environmental, water, and public interest law, and how he has used his skill set to advocate for the protection of these unique and essential ecosystems,” said IAGLR Awards Committee Co-Chair Neil Rooney.

​In announcing the award, IAGLR Awards Committee Co-Chair Neil Rooney praised Olson’s “tireless efforts in protecting the environment in and around the Laurentian Great Lakes region, including his founding of the organization For Love of Water (FLOW),” the Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City, Michigan. 

“We at IAGLR are committed to a world where large lakes are valued and healthy; where these ecosystems inspire curiosity, awe, love and respect, and stewardship in all people,” Rooney said. “It is in this spirit that we want to express our appreciation for Jim’s extraordinary knowledge of environmental, water, and public interest law, and how he has used his skill set to advocate for the protection of these unique and essential ecosystems.” IAGLR also praised Olson’s ”effort to educate the public through extensive outreach work.”

FLOW Executive Director Elizabeth Kirkwood called Olson’s Large Lake Champion Award “a richly deserved recognition of a career spent defending the Great Lakes and educating thousands of people across the continent on the importance of these precious fresh waters and the rights of the public to protect these waters under a legal principle known as the public trust doctrine.  Everyone at FLOW is proud to be associated with Jim.”

FLOW Executive Director Elizabeth Kirkwood called Olson’s Large Lake Champion Award “a richly deserved recognition of a career spent defending the Great Lakes and educating thousands of people across the continent on the importance of these precious fresh waters and the rights of the public to protect these waters under a legal principle known as the public trust doctrine.  Everyone at FLOW is proud to be associated with Jim.”

Olson received the news with the same humility he has brought to his decades of work protecting the public waters of the Great Lakes—at the surface, in the ground, and from the tap.

“This caught me by complete surprise,” Jim Olson said. “So many dedicated people around our Great Lakes are deserving of this honor. I receive it in recognition of the many clients, organizations, people I’ve worked with over the years, especially the inspiring staff, Board, and supporters of For Love of Water. This is as much theirs as it is mine.” 

“This caught me by complete surprise,” Jim Olson said. “So many dedicated people around our Great Lakes are deserving of this honor. I receive it in recognition of the many clients, organizations, people I’ve worked with over the years, especially the inspiring staff, Board, and supporters of For Love of Water. This is as much theirs as it is mine.” 

“Thank  you, IAGLR, for this award,” Olson said. “Over the years, it has been those scientists within our Great Lakes region who have spent their lives in search of the truth of the mysteries and graces of our natural world—ultimately, the measure of how well or not we humans inhabit it—who have made a difference.”

Four other people received the inaugural IAGLR Large Lake Champion Awards, including Patricia Chow-Fraser, Professor, McMaster University, Department of Biology, Former IAGLR President; Catherine Febria, Canada Research Chair in Freshwater Restoration Ecology and Assistant Professor, University of Windsor, Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research (GLIER); Abraham Francis, Program Manager, Environment Program, Mohawk Council of Akwesasne; and Ali Shakoor, Ph.D. Student, Wayne State University, Department of Biological Sciences.

Happy Birthday to Jim Olson: Legal Lion for the Environment

By Dave Dempsey

Those working on Michigan environmental issues at any time during the last 50 years have known exactly who the pioneering legal advocate for Michigan’s precious air, water, and land is: FLOW founder Jim Olson. As Jim’s 77th birthday approaches on February 26, it’s time to take stock of all that he’s accomplished in the service of current and future generations.

Jim became attached to the outdoors at an early age. His parents moved the family, including Jim’s two sisters and two brothers, to Traverse City. He recalls propelling a home-made raft with his brothers up and down the shore of the east arm of Grand Traverse Bay. “We grew up in and on the bay, felt its cold and warm temperatures, sensed its sweetwater smell, moods, its seasons and cycles…,” Jim recalled.

“We grew up in and on the bay, felt its cold and warm temperatures, sensed its sweetwater smell, moods, its seasons and cycles…,” Jim Olson recalled.

Professor Joe Sax (1936-2014)

It was logical, then, that Jim would find a calling and a cause in defending the environment. After earning his law degree from the Detroit College of Law and clerking for a Michigan Supreme Court justice Thomas Brennan, Jim was impressed by a talk on the public trust given by University of Michigan Professor Joseph Sax, who authored the Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA). He returned to school to study under Sax, earning a postgraduate Master of Law Degree from the University of Michigan Law School in Public Lands, Natural Resources and Environmental Law. Jim shared and advanced the Sax belief in the strength of the public trust doctrine as a tool in protecting the commons—particularly our rivers, inland lakes, and Great Lakes.

Jim has used his legal skill to protect citizens from exposure to toxic PBBs, protect public access to the Great Lakes shoreline, and prevent pollution of the legendary Au Sable River watershed. Dedicated to equal justice for all, Jim also was involved early on in litigation to protect indigenous treaty fishing rights.

Challenging Nestlé’s Groundwater Grab & Enbridge’s Line 5

In perhaps his most famous case to date, Jim worked for the better part of a decade with Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) to challenge state approval of a major groundwater withdrawal by Nestlé. Jim and MCWC successfully limited Nestlé’s water-bottling grab.

Peggy Case, MCWC Board President

“Jim has worked tirelessly to defend water, the public trust doctrine, and the right to clean, affordable water for all. He has fought against all forms of privatization of water as well,” said Peggy Case, board president of MCWC. “As an attorney, he has given countless hours of his time to these efforts and has also donated many hours of pro bono work to those working at the grassroots level on these issues…. He will always be there lending a voice to the work and showing support for those who will try to fill his shoes.”

“Jim has worked tirelessly to defend water, the public trust doctrine, and the right to clean, affordable water for all. He has fought against all forms of privatization of water as well,” said Peggy Case, board president of MCWC.

A major milestone in Jim’s career was Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s revocation and termination of the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline easement across the Straits of Mackinac. Citing the public trust doctrine, Gov. Whitmer determined that Enbridge had violated the easement terms. Although it’s being contested in the courts, the state’s action has the potential to sweep across the nation as a model for protecting the public’s natural resources.

Upholding the Public Trust & the MEPA

Maude Barlow

Along with Maude Barlow, then with the Council of Canadians, Jim introduced the six members of the International Joint Commission (IJC) to the public trust doctrine. As a result, the IJC endorsed the doctrine as part of a strategy for cleanup of Lake Erie and preventing diversion and export of Great Lakes waters.

Lana Pollack

Lana Pollack was U.S. Section Chair of the IJC at the time. She describes Jim as “a visionary who sees the world as it should be and then goes to work to make it happen. Fortunately, he has the smarts, credibility, and determination to move environmental protections towards real world success.”

Lana Pollack describes Jim as “a visionary who sees the world as it should be and then goes to work to make it happen.”

Mike Dettmer

Mike Dettmer, Jim’s law partner in the 1970s, points out that Jim brought one of the first MEPA cases in Traverse City, representing citizens in an effort to protect the viewshed and access to lands east of the mouth of the Boardman River from development. As a result of the litigation, a portion of that land remains undeveloped today. 

Dettmer calls Jim, “Michigan’s environmental lawyer and guardian from the beginning. My having grown up on the East Side of Detroit, the environment was not the first thing on my mind. He taught me, he taught many judges and the public the importance of environmental protection.”

Mike Dettmer calls Jim, “Michigan’s environmental lawyer and guardian from the beginning.”

Skip Pruss

Skip Pruss, a former chair of FLOW’s board and a longtime environmental litigator for the State of Michigan, says Jim’s accomplishments include not just participating in and winning many important environmental cases or authoring the first treatise on environmental law in Michigan, or that he influenced and inspired two generations of environmental lawyers.  “When I think about his legacy, it is that he always had his eyes on the prize.  He never lost sight of how important it is to understand water–and by extension, the whole hydrological cycle–as a commons belonging to the public, and that this aspect of our jurisprudence is fundamental to a civil society and the common good.”

“Jim has never lost sight of how important it is to understand water–and by extension, the whole hydrological cycle–as a commons belonging to the public,” said Skip Pruss.

Continuing His Tireless Efforts 

Tom Baird

Tom Baird, a longtime leader of Anglers of the Au Sable, calls Jim “a superb environmental litigator: smart, strategic, skilled in the art of trying a case, and possessed of an encyclopedic knowledge of the law. His tireless work promoting the Public Trust Doctrine brought back to life one of the bedrocks of environmental protection. Jim is also a great mentor and friend. I have been honored to know and have worked with him.”

Tom Baird calls Jim “a superb environmental litigator: smart, strategic, skilled in the art of trying a case, and possessed of an encyclopedic knowledge of the law.”

Jim is modest about his work. When he won the State Bar Association’s Champion of Justice Award in 2010, he said it was more an award for his clients of limited means, who have held bake sales and poker tournaments and spent their time raising $1 donations, “to enable me to represent them in a court.”

Jim continues to fight for the commons, shouldering a big share of the work to shut down Line 5 and carrying on numerous other battles. Among many other pursuits, Jim is a skilled writer, authoring not just legal briefs but books, including Michigan Environmental Law (1979), and co-authoring Cross Border Litigation: Environmental Rights in the Great Lakes Ecosystem (1986). He continues to work on a thriller, Waterspout, about a fight for protection of our precious waters.

Jim is a legendary environmental champion, but also a cherished colleague, a devoted husband, father, and grandfather, and the founder of FLOW—a lasting contribution to the commons he has done so much to guard.

Happy Birthday, Jim!

P.S. — 2021 Flashback: The Clean Water Campaign for Michigan Features Jim Olson

In honor of Jim Olson’s birthday and FLOW’s 10th anniversary in 2021, the Clean Water Campaign for Michigan shared this video clip from Seth Bernard’s interview with FLOW founder and senior legal advisor Jim Olson, featured in episodes 11 & 12 of the State of Water podcast. Watch the interview below.

FLOW’s 2021 Annual Report

With Gratitude: Celebrating 10 Years of Keeping Water Public and Protected with You

This past year marked an extraordinary year for FLOW, as we celebrated a decade of keeping our water public and protected. In reflecting upon this past decade, we have much to be grateful for, even in these challenging times.  

First and foremost, we are thankful for you, who have made our work possible year after year. You have understood the urgent need to steward our water as a commons protected from one generation to the next. You have seen the need for us to establish a new healing relationship with water and to apply science and the rule of law as foundational principles for making informed policy decisions that protect human health and the entire water cycle. You stood with us to take on the threats of water privatization and commodification, oil pipelines in our waters, water insecurity, an affordability crisis, chemical contamination, crumbling infrastructure, and much more. 

Because of you, our movement continues to grow, forging potent alliances and partnerships with people, organizations, and governments across the Great Lakes Basin, including indigenous tribes, frontline groups, and business and community leaders. In the next decade, it will take all of us rowing together in the same direction to secure the kind of durable and lasting water policies needed for these globally unique and magnificent Great Lakes.

We give thanks to FLOW founder Jim Olson for his visionary legal thinking, leadership, and passion in founding a nonprofit wholly dedicated and committed to protecting water as a shared commons for all peoples from one generation to the next. His lifelong dedication to clean, safe, affordable, and public water has never faltered. Jim’s work continues to this day. We cannot begin to thank him enough. 

We give thanks to our current and past board members and advisors, who have been tremendously helpful in charting our visionary policy work and establishing our unique public interest voice across the Basin.

FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood

We give thanks to our staff for lending exceptional talent and devotion to Great Lakes protection every day. Our staff brings heart and soul to this challenging and rewarding work, drawing on decades’ worth of law, policy, and communication experience to improve the future of all living creatures and communities in the Great Lakes. And our policy work is richer thanks to a decade of amazing interns, volunteers, visual artists, writers, performers, and filmmakers sharing their gifts.

We give thanks to our partners, allies, and friends who share our core values and goals, working to secure water for all, and who bring diverse and rich perspectives to solving complex issues. 

The next 10 years are critical, with urgent solutions needed to protect water and public health from the climate crisis. We want you to know that your unwavering support and commitment make all the difference. 

Board Chair Renee Huckle Mittelstaedt

We thank you for empowering our work for the last decade and for standing boldly with us in the next 10 years. Our pledge to you remains the same: We are committed to law, science, facts, and truth. We focus on empowerment for the common good and public interest. We speak for the water. We include all persons and succeed together.

Our warmest wishes to you,

Liz Kirkwood and Renee Huckle Mittelstaedt

Please watch this video below of Liz and Renee thanking FLOW supporters and unveiling our 2020-21 Annual Report:

 

Jim Olson Passes the Torch to Zach Welcker, FLOW’s First Full-Time Legal Director

Photo of Zach Welcker by John Robert Williams Photography

Shortly after Zach Welcker started working at FLOW last summer, he came onto the Monday morning staff meeting by Zoom and wryly summed up his weekend: “Well, I think I had more inches of rain in my basement this weekend than we had rainfall in the entire year back in Spokane.”

Zach had just arrived from drought-stricken eastern Washington after more than a decade as a legal advocate for Indian tribes in the Pacific Northwest on water, fisheries, hydropower, and other natural resource issues. Seeking a return to his Midwest roots and moved by FLOW’s mission to keep water public and protected, he stepped directly into the high waters and heavy downpours of Michigan’s changing climate.

It’s precisely the kind of systemic challenge Zach came to confront head-on as FLOW’s first full-time legal director, responsible for building on FLOW’s legal power, policy acumen, and partnerships—especially among tribes, conservation groups, frontline communities, justice organizations, and scientists—to ensure the waters of the Great Lakes Basin are healthy, public, and protected for all.

“I’m thrilled to be surrounded by all of this water and humbled by the opportunity to keep it public and protected for all,” Zach  Welcker said.

The position’s sweeping range already has immersed Zach in FLOW’s ongoing campaigns to shut down the Line 5 oil pipelines and keep water and water systems in public hands. He also is working with partners on FLOW’s model legislation developed by FLOW’s founder and longtime senior legal advisor Jim Olson that would end household water shutoffs and stop the privatization of the public’s groundwater.

“I’m thrilled to be surrounded by all of this water and humbled by the opportunity to keep it public and protected for all,” Zach said. “I couldn’t have asked for more dedicated and tireless colleagues. Together with our allies, we are going to improve water security for current and future generations by changing the way people think about and interact with water.” 

A Moment Years in the Making

Jim Olson, FLOW Founder and Senior Legal Advisor

Jim Olson, FLOW Founder and Senior Legal Advisor

Zach now carries the public trust legal torch borne since 2011 by Jim Olson, FLOW’s founder and senior legal advisor, who is a water and environmental lawyer renowned for championing the protection of the public waters of the Great Lakes Basin for the common good. For several years, Jim and Executive Director Liz Kirkwood have worked with FLOW’s Board of Directors to develop the strategic vision and case statement for the legal director position, and sought philanthropic partners to invest in the opportunity.

“FLOW’s supporters are terrific ambassadors for our mission,” said Liz Kirkwood, “and we were able to sit down with some of our earliest and most committed advocates to secure multi-year pledges supporting recruitment efforts and funding the launch of our Legal Director position,” said FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood.

FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood

“More than three years ago, FLOW’s staff and executive team worked together on an organizational growth and succession plan,” Liz said. “We knew that we would need increased capacity on our legal team, and we projected that increase into future budget scenarios, on both the expense and revenue side. Once we knew what it would take to turn our plans into reality, we began to reach out for resources.

“FLOW’s supporters are terrific ambassadors for our mission,” Liz continued, “and we were able to sit down with some of our earliest and most committed advocates to secure multi-year pledges supporting recruitment efforts and funding the launch of our Legal Director position. Those pledges allowed us to proceed with a search that ultimately led FLOW to Zach—and Zach to FLOW.

“I hope you’ll join me in welcoming Zach, who brings extraordinary legal expertise and experience clerking at the 9th Circuit and working on tribal, water, and natural resource matters for the Kalispel tribe,” Liz said. 

“Moving to Michigan with his wonderful family is a homecoming of sorts for Zach who grew up in the Midwest in a small town outside of Chicago. He is a wonderful addition to our organization and talented team, sharing great wit, insights, and smarts to our daily work focused on complex systemic water policy and governance issues in the Great Lakes.”

“It is rare that someone like Zach comes along with his extraordinary legal talent and down-to-earth character and listening and problem-solving ability,” said Jim Olson. “When I met Zach and his wife Ellen early last summer, it didn’t take long for me to realize that his spirit and experience would take FLOW’s foundation in water and public interest law and policy into the next decade and beyond.” 

Enhancing our legal team in FLOW’s 10th anniversary year makes the moment all the more sweet as FLOW celebrates successes with partners and supporters and looks ahead to the next decade of safeguarding the Great Lakes, groundwater, and drinking water for all—while addressing climate change and global water scarcity.

“It is rare that someone like Zach comes along with his extraordinary legal talent and down-to-earth character and listening and problem-solving ability,” said Jim Olson. “When I met Zach and his wife Ellen early last summer, it didn’t take long for me to realize that his spirit and experience would take FLOW’s foundation in water and public interest law and policy into the next decade and beyond.

“In the six months since I started mentoring Zach on the many facets of our programs, he’s already made significant contributions to projects like Line 5 and public water justice, public infrastructure financing, and the human right to water and health,” Jim continued. “We’re grateful he and Ellen and their children chose Traverse City and the Great Lakes for their new home.”

Supporting the Olson-Dempsey Fund for Public Trust in the Great Lakes

Dave Dempsey, FLOW Senior Advisor

Jim Olson, FLOW Founder

In an another initiative to keep the legal torch lit, FLOW this summer launched the Olson-Dempsey Fund, which aims to ensure the ongoing impact of Jim Olson’s achievements, as well as those of FLOW Senior Advisor Dave Dempsey, in deepening the influence of the public trust doctrine in environmental policy, especially the protection of freshwater resources.

FLOW and the residents of the Great Lakes Basin are forever indebted to the brilliance, dedication, and relentless efforts of Jim and Dave on behalf of public water, the public trust doctrine, and the well-being of future generations who will call the Great Lakes home.

Learning Lessons from Zach and His Experiences Out West and Back in the Midwest

Zach, who looks forward to a time when he can meet more of FLOW’s allies in person and continue the conversation started here, shares some of his perspective:

How have you and your family’s experiences here so far with water and climate change impacts differed from those you experienced living in the West?

Summer became my least favorite season out West due to the forest fires. Every day was sunny, hot, and dry. There always seemed to be smoke in the air, whether it was blowing up from California, down from Canada, or from a local fire. We had weeks where the air quality was so bad that summer camps shut down, public swimming pools shut down, and even healthy people were advised to stay inside. And this is nothing compared to the western communities that have water scarcity problems on top of all of this! I don’t think it would be accurate to pin all of these fires on climate change, but climate change has certainly exacerbated the problems caused by decades of unsound forest management and land-use practices.

Summer became my least favorite season out West due to the forest fires. Every day was sunny, hot, and dry. There always seemed to be smoke in the air, whether it was blowing up from California, down from Canada, or from a local fire.

Even though there was some smoke in Traverse City when we arrived this summer, our first summer here was a wild dream. It was great to have a mixture of blue skies and the occasional rain storm. I’m told that a couple of our storms here in Michigan were far more powerful than normal. So perhaps Michigan’s analog to forest fires is increased storm intensity.

What are some of the key lessons on water protection that you learned living and working in Montana, Oregon, and Washington State that you bring to your work in Michigan and the Great Lakes Basin?

The regulatory system won’t protect us. It is pollution and consumption enabling, highly manipulable, and captured by the regulated community. That being said, there are many good people working within the system. We need to find those people and empower them with the information and support to make the system work as well as it can. That’s the short game. The long and more interesting game is transforming the system. The public trust doctrine is a great tool in this fight because it can simultaneously influence both games.

As Jim Olson passes the torch to you as FLOW’s first full-time legal director, what does your position at FLOW and this moment mean to you and your personal and professional path?

I’m the trustee of Jim’s vision. That’s a solemn responsibility that should keep me on my toes for quite a while. For now, I’m trying to learn everything I can from him. My basic goal is to keep up Jim’s work in my own way. If I’m able to do that, I will have done good work.

I’m the trustee of Jim’s vision. That’s a solemn responsibility that should keep me on my toes for quite a while.

What are you working on now at FLOW that excites you and holds promise for keeping water public and protected for current and future generations?

I’m just starting to dive into the commodification, financialization, and privatization of water. If there isn’t a vigorous resistance to these efforts, only the rich will have water security. We need to meet the moment.

Introducing the Olson-Dempsey Fund for Public Trust in the Great Lakes

FLOW is welcoming donations here to the newly launched Olson-Dempsey Fund.

A true watershed moment: As FLOW in 2021 marks our first 10 years of groundbreaking work on behalf of public trust rights and responsibilities in the Great Lakes, we honor two of the most ardent champions of public water and most inspiring leaders in the Great Lakes watershed. To ignite FLOW’s next 10 years of forward thinking and momentum, as exemplified by Jim Olson and Dave Dempsey, FLOW and our community of local, regional, and international partners are recognizing, honoring, and ensuring the continuing influence of these two visionary leaders to protect public water in the Great Lakes Basin. 

FLOW Founder & Senior Legal Advisor Jim Olson

For nearly 50 years Jim Olson, FLOW’s founder and senior legal advisor, has been an ardent and effective environmental, water, and public interest law advocate and champion. He has developed a deep knowledge and understanding of public trust principles and law as they apply to the systemic threats facing the Great Lakes Basin. Jim is a graduate of Michigan State College of Law (Detroit College of Law) and has an L.L.M. Degree in public lands, natural resources, and environmental law from the University of Michigan Law School. He received the Champion of Justice Award in 2010, one of the highest honors of the Michigan Bar Association, and was named a Michigan Lawyer of the Year in 1998 for his work on environmental and water citizen suit laws. Jim has lectured in Brazil, Canada, and the United States, and has written numerous articles and essays and three books. He was featured in two eminent documentary films on water, “FLOW: For Love of Water” (2008) and “Blue Gold” (2008).

Watch FLOW’s video homage to Jim Olson below:

FLOW Senior Policy Advisor Dave Dempsey, with long-time friend and colleague Lana Pollack

FLOW senior advisor Dave Dempsey has 40 years’ experience in environmental policy. He served as environmental advisor to former Michigan Governor James Blanchard and as policy advisor on the staff of the International Joint Commission. He has also provided policy support to the Michigan Environmental Council and Clean Water Action. He has written dozens of books on the Great Lakes and water protection. Dave has a bachelor’s degree from Western Michigan University and a master’s degree in environmental policy and law from Michigan State University. He has served as an adjunct instructor in environmental policy at both universities.

Watch FLOW’s video homage to Dave Dempsey below:

Central to ensuring the ongoing impact of Jim’s and Dave’s achievements is the establishment of a special fund dedicated to securing the legacy of their leadership and the deepening influence of the public trust doctrine in environmental public policy. Gifts to the Olson-Dempsey Fund for Public Trust in the Great Lakes will support FLOW’s ongoing mission to educate about the power of public trust law, underscoring the rights and responsibilities of the public and public officials. By underwriting public presentations, communications initiatives, and engagement activities, the Fund will shine a light on the power of the public trust to inform law and science-based policy protecting the Great Lakes and will help to expand and sustain the application of the public trust doctrine as a key legal and policy instrument to protect the waters of the Great Lakes Basin.

FLOW publicly announced the Olson-Dempsey Fund on September 21, 2021, at our 10th anniversary celebration. Donors may add to the Fund through gifts and grants of all levels. Multi-year pledges and structured/planned gifts are welcome. Contact Diane Dupuis at diane@flowforwater.org with questions about giving, or visit our online donation portal to make a gift now. 

FLOW and the residents of the Great Lakes Basin are forever indebted to the brilliance, dedication, and relentless efforts that Jim Olson and Dave Dempsey have made on behalf of public water, the public trust doctrine, and the well-being of future generations who will call the Great Lakes home.

FLOW Celebrates 10 Years, Honors Jim Olson and Dave Dempsey

Traverse City, Mich.—FLOW is celebrating our 10th anniversary of keeping the Great Lakes public and protected and kickstarting the next 10 years.

Founded in 2011 by Jim Olson and directed since 2012 by Liz Kirkwood, both environmental attorneys, FLOW is a nonprofit law and policy center based in Traverse City dedicated to protecting the Great Lakes, groundwater, and drinking water for all. Independent and nonpartisan, FLOW works with the public and decision-makers to hold the government accountable in protecting and providing access to public waters.

Notable highlights of our 10th anniversary year and celebration include:

  • Tuesday, September 21, from 7:00-8:00 pm EDT—“Confluence”—FLOW’s marquee 10th anniversary event, live-streamed and emceed by dynamic Traverse City talent Ben Whiting. Free and open to the public, the online event will include a special honor for FLOW luminaries Jim Olson and Dave Dempsey, and promises a fun and fast-paced frolic through FLOW’s history and heroes, with special guests, and prize-drawings for Patagonia gear! Register here.
  • The addition of FLOW’s first-ever full-time legal director, an achievement many years in the making. Environmental attorney Zach Welcker joined FLOW in July, after more than a decade representing Indian tribes in the Pacific Northwest on water, fisheries, and other natural resource issues. Zach now carries the legal torch borne since 2011 on a part-time and volunteer basis by Jim Olson.
  • Video reflections by FLOW supporters, staff, and collaborators who have been instrumental to our work and shared successes over the past decade—meant to inspire everyone to join us in protecting freshwater for all. See the video series here.
  • Illustrated timeline of FLOW’s progress through the years in partnership with the public. See FLOW’s 10-year timeline here.
  • Webinars with FLOW staff and partners on Line 5, Great Lakes high water levels, groundwater threats, and artistic efforts to inspire the protection of freshwater. See the collection of recorded webinars here.
  • Release of a penetrating groundwater-protection reportDeep Threats to Our Sixth Great Lake: Spotlighting and Solving Michigan’s Groundwater Emergency—and fact sheet authored by Dave Dempsey and conveyed via webinar. See FLOW’s groundwater program page for more.

Lana Pollack Reflects: “There Isn’t Another FLOW”

“There isn’t another FLOW. There are many worthy environmental organizations but there isn’t another FLOW,” said Lana Pollack, former U.S. Chair of the International Joint Commission. “So I think that FLOW, although it’s not a political organization, it’s a deeply education organization. That has to come first before people will understand and demand of their government representatives protection for their most magnificent home.”

Watch Lana’s testimonial below.

For 10 years, FLOW has worked to keep our water public and protected. During 2021, our 10th anniversary year, FLOW staff, supporters and collaborators are sharing reflections on what our work together has meant to them, and to the freshwaters of the Great Lakes Basin. We hope you will find their words and deeds inspiring. Read more of those reflections here.

“It’s so simple, it’s so basic, and it’s often overlooked. It’s another long-term, generational educational effort that needs total place for people to understand that governments, at any period, at any place, hold the environmental entities of their regions in trust for all generations—not there to be given away, used up, sold, contaminated, forgotten about, taken for granted.”

Editor’s Note: You can enjoy FLOW video reflections by other Great Lakes water protectors here