Tag: Public Trust Doctrine

Record-High Water Levels Present Tough Times for Great Lakes Beach Walkers

This story originally appeared on NatureChange.org, Joe VanderMeulen’s online publication that features conversations about conservation and climate in northern Michigan.

The beaches along Michigan’s west coast have all but disappeared under the rising water levels of Lake Michigan as well as the other Great Lakes. In fact, lake levels haven’t been this high in well over 100 years. They reached an all-time low in 2013 before a meteoric rise brought them to an all-time high in just 7 years.

If you love taking long walks along the lake shore, the high water and waves might just push you inland and on to private property. What can you do? Do you still have a right to walk the Great Lakes shorelines?

Jim Olson, J.D., LL.M

NatureChange.org talked with FLOW founder, president, and highly-respected environmental attorney, Jim Olson, about the changing coastline of Lake Michigan and the public’s right to walk the lake shore. As Olson describes, the land under the waters of Lake Michigan (and the water itself) along Michigan’s coast is held in public trust by the State. For a very long time, the public has had the right to walk along the beach below the Ordinary Natural High Water Mark — an obvious physical line of topography and vegetation created over many years by wave action. However, the rapid change in water levels and coastal erosion has overwhelmed the Ordinary Natural High Water Mark. So, where can we walk?

Mark Breederland

Olson says, “you have the right to still walk the beach, but you’re going to have to have your toe in the water or walk in the wet sand to be [legally] safe because we don’t know where that new natural ordinary high is. But we certainly know that if you’re within the wet sand, you’re certainly within the wave action and have a right under the public trust doctrine to access and walk along the beaches and shoreline of the Great Lakes.”

An educator for Michigan Sea Grant, Mark Breederland adds that the water levels in Lake Michigan are predicted to continue breaking records for many months, causing even more coastal erosion. In many places, high shore land bluffs and fallen trees can present real hazards to beach walkers. And if beach walkers need help to get out of a difficult situation, the first responders will be put at risk too.

Linda Dewey

“I think,” Breederland says, “our beach walking is going to have to be adjusted, for sure, for 2020.”

Linda Dewey, a journalist for the Glen Arbor Sun newspaper and Lake Michigan shoreline property owner, reminds everyone that walking the shoreline of Lake Michigan is a delightful, shared activity — with limits. When in front of private property, walkers are not permitted to stop, sit and settle in. That has always been true, but now there are new hazards. Where there are fallen trees, private docks or other structures blocking the shoreline, beach walkers are not allowed to walk inland on private property.

According to Dewey, if you encounter an obstruction and can’t go around it in the water, “You’re going to have to turn around.”

The following 4-minute video offers clear explanations and illustrations.

Onus is on State, Not Citizens, to Turn on Water in Detroit

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

Jim Olson spoke last week at Columbia University’s Lenfest Center for the Arts in a program titled “Water Activism: Detroit, Flint, and the Great Lakes”. Photo by Michael DiVito 

By Jim Olson

Several newspapers recently reported on another 23,000 water service shutoffs of residences in Detroit whose occupants cannot afford to pay their excessive water bills, bringing the total to well over 100,000 shutoffs since 2014. The city has forced shutoffs of residential water for drinking, cooking, bathing, and sanitation ostensibly to improve the balance sheet of Detroit during and after its municipal bankruptcy.

And there’s no end in sight.

Late last week, state of Michigan officials rejected a request from Detroit residents and the American Civil Liberties Union to declare an emergency and stop the water shutoffs on the grounds that residents couldn’t scientifically prove there was a public health threat or crisis.

Clearly water service to these customers should be restored immediately. Not only was the rejection wrong on moral grounds, it also should never have been the residents’ burden to prove life without water is a crisis.

Putting the onus on citizens to prove harm ignores the reality of a person’s inherent right to access the sovereign or public waters of the state for drinking water, sanitation or health, and sustenance. The waters delivered by the City of Detroit’s Water Board are withdrawn, treated, distributed, collected, treated as sewage, and returned to Lake Huron and the Detroit River. These navigable waters are public and subject to what is known as the Public Trust Doctrine.

Michigan, like every state, took title to the waters of the Great Lakes and soils beneath them, as sovereign and in public trust for the people, on admission to the Union in 1837. Under this Public Trust Doctrine, the State of Michigan and its officials have a solemn, perpetual duty to prevent impairment or interference with the right of the public to use these waters for certain protected public trust purposes. 

Under the Public Trust Doctrine, each citizen, as a legally recognized beneficiary under the decisions of the Michigan Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court, has a right to access these waters for navigation, fishing, sustenance, including drinking water and growing and preparing food, bathing (more accurately described as sanitation), and swimming. Before the City of Detroit established a public water supply system in the late 1800s and early 1900s, residents depended on groundwater, Lake St. Clair, or the Detroit River.

As the city grew, the public water supply system expanded. In order to assure the costs of this expanded system were covered, Michigan passed a law requiring residents and occupants of the service area to shut down existing private wells and hook up to the system and prevented them from exercising their property right to reasonable use of the groundwater or navigable waters.

But their fundamental right to access and use these public waters was not denied, nor could it be. The public rights to use these public trust waters for navigation, fishing, drinking, food, and sanitation are paramount and can never be repealed or impaired. Detroit, like other cities and towns, withdraws and delivers public water as a service through its municipal water supply system as a substitute system for the water residents once obtained through their reasonable use of groundwater.

The public trust water that enters and flows through, and is discharged back into, Lake Huron or the Detroit River does not lose its public trust status just because it enters a pipe. The pipe and every aspect of the public water system backed by citizen ratepayers and the full faith and credit of the state (bonds, taxes, and other revenues) remains subject to the Public Trust Doctrine.

Under the Public Trust Doctrine, not only does government have a legal duty to protect and provide access for these paramount public trust uses of residents and citizens, but the burden of proof is not on the residents of Detroit or citizens of Michigan for access to water for drinking, food, and sanitation. The burden is on the government, that is the trustees, or any other person or institution who seeks to deny or deprive a resident of these paramount public trust rights. The solemn duty was on the state and city officials, not the residents. And, it remains forever so.

Since when is the burden of proof on residents to prove a health crisis to get a drink of water from the tap in their home? By refusing to grant relief to tens of thousands of residents in Detroit, the state has effectively deprived citizens of their rights under public trust law.

Once we see and understand this situation is a matter of the public trust law, it can be understood that citizens don’t have to prove to the state under public health statutes that there is a public health emergency. Legally and morally, it is the other way around. State officials have a mandatory duty to provide access to these public trust waters for drinking, food, and health. As trustee of the waters of Lake Huron and the Detroit River, state officials have sovereign control and power to assure water is provided without risks of health to residents.

Bottom line: The state has a duty to turn the water back on.

To refuse to do so because of some narrow statutory interpretation under a public health law, rather than fulfill its duty under public trust law, perpetuates the emotional trauma, risks, turmoil, and discrimination thrust on residents who should be treated like every other citizen when it comes to our common public waters. If the state does not turn on the water through its overarching role as trustee of the public trust waters of the state, the public trust duty has been violated.

What we need to do as a state, and as a civilized society, is to recognize and affirm this public water, this Public Trust, and start acting differently.

First, turn the water back on and provide a necessary minimum amount of 7,000 gallons a month—like Santa Fe, New Mexico, does—at a low rate everyone can pay; increase rates on all who use more than this amount, and move residents off a rate system that spreads the cost on resident ratepayers. The current system is obsolete.

With the slashes in federal grant and low interest infrastructure funding, the need for billions in repairs of systems that have been allowed to deteriorate, new demands from climate change effects, and dwindling customer populations with wages that lock them in poverty, it is time we start with the reality that the waters of the state are public for all of us, and assure that we provide water services shared by everyone in Michigan.

Public water is not about the “bottom-line,” it is about serving the public with safe water for drinking, food and health under the Public Trust Doctrine.

In addition to moving off a purely ratepayer based system in each city or town in favor of a state-wide responsibility for all of us to assure access to public water, we should pass a version of FLOW’s Public Water, Public Justice model law, which we released in September 2018. This policy will shift the burden and create flexibility for water boards to set prices in tiers, authorize affordability plans, and assure a certain amount of water is provided to each citizen shared by all citizens.

Then, because all water in the state is public, not private, the free lunch or massive subsidy to bottled water companies must end. Presently, bottled water companies convert the use of water into a sale of water, with huge profits not shared by the citizens of Michigan. Some companies, like Dasani or Aquafina, receive the water by tapping into a municipal or public water supply system. Other companies like Nestlé simply set up a system of large-volume pumps and withdraw public water from groundwater or springs that feed our lakes and streams; these companies pay a nominal fee to process applications and administer permits that seek to regulate environmental impacts, but they pay nothing for the public water that garners them hundreds of millions of dollars in profits.

The profits of bottled water companies constitute a massive subsidy to a few private corporations directly off the backs of all other ratepayers, taxpayers, and citizens of Michigan.

Then start requiring bottled water companies to obtain a license. If we allow the sale of water at all, under stringent impact and accounting standards, these companies should pay a royalty or fee to sell, not just use, our public water. Those royalties should be placed in a trust fund for public water and social justice needs of our cities, towns, and villages, and provide an open, participatory, transparent, and accountable means to right this inequity by assisting communities and citizens with the most critical needs. After all, when it comes to our shared public water, we are all citizens of Detroit.

“I Have a Dream that Our Water Will Be Protected as a Commons Under the Public Trust Doctrine”

FLOW founder and president Jim Olson delivered the following remarks — inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech — on January 12 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Grand Traverse.

By Jim Olson

I had a dream in 2009 and 2010. I had a dream to bring the public trust doctrine into the debate over the battle for control of our world’s water commons and what to do about the challenge to halt its destruction and control by private corporations in an increasingly intense world water crisis.

This dream grew out of the legal battle here in Michigan over the privatization of water and damage to our headwater creeks, lakes, and wetlands by Nestlé. For the first time, corporations like Nestlé sought to convert what all understood as a right to reasonably use water, to the sale of water. This was, in effect, an unprecedented massive scale of the privatization of the commons in water for exorbitant profits without paying anything. Nestlé and other corporations around the world (check out the World Water Forum) wanted to take over the public’s sovereign water—which, if it succeeded, would make every person and living being on the planet its slave.

I had a dream that our water commons would be protected by the framework and principles of the public trust doctrine—an ancient doctrine dating from days of Justinian in Rome, 1,500 year ago. The public trust doctrine puts our commons and the fundamental relationship of water to life paramount to all else, meaning it must be protected from one generation to the next. The public trust doctrine would transform us to protect the gift of water first, which in turn would sustain and foster and assure access to clean, safe water for all humanity, all living beings on this planet. Thus was born FLOW (For Love of Water).

Today, that dream is a reality because of the dedication, help, and support of many people who understand that at this time in history we cannot afford to view the natural world, especially our common water, as apart from us. It is a common gift from the creation. It preceded the human mind. The human mind is a tool, not an end in itself. If we honor this dream of the public trust in the water commons as part of our own beings, paramount to all life, we will then defeat our human desire to control, at short gain, and convert everything it can to profit, at tremendous cost to all life, the natural world, the hydrosphere itself.

I have a dream that this commons will be protected by this public trust doctrine, which many of you who have followed FLOW have heard us speak about and apply to the challenges we face here in the Great Lakes. This dream started centuries ago.

I have a dream that this commons and public trust, buried like an underground stream beneath the industrialization and capitalization of the planet in the past 200 years, will resurface and become central to our understanding and protection of the integrity of water as paramount, intrinsic in its own beingness. It will become part of our everyday life. We will then understand that if we do not protect water and all life as a commons under public trust principles, that private property and the accumulation of massive capital and wealth really has no value of all.

I have a dream that we understand that the hydrosphere itself is a being in a sense, a living water cycle in which we live will be seen as a commons.

I have a dream that this commons in the hydrosphere and the beings and life it supports are protected by the public trust doctrine, that government and personal decisions will put the commons and life first, as a primary public purpose, and that government and personal decisions must assure the protection of water from impairment from one generation to the next.

I have a dream that this will lead to dignity and respect for others and water. By following this paramount public trust framework, we and government will make very good decisions about water, health, land use, food, energy, environment, and economy.

I have a dream that if this public trust framework is not followed, that people will remove those in power by their voice, their hearts, their votes, or protest. If necessary, they will file lawsuits to stop the tyranny of private corporate control of our water commons, our health, drinking water, sustenance for life, that this will halt the tyranny of climate change, the tyranny of fires and death in Australia, California, around the world, the tyranny of massive storms, flooding, landslides.

I have a dream that this commons and public trust will stop the tyranny of the shutoff of water for more than 100,000 people in Detroit and across this world. I have a dream that there will be no water shutoffs for any person, child, or grandparent on this earth, because they don’t have the ability to pay for water.

I have a dream that this public trust and protection of the water commons will stop the destruction of lives like the exposure to lead of children and citizens of Flint or other cities and towns.

I have a dream that this public trust doctrine will assure that water is always public, that we will preserve water and treat it with dignity for all.

I have a dream that this public trust will assure that this water is a generational commons and public trust, serving all on earth for generations to come.

I have a dream that it will apply to and honor all people.

I have a dream that people will understand that we are a relationship to water, that the public trust doctrine does not just protect the water, it protects all life; that it protects the relationship between people and life.

I have a dream that if we understand this relationship between beings and life, we can protect our Great Lakes like Lake Erie, one-third of which is a green toxic soup, and our groundwater from toxins that should never be tolerated in the water we drink or use for food and bathing.

I have a dream that we understood that this water commons is us, and that in the future because of this, we will come to a peace on this earth—a peace that was created and continues in the relationship between the commons and us when the earth was formed, when we entered this earth, however that happened.

I have a dream that we can move forward together to accomplish the protection of water as commons and public trust because we come to understand that is what’s in our hearts.

Thank you.

Watch the full video below (Jim Olson begins speaking at 40:12).

Safeguarding and Reclaiming the Public Water Commons and a Human Right to Water and Health

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

Maude Barlow’s latest, “Whose Water Is It Anyway” is hot off the press

Photo courtesy Council of Canadians

By Jim Olson

It took me just a few hours to finish reading Maude Barlow’s incisive, inspiring new book, Whose Water Is It Anyway?: Taking Water Protection into Public Hands (ECW Press, 2019). This is not new territory for Maude.  She’s a world water policy guru and activist for the protection of the human right to water, the war against the schemes by the corporate elite to privatize and control water, and the fight to sustain water’s integrity in the watersheds where it flows. In 2002, she published Blue Gold with Tony Clark to go after global corporate thefts of water by taking over public water supplies or selling off public water in bottles. In 2007, she released Blue Covenant, enshrining the inherent obligation to assure the human right to water for people’s access to affordable safe water for all; and in 2015, she wrote Blue Future: Protecting Water for People and the Planet Forever, in which she not only championed the human right to water, but called on governments and people to recognize the duty to care for the water on which the right to water and all life depends.

Her new book, Whose Water Is It Anyway, a convenient pocket-sized paperback, tells the story behind her life’s work. It was ignited when in the 1980s she glimpsed the under-the table hand of a widespread corporate scheme to parade as champions of the free market that would provide water to meet the needs of people everywhere. The scheme was actually to control the world’s sources and delivery systems of water. Her new book combines her story and the stories of many others facing blows from the corporate world order that cut off drinking water, metered the wells of peasants, or robbed residents and watersheds of the flow of freshwater to convert water into bottles at publicly subsidized massive private gain.

She hits the highs and lows—the death of a young man in Bolivia over a corporate takeover of the water of the peasants of Cochabamba, the conversion by Nestlé and other bottled water companies of the right to use water into the right to sell water on the private market at exorbitant profits. Then she traces the global awareness and growing movement that in the past 30 years has spread throughout the world, and raised a shield against the private ownership and ironfisted clench on the world’s water taps. Her story could have ended in 2010, when her life’s work, and the work of water warriors around the world—including the Blue Planet Project, Council of Canadians, Food and Water Watch, and Uruguay’s National Commission for the Defense of Water—culminated a decade of dedicated work to finally see the United Nations enact resolutions in 2010 declaring the Human Right to Water and Sanitation.

It would have been enough for Maude to tell this story, in a digestible, accessible paperback, but that wasn’t enough. Everything she writes is about her life, the conflicts over water, and the many unsung heroes on the front lines, which highlight the water crisis we face through privatization and waste of our most precious commons. The work is not done, the awareness and movement should be as much a part of quality of life, health, and dignity, and life itself. No, it wasn’t enough to stop with the success, but to chart the next steps she sees as essential, ones that are already taking root across the world—Blue Communities.

The Blue Communities movement is a citizen, grassroots, local movement that shifts the understanding of the sustainability of a community, its quality of life and economy on three basic principles: 1. Water is a commons in which everyone has a human right for drinking, health, and safety; 2. Water, including local public water infrastructure, is public, and must forever remain a commons, preserved for present and generations to come—a commons held in public trust, as FLOW has envisioned and worked for over the past 10 years; and 3. that natural water sources—our streams and lakes and groundwater—shall not be privatized by ownership or control, and public water should not be taken for free as bottled water, or the private takeover and control of access to public water supplies and infrastructure. Each local city or local rural government in the Blue Communities program adopts a resolution centering itself and its future on sustaining water for life, water that is public, a commons, safe, and accessible, common and secure for all. Already, cities in Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France, Great Britain, and the United States have turned to resolutions and specific actions to commit to the Blue Community principles. The World Council of Churches, representing 590 million Christians, has declared itself a Blue Community.

Maude’s book is a combination of big picture world water crisis, personal story, water policy, conflicts, and solution. Here is a short readable book, a book you can slip into your purse, backpack, or even suit coat pocket, to take with you into the city hall, the boardroom, the classroom, or statehouse. It’s a story that should be read by everyone who cares about liberty, dignity, harmony, and the common good of people and planet. Here’s an author who walks the walk and helps show us the way forward. For further information on Blue Communities, water commons, privatization, and the public trust doctrine, visit The Council of Canadians or FLOW’s OUR20 Communities page.

Michigan DNR Takes Steps to Hold Enbridge Accountable

Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Director Daniel Eichinger today set a 30-day deadline for Enbridge to submit key information regarding its ongoing violations of the state-granted easement conditionally allowing the Canadian company’s 66-year-old Line 5 oil pipelines to occupy the Straits of Mackinac.

Eichinger’s letter to Enbridge, which includes 20 questions to be answered by Feb. 12, is an appropriate step to conclude the DNR’s review ordered by Governor Whitmer last June, according to FLOW, the Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City.

“It’s a welcome sign that Director Eichinger and his staff appear to be wrapping up their Line 5 investigation by asking for all other information and documentation that Enbridge has in its possession or control,” said Kelly Thayer, Deputy Director of FLOW (For Love of Water). “At the conclusion of this process, these serious and continuing violations of the easement by Enbridge should trigger the state to shut down the dangerous dual Line 5 oil pipelines in the Great Lakes before it’s too late.”

FLOW commended the DNR for taking this step to restore the rule of law on Line 5, the oil pipelines running through the open waters of the Straits of Mackinac, which researchers have called the worst possible place for a Great Lakes oil spill due to the powerful underwater currents, strong waves, seasonal ice cover, and extreme difficulty in responding to an oil pipeline failure.

“It’s clear that Line 5’s original design in the Straits is failing, as the powerful currents scour the public bottomlands and undermine the pipelines placed there in 1953,” said Jim Olson, FLOW’s President and legal advisor. “Enbridge’s continuing addition of more than 200 pipeline supports constitutes a risky redesign that never has been evaluated or authorized under the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act and public trust law.”

The State of Michigan already has documented evidence on Line 5 of anchor strikes, exposed metal surfaces, and deep scouring of bottomlands that undermine the pipelines and even bend some of the newly installed supports. There also has been evidence of bending of Line 5 beyond curvature limits, Enbridge has failed to provide proof of liability insurance and other financial assurances, and missing protective pipeline coating and delamination.

FLOW filed formal comments in mid-November 2019 to assist the State of Michigan’s Line 5 review, citing new and ongoing legal violations by Enbridge and rising risk to the Great Lakes, jobs, and drinking water. In those Nov. 13 comments, FLOW called on the state to increase and strictly enforce the requirement for comprehensive oil spill insurance and terminate the 1953 easement that conditionally allows Line 5 to occupy the Straits of Mackinac, triggering the orderly shutdown of the dual oil pipelines as soon as practicable after securing alternative sources for residential propane in the Upper Peninsula (which a state task force is studying).

FLOW’s request followed recent revelations that Enbridge and its subsidiaries lack adequate liability insurance for a potentially catastrophic oil spill from the Canadian company’s decaying dual pipelines snaking across the public bottomlands, where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron. The new evidence further supports FLOW’s long-standing contention that Enbridge is operating Line 5 illegally while the risk rises to the Great Lakes, jobs, and the drinking water supply for half of Michiganders.

Until Enbridge has applied for and obtains authorization under the rule of law or Line 5 is shut down, FLOW urges the state to impose immediate emergency measures that reduce the flow of oil in Line 5 to its original limit of 300,000 barrels per day (1 barrel = 42 U.S. gallons of oil). Enbridge currently pumps 540,000 barrels a day through Line 5 in the Straits, which is 80% more than the original design approved by the State of Michigan.

Pending such authorization or shutdown, state officials also should implement more stringent requirements for a mandatory emergency shutdown, including when there is a wave height of 3.3 feet or more in the Straits or winds in excess of 18 miles per hour, conditions that render oil spill response equipment ineffective. Based on the level of risk from Line 5 to public waters, the state also should require Enbridge and its subsidiaries to secure adequate insurance, bond, surety and/or secured assets in the total amount of at least $5 billion, based on a study commissioned by FLOW that found that a Line 5 oil spill could deliver a multibillion-dollar blow to natural resource and Michigan’s economy.

Court’s Denial of Zoning Permit for Nestlé Pump Station Exposes Achilles Heel of Private Bottled Water Industry

Bottled water

By Jim Olson

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

On December 3, the Michigan Court of Appeals released an opinion nullifying a lower court order that had allowed the water-bottling giant Nestlé to build an industrial booster pump facility to transport 210 million gallons per year of groundwater that feeds headwater creeks in Osceola Township, just north of Evart. 

In one sense, the decision was narrow. The Court simply interpreted and applied zoning law and the language of the township’s zoning ordinance, and concluded that the industrial-sized pump facility was not authorized as a listed use or “essential public service” in a long-established agricultural district. 

In another sense, the decision exposes the Achilles heel of the private bottled water industry’s water withdrawals, diversions, and sales throughout Michigan and the country.

No matter what arguments Nestlé threw at the appeals court—and there were many—the court rejected them. Nestlé tried to convince the court to allow the booster pump to expand its water diversion to Evart and then down U.S. 131 by truck to its plant in Stanwood by claiming, alternatively, that it was engaged in an essential public service, a public service, a public necessity, or a public water supply. 

But Michigan’s second highest court found that, no matter how you pump it, the removal of 576,000 gallons per day, seven days a week, of public water for private bottled water sales was not public, not essential, not necessary, not a public service, and not a public water supply. In other words, bottled water diversion and export operations can no longer be paraded as public. The bottled water industry has only one purpose—maximum profit from the sale of packaged public water.

At its core, the conversion of Michigan’s sovereign water into a product and revenue does not square with our laws and customs that view water as “a commons” for reasonable use to serve the needs of landowners, communities, and the public. Water has been considered public for more than 1,500 years. Until the last 30 years, our common law never contemplated the sale of massive quantities of water to consumers living outside a river’s or lake’s watershed, or outside the Great Lakes Basin.

It is a frequent misconception that landowners own the groundwater beneath their feet or the stream passing by the shore. Landowners or occupants of land do not own the water passing under or through their land; they have only a right of reasonable use, and may use it in connection with their land in some beneficial way, so long as the use does not interfere or diminish the water or their neighbor’s reasonable use in connection with the overlying land. 

Lower Court Decision

Along with gaining state approval to pump 400 gallons per minute, Nestlé leased farmland and filed an application for a zoning permit with Osceola Township to locate an industrial-size booster pump in the A-1 Agricultural District to expand capacity of a pipeline that runs to a truck transfer-station located two miles south of Evart. The industrial use did not appear eligible as a use in the farming district. The Planning Commission noted, however, that it might qualify as an “essential service” if Nestlé could show that the private facility constituted a “public convenience and necessity,” but ultimately denied the request because it did not meet that standard.

Nestlé appealed to the county circuit court, ruling that the proposed pump facility constituted an “essential public service,” which was exempt from the ordinance. The court reasoned that, from Nestlé’s viewpoint, the facility was an essential service, and that, because it satisfied a general public demand for consuming bottled water, it was public. 

Court of Appeals Decision

The Township then filed an appeal with the Michigan Court of Appeals. After briefing and oral arguments, the appeals court on December 3 reversed the lower court’s ruling that the pump station qualified as an “essential public service.”

Nestlé also submitted several alternative claims and arguments that its booster pump station qualified for approval under the zoning ordinance. In every instance the Court completely rejected Nestlé’s arguments.

First, Nestlé argued that its pumping station was an “essential public service.” The Court acknowledged that “water is essential” to life—sustenance, health, farming, industry, electricity, recreation, and other human needs—but rejected the argument that selling bottled water to consumers at a profit somehow constitutes a “public service.” The Court found that “public service” means supplying water as a service to the general public or community through public waterworks, in the same way as any public utility, such as for the delivery of gas or electricity; the appeals court concluded that bottled water sales are a convenience, and sometimes are a help consumers in an emergency—but not a service that’s essential to the public.

Second, as a backup claim, Nestlé argued that its pump facility qualified as an “essential public service” because the large-volume water well permit constituted a “public water supply” under Michigan’s Safe Drinking Water Act (“SDWA”). However, the appeals court determined that the private sale of bottled water was not in the nature of a public utility subject to the Michigan Public Service Commission. Moreover, in a latter section of its decision, the appeals court noted that under the SDWA a “community supply” and “non-community supply” refer to a public water supply that provides year-round service to living units of residents, places of employment, schools, or daycare centers. The Court concluded that bottled water sales to consumers do not meet the definition of a public water supply.

Third, the company argued that the pump station qualified as an agricultural use. But the appeals court pointed to the definition in the zoning ordinance, finding that farming uses included growing, irrigation, food storage, or distribution facilities for agricultural products, and concluded that the industrial pump facility did not qualify as an agricultural use. Water is not “something produced,” the appeals court stated. Water used for farming is not, in itself, a farm product.

Fourth, Nestlé argued that its pump station qualified as an “extraction” of natural resources like sand and gravel under a special use permit provision in the ordinance. But once more the appeals court rejected the company’s argument because extraction or mining of a natural resource is not the same as the removal of water that continually moves through subsurface soils to replenish a stream, lake, or wetland, or provide a source of water for overlying landowners. In other words, water is not owned and extracted, water is a common resource reasonably used by others as it moves through the watershed. The sale of water permanently removed or severed from the water cycle by its nature does not replenish a shared common resource, it irretrievably depletes the resource: “… [E]xtracting water and sending it to other places where it cannot return to the water table… faster than the aquifer can replenish is an ‘irretrievable’ depletion,” the appeals court ruled. The court’s reasoning is entirely in accord with the common law rule in Michigan that water cannot be diverted off-tract or out of a watershed for sale in distant places if it diminishes other uses of water in connection with land in the watershed, the level of a marsh, lake, or stream. A large-volume pump diverting water from the land used by others for farming purposes is not compatible with farming or agricultural use.

Fifth, Nestlé argued that Michigan’s 2008 Water Withdrawal Act preempted local zoning ordinances that restricted the withdrawal of water: “[A] local unit of government shall not enact or enforce an ordinance that regulates a large quantity withdrawal,” stipulated the act. But the appeals court distinguished the regulation of groundwater withdrawal from the regulation of allowable land uses under a zoning ordinance, and concluded that the zoning ordinance “does not have the effect of regulating… the removal of water.”

Finally, Nestlé argued that its pumping station was an inextricable part of its large-volume water well that had been permitted by the State as a “public water supply” under the SDWA. However, the appeals court, again, ruled that water withdrawn for sale as bottled water for private gain did not fit the definition of a “public water supply,” emphasizing that the 2008 amendments to the SDWA created an entirely new classification for permitting bottled water operations, completely apart from sections of the SDWA that governed permits for a public water supply.

Future of Free Public Water for Private Bottling, Sale, and Profit

As a result of the court of appeals decision, for Nestlé to locate an industrial pumping station in Osceola Township, it will have to convince the Township’s board to amend the zoning ordinance. But the ruling goes far beyond zoning law.

In its broadest sense, the Osceola Township case could mean a lot more. Over the past two decades, bottled water has represented a battleground in many locations, including Maine and Vermont, Maryland and Florida, Texas and California, and across the border in Hamilton, Ontario. 

There are three fundamental issues in play: First, as seen by the court findings in the 2005 Nestlé case in Mecosta County, Michigan, groundwater withdrawals diverted for bottled water on a permanent basis cause substantial local impacts to fish, canoeing, kayaking, wildlife, and habitat in tributary creeks, lakes, and wetlands. Second, the removal of water for sale out of a watershed is not a use of water like farming or manufacturing in connection with land and returned to the watershed; it is a diversion and sale or export. Third, almost no one—regardless of their political persuasions—warms to the notion that someone can withdraw water, bottle it, and then claim it as its own to sell and profit without paying a penny for it. The public, in effect, subsidizes the company’s profit, without ever authorizing the company to sell the water.

Private large-volume groundwater operations like Nestlé’s in Michigan aren’t the only threat. Many water bottlers like Dasani and Aquafina hook up to a public water supply, package it, and convert it into a product to sell after paying a tiny fraction of a penny per gallon to the local municipality. In these cases, the corporations do not need a groundwater permit. They simply convert a public water service based on a nonprofit rate structure—spread across all those using the service—into profit. Like Nestlé, water bottlers who convert a public water supply into a package to sell at lucrative prices are subsidized by the other ratepayers and the public water supply service.

How can a bottled water company pay only an infinitesimal fraction of a penny for a gallon of water—based on a pro-rated cost of the municipal operation spread across all ratepayers—package, or bottle it, and convert it into a product or export t for sale for its own profit without authorization to sell or profit from the sale of a public water service?

The Court of Appeals decision in Osceola Township is a significant victory for local communities, water users, and citizens of Michigan who so often struggle to combat large, exploitive operations such as high-volume bottled water exports, Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), fracking, and mining extraction. Just because a company thinks it can withdraw water and sell it because it holds a permit that says the withdrawal doesn’t violate impact standards, doesn’t mean the extraction is authorized or lawful under zoning laws, water rights law, or the sovereign state and public trust interest in water for the benefit of all citizens. Corporate water bottling is a private use, bent on convenience and profit. Even in humanitarian situations, like supplying bottled water in Flint, the water withdrawal still benefits the company. 

The answer to the larger question, “Who owns the groundwater?” is that, “No one owns the water.” Not the landowners, not bottled water companies, not even the local public water works. Groundwater is public water held by the State for the benefit of its citizens’ health, safety, and wellbeing. Michigan water is for use here in our local watersheds and the Great Lakes Basin, not for sale in some distant land.

Breaking the Cycle of Great Lakes Ruin and Recovery

Above photo: Jane Corwin, US Commissioner/Chair of the International Joint Commission, speaks at a public hearing in Traverse City on July 24, 2019. Photo by Rick Kane.

By Liz Kirkwood

Editor’s note: FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood was recently appointed to be a member of the International Joint Commission’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board.

Liz Kirkwood, FLOW Executive Director

My colleague and mentor, Dave Dempsey, knows almost everything there is to know about the Great Lakes.  He’s encyclopedic, you could say. He’s authored over 10 books, including a classic one entitled Ruin and Recovery (University of Michigan Press, 2001).  

It’s the cycle we here in the Great Lakes are all too familiar with.  

The book tells a story of Michigan’s environmental ruin that began to worsen in the early 1900s, followed by the recovery that began in the 1970s as the public clamored for a clean environment.

It is amazing to imagine that over one hundred years ago, as lax water pollution standards led to the fouling of the Great Lakes, the US and Canadian governments had the vision and foresight to craft an international treaty to address boundary water management and disputes. Known as the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, this pact established the International Joint Commission (IJC) to serve as the advisor to both governments in preventing, arbitrating, and navigating water conflicts.  Of the nine major water basins shared by the US and Canada, the Great Lakes is the largest and has global significance because it contains 20 percent of the planet’s fresh surface water.    

In 1972, with increasing international water pollution, the US and Canada entered into the seminal Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA).  The Agreement called for binational action by the governments to reduce phosphorus pollution and meet water quality goals. It also set up the Great Lakes Water Quality Board (WQB) to assist the IJC in watchdogging Great Lakes cleanup.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the IJC was considered the moral authority on Great Lakes issues, candidly assessing progress and problems. Thanks in part to the Water Quality Board, the commission made a lasting contribution to Great Lakes cleanup by defining 43 “areas of concern” (AOCs)—bays, harbors, and rivers with severe legacy contamination—that needed sustained commitment to be cleaned up. Over 30 years later, work continues on the AOCs, along with congressional funding of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI).

The work of the Water Quality Board continues, too. The 28-member board provides advice to the IJC for the benefit of the 40 million people who rely on the lakes for drinking water, sustenance, and way of life.  The IJC recently appointed me to serve on the Board.

The Board represents the crossroads of the Great Lakes, bringing together diverse viewpoints from tribal leaders like Frank Ettawageshik and water affordability advocates like Monica Lewis-Patrick. It is a pleasure to serve with them and to problem solve how we can bring the Great Lakes community together to respond to old and new problems in the Basin. This work depends on developing key priorities and scientific goals to measure progress, coordinating strong and committed implementation among federal, state, and provincial environmental agencies, building stronger and new partnerships and alliances across these lakes, lifting up silenced voices to ensure water justice for all, and educating and empowering all peoples about the vital importance of protecting the health of our common waters.

It’s been almost 50 years since the two nations entered into the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, and during this time, we have watched rust-belt contaminated urban cores rebound and polluted ecosystems revived. But we also have witnessed a rollback of major federal environmental regulations and laws, the Flint lead crisis, Detroit water shutoffs, lack of investment and crumbling regional water infrastructure, lack of safe, affordable drinking water, wetland destruction, water privatization, legacy and emerging pollutants like PFAS, and unprecedented climate change impacts.

Our challenge in this new century, then, is to break the constant cycle of ruin and recovery, and replace it with sustained protection and prosperity. This is critical in the context of the climate crisis where we are testing the capacity of our ecosystems to rebound. Instead, we must imagine the future we want, where natural and human ecosystems can thrive and prosper together.

To do this, we must challenge traditional assumptions and ways of thinking. We must draw not only on science but also on traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) is a relational process for indigenous peoples that is built through experience and relationships that are difficult to incorporate into non-indigenous information systems and decision frameworks. We must design and enact bold policies that acknowledge the interconnectedness of human health, economic prosperity, and ecosystems.

With public trust doctrine protection, we can steward our waters as a shared public resource from one generation to the next and ensure multigenerational equity. Healthy economies and communities depend on healthy ecosystems. It’s as simple as that. The future of the Great Lakes depends on a vision and plan based on a water-economy that embraces a new water ethic at its center.

I am honored to serve on the Water Quality Board for the IJC and it is my great hope that we can work together to develop recommendations thattranslate into meaningful bi-national actions designed to protect the long-term health of the Great Lakes.

Protecting the Great Lakes is “A Matter of the Heart”

On #GivingTuesday, a FLOW supporter shares loving words on water

By Jerry Beasley

I do not come by my love of water as a result of growing up where there was plenty of it. So I might say that I don’t come by it naturally. But it’s real, and here’s the story of why.

I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee. There were no natural lakes to swim in. The Cumberland River was the only nearby body of water, and it was busy with industrial boat traffic—so there were no swimming holes. I do remember playing around in local creeks, scouting for crawdads and little fish. The truth is, I was afraid of the water. When, at the age of nine, I signed up for a class at the YMCA where I would be taught to swim, I panicked and quit.

I did finally learn to swim—badly—as a young teenager, and I remember long, sunburned days at Cascade Plunge, a 45-minute bus ride from my home.

To keep this story short, I’ll leap ahead to the time when I moved to a small farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, overlooking the Sassafras River, one of the several Eastern Shore tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. My daughters were then very young, and because the summers were hot, we spent long afternoons on that river, where the girls learned to swim. Just a few miles upstream, the Sassafras was no more than a trickle, but where we played and swam in it, the river was as wide as the Mississippi, and as majestic. It inspired a kind of awe. I never became a really good swimmer, but being there changed me, for I then first realized that I had a genuine love for the water. My girls loved the water, and I think they taught me to love it too.

Much later, in the early 1990s, my new wife and I began traveling together in the summers from our home in Delaware to Northern Michigan—to her family cottage on Intermediate Lake in Antrim County, part of the Chain of Lakes watershed, not far from Traverse City. The cottage had been in her family since 1918, and she had been spending summers there for much of her life.

A whole new world of joy opened for me. Everyone in her family loved the lake with a great passion. Her father built sailboats and spent hours on the water in them. Everyone swam. Evenings on the dock were a long tradition, and the beauty of the sunsets was wondrous to me. From that point forward, we both felt that we always needed to be near water. We soon bought a small house on the Elk River in Maryland, like the Sassafras, an Eastern Shore tributary of the Chesapeake and, from our beach, equally majestic.

Watch Jerry Beasley read from “A Matter of the Heart”. And please consider supporting FLOW on #GivingTuesday.
But it was during those days in Michigan almost 30 years ago that I fell so deeply in love with water, in a new and completely fulfilling way. I marveled at the fact that Michigan had so many miles of Great Lakes shoreline, that it had more than 11,000 inland lakes. Truly a water wonderland. When my wife and I were ready to retire, we decided to move all the way to Traverse City so that we could be near the family cottage and the water that makes it such a special place for us. And the bonus is that when we’re not at the cottage we have the magnificence of Grand Traverse Bay.

Now, as every reader of this blog post already knows, our water legacy is under grave threat, and there are many people, individually and in organized groups like FLOW, who are working fiercely to save it, producing studies and launching campaigns to inform and engage the public. All of this is essential, and without it, the battle will almost certainly be lost.

But the thing I learned many years ago, as I passed from ignorance and something approaching indifference to passionate love, is this: that what is most fundamental about our relationship with water is a matter of the heart. Love preceded knowledge for me. Without the former, I would never have moved on to the latter.

To put it another way: What I have learned, and what I believe in the most elemental way, is that our first and most basic relationship with water is anchored in love. In the absence of love there is the great risk of indifference and failure to protect this resource that, under the Public Trust Doctrine, belongs to us all and is essential to life. If the heart is not engaged, the waters will not be saved. So, while we marshal facts and organize and encourage activism, let us remember to acknowledge the power of our affections and make them a guiding principle in all that we do.

Minnesota Water Train Proposal Exposes Flaw in Great Lakes Compact

Jim Olson, FLOW Founder

By Jim Olson

A railway company recently proposed extracting 500 million gallons of groundwater per year from Minnesota and shipping it to water-scarce states in the southwestern United States.

Although the water that would be diverted lies outside the Great Lakes Basin, and Minnesota officials said they are not likely to approve the water export proposal, the resulting controversy has renewed analysis of the Great Lakes Compact, which is designed to protect the Lakes from water diversions. And the heightened scrutiny is a good thing because part of Minnesota lies within the Great Lakes Basin.

The Great Lakes Compact has suffered from a primary weakness from the very beginning: it does not address the sale of water or consumption outside the Basin or watershed (with the exception of diversions in counties or communities that immediately adjoin the Basin). To provide for water used or diverted in products, there is a “product” exemption buried in the definition of “diversion” that permits tomatoes grown within the Basin, for example, to be shipped outside the watershed.

But buried in the definition of “product” is “water removed by human or mechanical means and transferred out of the basin” as a result of industrial, manufacturing, agriculture processes or products, and here’s the kicker, “… or intended for intermediate or end-use consumers.” So, the Compact contains a water-as-product export provision—at least to the extent that water is placed in a container. But, here’s another kicker. There is no limit to size, so railroad containers filled with water and “intended for intermediate or end-use consumer” would be exempt from the diversion ban for purchase or use by famers in Colorado, or any place on the planet.

The Compact Sec. 4.10 states in the bottled-water or “Bulk Water Transfer” provision, that water in containers larger than 5.7 gallons “shall be treated… in the same manner as a… Diversion.” What’s wrong with this language? It’s a Band-Aid that covers up the product exemption. The clause “shall be treated in the same manner as Diversion” concedes that water in a container of a certain size is not a diversion, but a product; rather than place an exemption for bottled water directly into the definition of, or as an exemption to, diversion, the negotiators and Compact tacked on a Bulk Water limit on the product exemption. But the problem is, water in any size container, whether in a railroad car or the deck of an ocean barge, is defined as a product.

So, under international trade pacts like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and trade laws, defining water as a “product” is admitting that this is a regulation, not a ban on bulk water diversions. The regulation of water as product lays a heavier burden on the Office of Great Lakes Governors and citizens of the Great Lakes to justify to foreign investors and countries that the export of water in large containers will not harm the environment. Worse, treating water in a container as a “product,” not a diversion, shifts the expectations of investors outside the region, who can demand equal treatment and/or massive sums of money as damages for applying the regulation to prohibit or deny their “right” to export water in containers. Why? 

A regulation to restrict the export of water as a product, as opposed to, say, a diversion, admits that the right to export water as a product exists. As indicated above once it’s a product, the Great Lakes states through the Compact governing body, the Office of Great Lakes Governors, will have to prove the regulation of the water prevents harm. If a bottled water company that has received a permit can ship water in containers less than 5.7 gallons under a permit, because a state has determined there’s no harm to water resources, how can the Great Lakes states argue water in a 10,000-gallon container from the large-volume water well can be “treated as” a diversion, when the amount of water pumped from the same well and put in a large container is no different than the amount shipped in bottles?

So, then the issue becomes factual: Can the export of water in containers be prohibited by the regulation to “treat it as” a diversion if it can be shown to harm or threaten harm to the environment or conservation. Whether water is in large containers is less than 5.7 gallons or more than that amount, if the impacts do not threaten the water, environment, or the conservation of a non-renewable resource, under international trade laws, like NAFTA or the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (“GATT”), its export cannot be stopped.

This is a serious problem. It was there in 2005, when the eight Great Lakes states signed the agreement that became the Compact; those close to the ink before it dried knew it, but nothing was done about it. The proposed water train from Minneapolis to Colorado may never be permitted, and it shouldn’t be. But it is a warning: the “product” exemption or loop-hole is a door that needs to be shut.

FLOW is developing a report and comment on weaknesses and future questions for states in the Compact. Clarifying the “product” exemption in the Compact is one of the critical measures that needs to be rectified. It could be done by the Compact Council through an interpretative guideline of the definition of “product.” It could be done by the legislature of each state, because the Compact allows states to impose more stringent measures than the Compact. Essentially, the fix would remove the “intended for intermediate or end-use consumers” clause in the “product” definition, and then declare that “water in any sized container” is not a product.

In the meantime, and this is critical, the best thing the Great Lakes Compact Council can do is expressly interpret and declare under Sec. 1.3 that, “The waters of the Basin” are held in, and subject to, a public trust in the waters of the Basin,” and that any consumptive use, exemption, or other exception managed or reviewed or decided by the Council is subject to the duties and overlying principles of the Public Trust Doctrine that protects the waters and citizens, quality of life, and sustainable economy in the Great Lakes region.

Fortunately, the International Joint Commission adopted a recommendation in a 2016 report that each state adopt a public trust framework, using the public trust principles as a “backstop” to future threats to the Great Lakes. The water train proposal is just such a threat and should be the impetus for the Council and states to fully implement the public trust principles that apply to the Great Lakes and their tributary waters. If not, the waters of the Great Lakes Basin could very well lose in disputes between foreign interests abroad or those in other states.

It is time for all of us who understand the essential life-giving importance of water in the Basin where it falls and flows to join with Minnesotans to stop the water train notion in its tracks, and to implement the straight-forward amendments of our water laws in each state to shut the door before the excessive demand for water in a worsening world water crisis pushes it wide open.

The Multifaceted Benefits of Regulation for the Economy and Environment

Report author Skip Pruss

By Skip Pruss

This article is excerpted from the third 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 third policy brief, “Resetting Expectations: The Multifaceted Benefits of Regulation for the Economy and Environment,” is available here to read or download.

Pruss’ first policy brief in the series, “Resetting Expectations: Government’s Role in Protecting Human Health and the Environment,” is available here in executive summary and in full.

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 brief in early December.)

FLOW convened an environmental economics public listening session on Nov. 13 in Traverse City and will hold a second one on Dec. 5 in Grand Rapids.


Common to the understanding of economic conservatives is the notion that government regulations interfere with “free markets,” serve as a brake on economic activity, and stifle innovation and competition. The term “regulation” itself suggests to many burdensome “red tape” and unnecessary interference in the market economy.

The evidence proves quite the opposite. Regulations, properly designed and implemented, can be a powerful force fostering innovation in product design, advanced materials, and manufacturing processes. Regulations can reduce manufacturing costs for industry and business, enhance competition, reduce business risks, and expand and create new markets for goods and services.

Environmental regulations, in particular, have created a huge global market for environmental technology, goods, and services. The result is not only marked improvement in the quality and vitality of ecological systems, but health benefits accruing to the public that are valued at trillions of dollars.

Environmental regulations can catalyze needed change in otherwise stagnant areas in business, agriculture, and government. The protection of the Great Lakes freshwater system is a case in point. Billions of dollars have been invested in the management of wastewater and stormwater through the creation of a network of sewers, drains, pipes. New integrated water management systems that include nature-based solutions are proving to be more protective, cost-effective, and sustainable then conventional systems.

Yet investment in superior “green infrastructure” is sorely lagging as both local government and the business community remain fixed on investing in conventional “grey infrastructure.” This paper provides a menu of possible regulatory interventions to address this problem.

Newly formed constituencies focused on policy innovation and educating community leaders on the value and benefits of enlightened water management practices are on the rise. Initiatives like “Our20 Communities,” the Great Lakes Water One Partnership, and Water First all share a vision of aligning community values around a commitment to protecting water. 

Integration of the Public Trust Doctrine into local decision-making could, over time, imbue an ethic of enlightened water stewardship, creating a proactive culture to protect and safeguard commonly held resources.