Tag: Public Trust

A Fresh New Story from the Old: Jim Olson’s “People of the Dune”

FLOW’s founder, legendary environmental attorney Jim Olson, writes more than winning legal briefs. He writes books, too, including the first book on Michigan environmental law and several novels. One of those, The Mound People, published in the 1980s, has now given birth to a fresh novel, People of the Dune. Both versions of the story wrestle with values that the law does not fully address – the intangible but towering inherent values of land and water in the face of expectations of property rights. With a formal launch 7 p.m. June 26 at The Alluvion in Commongrounds, 414 E. Eighth in Traverse City, People of the Dune is about to stir the debate and express Jim’s own deep commitment to protecting the natural world and honoring indigenous knowledge. The book can be found at local bookstores, or ordered direct from Amazon, Bookshop, Barnes & Noble, Ingram Sparks. Two children’s books created by the Olson family, The Thunderstorm Party and The Reindeer and the Easter Bunny, are also available at bookstores and online. We asked Jim to answer some questions about the story behind the book.

Our first question is very basic – – what’s the book about?

The book is an allegory that spans 2000 years. At the center is the fate of a sacred mound buried by the shifting sands of a coastal dune. Whether it will be developed or protected is a question that ends up in the lap of a rural circuit judge, who must decide the fate of the dune and the sacred mound.

This is a fresh version, really a sequel, of The Mound People. Why did you decide to return to the story?

Two years ago, to procrastinate on the final revisions for another writing project, I picked up and started leafing through The Mound People and stopped at the chapter “The Trial.” I reread the unnamed judge’s short decision denying the injunction against the removal of the sand mound. Something between the lines seemed to be troubling the judge when he said in his decision. “You see, until a law is passed that says land or natural resources have a value beyond mere use… I have no choice but to rule in favor of the defendants.” His words pulled me back into the story. Who is this judge? Why did he seem to be apologizing for the law or himself? What did he really think, feel, experience? I gave him a name–Odom Holmes, after Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote in a 1908 decision that stopped New York from diverting a New Jersey river, “There are benefits of a river that might escape a lawyer’s view.”
Why doesn’t the law embrace natural values or the beingness of nature “beyond mere use” or private rights?
Then I started rewriting what happened in the trial, his remarks, and Judge Holmes seemed to have more to say. He started asking more questions: Why doesn’t the law embrace natural values or the beingness of nature “beyond mere use” or private rights? What about the commons of the place where we live, places untouched remnants of the world where plants and animals live, the unique features of the earth itself? If life depends on these commons, are they not as much a part of reality and human experience that shape the law as private property that limits individual exploitation of these commons as private property? Judge Odom – I started thinking of him as “Odie” – took on a life of his own. So, as I let Judge Odie start writing, I realized that a new book was emerging, so, not knowing where it would lead, I let Judge Odie take over.

How does this story fit in with your years of experience as an environmental champion in the courts?

Well, I think in mostly representing citizens, their (our) need and connection to place and community collides with the relentless blade of civilization’s desire for wealth. In our country, and around the world, we are taught that we thrive, even depend on, progress defined by the economic equation that labor plus natural resources plus money equals Gross National Product–now Gross Domestic Product, or GDP. In other words, progress means growth, and growth has to come from one of the inputs, meaning that by definition, these inputs must satisfy the paramount demands of the economy—we and the environment are subservient to the “Great God Progress,” as Justice William O. Douglas once characterized it. As I asked at the beginning of The Mound People and once more in People of the Dune: “What will it be, ‘Mind’ or ‘Mound?’ Desire or reality?
I realized that when it comes to our natural world or the commons on which we all depend, the burden of proof was upside down, the law in effect contrary to reality.
Over time I came to understand that the concept of private property was a thing of the mind, maybe starting with Descartes “I think, therefore I am,” separating mind from nature. In effect cutting off the mind from reality. So, I eventually realized that when it comes to our natural world or the commons on which we all depend, the burden of proof was upside down, the law in effect contrary to reality. To conform to reality, the burden of proof must be on those who desire to extract or exploit to show that what they have done or propose to do will not impair the fundamental value and connection between nature and life.

How do indigenous concerns and communities play a role in your book?

Indigenous people have lived in relationship to the reality of nature–hunting, gathering, settling and growing food in conformity with nature, seasons, weather, always dynamic, and changing. There was no personal concept, no cultural concept, of private property or even property for that matter. And while Native American sovereign tribes today must interact with the world of property and commerce, at the same time their view of themselves as in relationship with nature and the world around them, sometimes as spirit, continues fundamental to their culture. Some fear this is akin to something pagan. But this fails to understand that the notion of relationship to trees, lakes, rivers, animals or others is a recognition of the divine in and behind all things– call this divine grace God, Great Spirit, or whatever, that lies beyond or behind all things, seen and unseen. Too, it’s important to remember that all of us come from people who lived and saw reality and nature in the same way, and it is there somewhere buried in our consciousness, genes, or heart. The mound buried under the dune and the dune itself become sacred in the book, maybe to remind us of this lost connection to nature and divine spirit. I think the expectations of property and economic gain have simply gone too far, meaning beyond the inherent limitation imposed by the reality of nature. Native cultures remind us that we all have this heritage, that springs from nature and reality of earth itself. It must be renewed, balanced, harmonized–like the “spirit mounds” of the Hopewell, Woodland Indians of 800 to 1000 or more years ago harmonized the earth and sky worlds as one.

Do you have more books or writing in the pipeline?

I hope to submit the novel Waterspout to a publisher this year. If possible, I’d like to revisit an unpublished novel, The White Deer, written with a Council of Arts award in the late 1980s. Beyond that, who knows. I’m almost 80. Possibly a book about the people and lawsuits I worked on over the years since the early 1970s, asking how might those help us meet the challenges we face today. Like anyone my age, I hope to continue to do what I can for as long as I can, but time with Judy and our family means a lot.  

What Do the Election Results Mean for the Great Lakes State?

While the word “water” was not on the November 8 statewide general election ballot in Michigan, it was present on the ballot in various local communities and in different, more subtle ways across the Great Lakes State.

In some of Michigan’s 276 cities and 1,240 townships, voters considered new regulations to safeguard water resources and taxes for sewer and drinking water system improvements. In northwest Michigan’s Leelanau Township, for instance, 60% of voters approved zoning amendments designed to protect water quality; and Leelanau County is poised by month’s end to implement a county-wide septic code ordinance after the county board’s bipartisan vote in August following years of rancorous debate and unsuccessful attempts at passage.

In Ann Arbor, a whopping 71% of voters favored a proposal to fund the City’s A2 Zero Action Plan, which aims for a transition to carbon neutrality by 2030 to curb climate change. The funds will come from an up to 1-mill ($1 for every $1,000 in taxable value) increase in city property taxes over the next 20 years, which will raise an estimated $6,800,000 in the first year levied. Authorized uses include year-round composting; expanded residential/multifamily recycling; community and rooftop solar programs; rental and low-income household energy programs; bicycle, pedestrian and transit infrastructure; neighborhood resource centers; electric vehicle infrastructure; and tree plantings.

In some of Michigan’s 276 cities and 1,240 townships, voters considered new regulations to safeguard water resources and taxes for sewer and drinking water system improvements.  A whopping 71% of Ann Arbor voters favored a proposal to fund the City’s A2 Zero Action Plan, which aims for a transition to carbon neutrality by 2030 to curb climate change.

At the county level, decisions made by voters on whom to elect as commissioners in each of Michigan’s 83 counties could affect whether these jurisdictions in the near term take on one of the problems most threatening the state’s waters, an estimated 130,000 failing septic systems. Michigan remains the only state without a statewide law to set minimum standards for inspecting, maintaining, and replacing broken septic systems to protect surface water and groundwater and safeguard public health, so regulation is limited for now to a patchwork of local ordinances.

Historic Shift in Michigan’s Government

For the first time since the 1980s, Democrats have won the governor’s office, with the re-election of Gretchen Whitmer, and majorities in both chambers of the Michigan Legislature, albeit by just two seats in each chamber, which Republicans had controlled during Whitmer’s first term. The historic shift, along with the re-election of Dana Nessel as attorney general, promises to have enormous influence on the quality of water and other natural resources of the state.


A diver points to a segment of the dual Line 5 oil pipelines operating under in the Straits of Mackinac since 1953.

As an example, Whitmer and Nessel have been partnering on a legal strategy to shut down Line 5, Enbridge’s risky, antiquated twin petroleum pipelines operating in the Straits of Mackinac, while their Republican opponents had pointedly promised to drop the litigation if elected. And Gov. Whitmer will have the opportunity to speed up progress on her climate action plan, restore polluter-pay cleanup laws weakened under former Republican Gov. John Engler, and protect and restore the Great Lakes. Widespread PFAS contamination, E. coli pollution, and harmful algal blooms also remain key priorities.

In the 2023-2024 session of the legislature, lawmakers will likely decide whether to enact a statewide law to control failing septic systems and whether to spend a part of several billion dollars in federal aid to maximize Michigan’s historic investments in clean drinking water, wastewater, stormwater, and other water infrastructure projects – including aging dams on Michigan rivers.

FLOW: It’s Time to Seize the Opportunity to Protect Fresh Water for All

As the Great Lakes State, Michigan must lead on every imaginable freshwater policy to protect this fragile, water-rich ecosystem and to secure safe, affordable drinking water for all.

FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood

“For the first time in almost 40 years, the Whitmer administration and the legislature have an opportunity to profoundly shape water policy in the Great Lake State,” said FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood, reflecting on the recent election results. “A lasting watermark would include securing clean, safe, and affordable water for all and protecting groundwater for the health of our lakes and communities.”

“For the first time in almost 40 years, the Whitmer administration and the legislature have an opportunity to profoundly shape water policy in the Great Lake State,” said FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood, reflecting on the recent election results. “A lasting watermark would include securing clean, safe, and affordable water for all and protecting groundwater for the health of our lakes and communities.

Public Water, Public Justice

Governor Whitmer should play a leading role to close the bottled-water loophole in the Great Lakes Compact that presently allows diversions of water in containers less than 5.7 gallons. To do so, Kirkwood called on the governor and legislature to adopt FLOW’s “Public Water, Public Justice” model legislation that would generally prevent diversions by requiring small container diversions to be aligned with Public Trust principles, licensed by the state, and subject to royalties that would generate state revenue for Michigan’s vast water infrastructure needs.

“Michigan must seize this window of opportunity to think about systemic changes needed and make the greatest gains we can to protect fresh water, the environment, Pure Michigan economy, and our way of life in the face of impacts from unrelenting climate change and a water-scarce world,” said Kirkwood. “Big, bold ideas for a vibrant future vision are necessary to generate public engagement and support. So if there ever was a moment, this would be it.”

“Michigan must seize this window of opportunity to think about systemic changes needed and make the greatest gains we can to protect fresh water, the environment, Pure Michigan economy, and our way of life in the face of impacts from unrelenting climate change and a water-scarce world,” said Kirkwood. “Big, bold ideas for a vibrant future vision are necessary to generate public engagement and support. So if there ever was a moment, this would be it.”

On the Federal Front

Finally, all 13 of Michigan’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives were contested in the November 8 election, with all incumbents who ran winning re-election, and Republicans gaining a slim majority in the chamber. Democrats retained narrow control of the U.S. Senate, and all Midwest governors on the ballot were re-elected.

The U.S. House will consider legislation in 2023 to address PFAS, the so-called “forever chemicals,” which have contaminated over 200 sites in Michigan, and renewal of federal funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Everywhere you look, water issues colored Michigan election choices and outcome. Now comes the real work that we all must do together: Hold our elected officials accountable to ensure the waters of the Great Lakes Basin are healthy, public, and protected for all.

Court Confirms 45 Miles of Lake Michigan Shoreline Owned by State Under Public Trust

Court Confirms Indiana’s 45-Mile Shoreline on Lake Michigan Owned and Held by State for Public Recreation Under Public Trust Doctrine

By Jim Olson[1]


Another state court confirms that the 3,200 miles of Great Lakes shoreline are owned by states in public trust for citizens to enjoy for walking, swimming, sunbathing and similar beach and water related activities on public trust lands below the Ordinary High Water Mark (“OHWM”).[2]

When Indiana was carved out of the Northwest Territories and joined the United States in 1816, the State took title in trust for all waters of Lake Michigan and all land below the OHWM along the state’s 45-mile shoreline.Map of Indiana Shoreline with Counties

In 2012, the lakefront owners on Lake Michigan  in Long Beach, Indiana, filed a lawsuit against the town of Long Beach, claiming they owned all of the land to the waters’ edge. Lakefront owners asked the trial court judge to prohibit any interference with their private property by town residents and the city who used the beach as public for walking, sunbathing, swimming, and picnicking  since the town was incorporated. A group of local residents and homeowners organized into the Long Beach Community Alliance (“LBCA”),  and intervened in the dispute to defend their public right of access for walking and recreation over the wide strip of white sugar sand between the shoreline and the retaining walls and yards of the lakefront owners. The Alliance for the Great Lakes (“AGA”) headquartered in nearby Chicago, and Save the Dunes (“STD”), a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the dunes on Indiana’s shoreline, also intervened to protect the interests of their members who were citizens of Indiana and used and enjoyed the Lake Michigan shore.

In late December 2013, the trial judge ruled that the lakefront landowners could not interfere with the town or residents’ efforts to pass ordinances recognizing the land below the OHWM belonged to the state and was held in public trust for residents and citizens of Indiana.[3]

Not satisfied, the lakefront owners appealed to the Indiana Court of Appeals. In 2014, the appellate court recognized the trial judge’s ruling below, but remanded the matter back to the trial court for a more comprehensive decision on the State’s title and the public trust in the shoreline.[4] The court reasoned that the State of Indiana had not been made a party in the local suit, a prerequisite for a court ruling on a landownership and pubic trust shoreline dispute.

Another lakefront owner pressed forward with a related new lawsuit, again claiming ownership to the waters’ edge, based on their deeds that, they argued, gave them title to the waters’ edge, even if that meant their title cut off the rights of citizens of Indiana to the shoreline below the OHWM. This time the state was named a defendant, and the LBCA, AGA, and STD once more intervened.

It’s common knowledge that Lake Michigan water levels have fluctuated about 6 feet between highs and lows since the federal government started keeping records in 1860. In the late 1980s, the water levels and wave action threatened the lakefront owners’ retaining walls and homes. In 2013, the year the first court ruling came down, the water levels were so low, the distance from the waters’ edge to the lakefront owners’ retaining walls was wider than the length of a football field.

Longbeach, Ind Shoreline photo

While the knowledge may not be so common for many citizens, the U.S. Supreme Court and the courts of states abutting the Great Lakes have routinely ruled that each state took title to the waters and lands of the Great Lakes up to the OHWM. In 1892, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all of the Great Lakes’ waters and bottomlands to this ordinary high water mark are owned by the states in trust for all citizens.[5]  The Illinois legislature deeded one square mile of Lake Michigan on Chicago’s waterfront to the Illinois Central Railroad company for an industrial complex. However, the Supreme Court voided the deed, and found that the public trust in these lands and waters is inviolate and could not be sold off, alienated, or even legislated away.

Despite this history, lakefront owners the Gundersons, pushed for exclusive ownership of the beach to exclude residents from the beach between their homes and the waters’ edge.  The State of Indiana Department of Natural Resources, LBCA, AGA, and STD defended public ownership and the residents and citizens’ right to use the public trust shoreline for walking, swimming, sunbathing, and similar water-related recreational activities.

On July 24,  2015, LaPorte County Judge Richard Stalbrink wrote a near text-book-perfect decision on the public trust doctrine and ruled against the lakefront owners in favor of the state, LBCA, AGA, and STD,  confirming that the beach below the ordinary high water mark to the waters’ edge belongs to the state and is subject to a paramount public trust that cannot be interfered with or impaired by lakefront owners.[6]

First, Judge Stalbrink followed the Supreme Court cases holding that the state obtained title to the waters and bottomlands to the OHWM when it joined the Union in 1816. Second, Stalbrink ruled that this beach land below the OHWM was held in trust for public walking, swimming, fishing access, and other public recreational uses. Third, the Court confirmed that Indiana’s definition of the OHWM was proper, given that the definition takes into account the physical characteristics that define a permanent shoreline as reasonable evidence of the public portion of the shoreline.  Finally, Judge Stalbrink recognized that because water levels of Lake Michigan fluctuate, the width of the beach is subject to change, but that there is always a paramount right of the public to access the beach for proper public trust recreational activities.

As Judge Stalbrink observed near the end of his decision, ”Private lot owners cannot impair the public’s right to use the beach below the OHWM for these protected purposes. To hold otherwise would invite the creation of a bach landscape dotted with small, private, fenced and fortified compounds designed to deny the public from enjoying Indiana’s limited access to one of the greatest natural resources in this State.”[7]


(Author’s End Note: See rulings by the Michigan Supreme Court in 2005. Glass v Goeckel, 473 Mich 667, 703 N.W. 2d. 58 (2005), Ohio Supreme Court in Merrill v Ohio Department of Natural Resources, 130 Ohio St. 3d 30, (2011) (on remand before Court of Common Pleas, Lake County, Ohio for factual determination of OHWM); the Gunderson decision upholding public trust in Long Beach should control the decision in the companion case, LBLHA, LLC v Town of Long Beach et al., supra note 2, on remand to the Laporte County trial court).

[1]President and Founder, Flow for Love of Water.

[2]See Melissa Scanlan, Blue Print for a Great Lakes Trail, Vermont Law School Research Paper No. 14-14 (2014).  (Professor Scanlan proposes walking trail within public trust lands and without interference with riparian use based on public trust doctrine in the Great Lakes); James Olson, All Aboard: Navigating the Course for Universal Adoption of the Public Trust Doctrine, 15 Vt. J. E. L. 135 (2014) (Author documents the application of the public trust doctrine in all eight Great Lakes states and two provinces of Canada).

[3]LBLHA, LLC  v Town of Long Beach et al., Cause No. 46C01-1212-PL-1941. (The author, Jim Olson, discloses that he was one of the attorneys, along with Kate Redman, Olson, Bzdok & Howard, P.C., Traverse City, Michigan, in this case for the Long Beach Community Alliance in favor of public trust in shoreline).

[4]LBLHA, LLC v Town of Long Beach et al., 28 N.E. 3d. 1077 (2014). The Indiana Court of Appeals remanded to the trial court to add the State of Indiana as a party; this case will not proceed in same fashion as the Gunderson case discussed in this paper, which was decided by the same LaPorte County trial court.

[5]Illinois v Illinois Central Railroad, 146 US 387 (1892).

[6]Gunderson v State et al., LaPorte Superior Court 2, Cause No. 46D02-1404-PL-606, Decision, July 24, 2015, 22 pps. (Judge Stalbrink, Richard, Jr.); Indiana Law Blog, Ind. Decisions, July 28, 2015 http://indianalawblog.com/archives/2015’07/ind_decisions_m_709.html.; see also U.S. v Carstens, 982 F Supp 874, 878 (N.D. Ind. 2013).

[7]Id., Indiana Law Blog, at p. 3.

Some Thoughts for the New Year: Common Home and Common Principles – Living and Working for the Common Good


Jim Olson FLOW Founder



By Jim Olson

President, FLOW For Love of Water, Traverse City

Attorney, Olson, Bzdok & Howard, P.C., Traverse City





When I look back over the past year, I can’t help but feel hope in the common goodness of people and communities.

I say this not without heart felt and serious concern about events in the world that point in the opposite direction – despair: increasing violence from guns, war, and sweeping droughts and floods, causing death and dislocation of millions of people and children, global warming and the push-back from unprecedented storms and extreme weather that compound drought, floods, landslides, which in turn destabilize countries like Syria fomenting conflict and conditions for ISIS. To paraphrase Circle of Blue senior journalist Keith Schneider, “The earth is angry and she’s fighting back.”

Closer to home, Detroit water shut-offs continue despite the devastating impact on the poor who can’t afford to pay a normal water bill, let alone the $100 a month or more claimed by the Detroit Water Board. State leaders finally stop denying the Flint water-crisis more than a year after residents demanded help, that its children and residents were exposed to high levels of lead from the city’s public water system. The problem is more endemic than Detroit or Flint, since both crises grew out of the unbridled power of Governor Snyder’s emergency manager law to usurp the power of city assets and revenues to pay debts regardless of the impacts to citizens. Flint’s emergency manager thought only of economic expediency in turning off water supplied from Detroit, and tapping into the filthy, polluted Flint River. Then there is the continual threat from the flow of oil in the aging, nearly 63-year old Line 5 pipeline under the Straits; the harm from a release or leak would be so catastrophic, the risk is unacceptable to everyone; yet the flow of oil continues without immediate temporary measures while state officials continue to study it as if it was an “issue,” and not the clear and imminent endangerment of the Great Lakes and the Straits of Mackinac – the fact is there is enough capacity within the pipeline system in the Great Lakes without Line 5 endangering the Straits.

So why the hope? Other events have happened this past year that point to a new way of understanding and, perhaps, solving many of the threats that we face in the world and our communities.

First, Pope Francis issued his encyclical on climate change and the environment, connecting the reality of our excessive consumptive materialism, global inequality, poverty, ecological and community devastation, and violence that follows. He carefully documented that our way of seeing and doing, our post-modern god of the law of free markets and legally justified greed, our fragmented attempts at dishing out money to help the poor are not working. He says this because we are living a material, market place illusion, and not in harmony with the reality that the earth is our “common home,” and that if we do not share its gifts and respect its inherent natural limits, earth’s water, weather, soil, and the biological diversity on which all life depends will continue to worsen to even greater extremes. He points to a new paradigm, a framework in which we work and live with the understanding that a body of water, whether ocean, Grand Traverse Bay, or Lake Chad, are a commons, part of the gift of earth as commons to all. If we do this, not only with water, but the ridge lines and forests, the beauty and land that are home to our relationships, our cities, the neighborhoods within our towns, the soils beneath our feet, the air we breathe, then we will begin to reshape our life around truth and the given limits of nature, and this will guide our living, our way of life, or economy, full and rich with newly directed creative and sustainable opportunities and entrepreneur ship.

Second, amidst a world of conflicts, from Syria to the Ukraine, from our own cities, to Nigeria, Sudan, and Afghanistan, and in the aftermath of the mass murders from extreme terrorists in Parrs, the nations of the world cooperated: leaders of large and small, developed and developing, or undeveloped countries, recognized the responsibility to each other, agreed to something, the world temperature will not rise more 2 degrees, and maybe less. While it is not law yet, if taken implemented, it will help stave off global calamity greater than two world wars last century, by reducing the irreparable damage we face from climate change and global warming. There is hope in the agreement that we stop denying and see the mounting harm and set a goal that through hard-work and common sacrifice offers a way out of an unthinkable alternative for people everywhere.

Third, we witnessed the bridging of differences by our Supreme Court in precedent setting cases that demand human dignity for marriage between two people, human rights to housing and water for the poor without access, as wells as the genuine search for a common goal to address wasteful and harmful water rights in the middle of the historical California droughts.

Fourth, our political debate heating up even before the 2016 presidential election has pointed to something more than the old, increasingly polarized beliefs in market economy, through money at wars and problems, rather than considering the root of the problem might be the way we are looking at them. Regardless of my own or others’ political persuasion, there is a fresh voice in Bernie Sanders, laying out the case for a community based on sharing of wealth, taking care of neighbors, and our neighborhood, what Pope Francis calls our “common home,” and at the same time helping with services to the poor, respecting and honoring diversity, and encouraging new business innovation. We have been trapped in this country in a red and blue, right and left, straight-jacket of false ideology, rather than identifying those things that are essential to every one of us and providing for them as principle of our country—the common good.

Fifth, then Michael Moore comes out with his latest film Where to Invade Next? Good God, here we have the message that we here in the USA had the idea, come up with the ideas, of common good, yet go in the opposite direction of individualized competition based on a law of the jungle called free markets. Everything is about profit and money and bottom line. The world is not a corporation, it is a commons in which corporations organizations are simply a means, not an end.

Do we really have a choice? Our common home and communities are simultaneously local and global. It’s not just act locally, think globally, or act globally, think locally. It’s all of this and more. If we don’t act, for example, on climate change, or understand that climate change is not just an energy issue but about water and food, if we don’t move toward a renewable economy within a few years, small island countries will literally disappear, rainforests and biodiversity will disappear, coastal cities and other areas will increasingly flood and fail from even more extreme storm events or the day-to-day failure to change, adapt and embrace resilient cooperation—the common good. All one has to do is read through “4 Degrees Turn Down the Heat: Climate Extremes, Regional Impacts, and the Case for Resilience,” a report published by renown scientists and even sponsored by the more conservative World Bank. The picture is not pretty, and it would it is ignorant, even immoral, at this time in history not to act, even out of self-interest, for this common good.

So I end this year and start the next with hope. At FLOW, the Great Lakes and Water Policy Center, here in Traverse City, and other organizations throughout the region, we have chosen as a mission and goal to protect the waters of the Great Lakes basin as a commons with principles, known as the public trust doctrine, that require government as trustee and people as beneficiaries, to work together to respect and protect water and community that depend on it from impairment. Private control of public waters and other public commons has always been prohibited; this is because some things essential to all of us are common to all of us. If we don’t protect the commons, we undermine the air, water, community and neighborhoods where we live. To work and live toward the common good is to work for the commons and at the same time work for yourself, family and friends. To not work for the common good, is to continue the long, slow, or perhaps not so slow, disintegration that leads to destruction of the earth, water, air, community, people, and leads to a world violent and unsafe.

It is hopeful and reassuring to see positive events pointing toward this new way of seeing, understanding and doing – living and working for the protection and sustainability of our common home and the common good. They are one and the same. Here’s to another hopeful New Year.




FLOW Local Ordinance Program Addresses Fracking Impacts in Conway Township, MI

FLOW Founder Jim Olson addresses Conway Township Fracking Issues

Click here to view and download the full press release as a PDF

Contact: Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director
liz@flowforwater.org or 231-944-1568

FLOW Local Ordinance Program Addresses Fracking Impacts in Conway Township, MI

Over 100 Citizens Attend FLOW Presentation

FOWLERVILLE, MI – In February of 2014, Conway Township signed up as the third township to participate in FLOW’s Local Ordinance program that helps the township develop regulatory ordinances to address potential risks and impacts of high volume hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) for oil and gas. On February 6th, FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood and FLOW Founder Jim Olson delivered the first of two public presentations to educate and empower Conway Township leaders and residents about the associated risks and impacts of fracking and specific legal strategies to consider.

Held at the Alverson Center for Performing Arts in Fowlerville, the presentation drew an estimated crowd of almost 150 citizens and leaders who came to learn about horizontal fracking developments in Michigan since 2010, potential risks and impacts, and viable legal strategies to regulate fracking impacts as part of FLOW’s ordinance program for Conway Township. FLOW works with the township to determine what areas of concern are most pertinent to the community to regulate, and the public presentations dually serve as a forum for citizens and leaders to express the topics they hope local legal strategies can address.

“The turnout was impressive,” says Olson, “and the citizens demonstrated not only a real concern but a remarkable knowledge of the issues and context of fracking in Michigan and in their own community.” The GeoSouthern Energy Corporation drilled an exploratory well in Conway Township, granted by a 2013 permit. The permit approved three million gallons of water and fracking fluid to explore a one-mile radius area. The exploratory well is located on a property that, according to the owner in a Denver Post article from September 2013, was drilled three times in the past 30 years without success.

The February 6th presentation in Fowlerville was the first of two public presentations FLOW will host for Conway Township. Then, the FLOW staff will carefully craft a package of recommendations for Township leaders to consider incorporating into their local ordinances and laws as they see fit.

FLOW Founder Jim Olson addresses Conway Township Fracking Issues

FLOW Founder Jim Olson addresses Conway Township Fracking Issues. Photo (c) FLOW/Liz Kirkwood

“The fracking process is largely under-regulated or exempt from key federal and state laws that protect common water, land, air, and public health,” says Kirkwood. “The local governments are left holding the bag when it comes to protecting their citizens from the potential harms and risks of the fracking process or any other industrial processes that come to their town. Our program empowers local governments and their citizens to prepare themselves in advance to handle it,” she says.

Fracking for oil and natural gas is exempt from many regulatory laws at both the federal and state levels, including the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts, the Great Lakes Compact, and Michigan’s Water Withdrawal Act. Despite zoning prohibitions to regulate drilling, construction production, and operation of oil and gas wells, townships still do maintain legal authority to regulate ancillary activities, including roads, truck traffic, pipelines, flow lines, gathering lines, location of wells, disclosure of chemical use, air pollution and more. Moreover, townships can rely on other sources of authority such as police power ordinances and franchise agreements.

FLOW has delivered a similar educational overview to over twenty communities throughout Michigan in the past year. This informational presentation is based on FLOW’s November 2012 report, “Horizontal Fracturing for Oil and Natural Gas in Michigan: Legal Strategies and Tools for Communities and Citizens.” FLOW’s report highlights legal strategies and policies designed to assist local governments in safeguarding their communities against the unprecedented and cumulative impacts of fracking.

Horizontal fracking requires injecting a cocktail of up to 21 million gallons of water and over 750 chemicals under high pressure into wells in order to fracture deep shale formations and release oil and natural gas. A review of literature on fracking and its associated risks reveals several concerns: (1) massive water withdrawals; (2) groundwater contamination; (3) surface spills and leaks; (4) wastewater management; (5) land-use impacts; (6) truck traffic and burden on infrastructure; (7) lack of public disclosure.

An op-ed piece from January 12, 2014 the news service LivingstonDaily.com published outlined that, no matter where Conway Township officials and citizens choose to draw their party lines in regards to fracking, “there clearly can be an impact on the surrounding community where fracking is conducted, and it is more than fair for the local communities to have some controls in place to make sure they are minimal.”

The next FLOW public workshop for Conway Township will be held in late March, early April.  Conway Township like many of the neighboring townships in Livingston County is interested in proactively protecting the area’s valuable natural resources for agriculture and high quality of life. To ensure different viewpoints on this topic, Conway Township has invited the Department of Environmental Quality to speak to local officials about its permitting role for the oil and gas industry this coming week of February 10.

Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director
liz@flowforwater.org or 231-944-1568

Joe Sax, Legal Giant and Visionary, Leaves the Gift of the Public Trust Doctrine

For Professor Joseph Sax

  • “Of all the concepts known to America law, only the public trust doctrine seems to have the breadth and substantive content which might make it useful as a tool of general application for citizens seeking to develop a comprehensive approach to resource management problems.” – Joe Sax, The Public Trust Doctrine, 66 Mich. L. Rev. 473, 474 (1970).
  • “Any person…  may maintain an action in the circuit for the protection of the air, water, natural resources and the public trust therein from pollution, impairment, or destruction.” – Joe Sax, Codified as The Michigan Environmental Protection Act of 1970.
  • “To those for whom wilderness values… has never been of more than peripheral importance,  this book asks principally for tolerance…”… to the preservationists themselves, in whose ranks I include myself, the message is that the [public] parks are not self-justifying. Your vision is not necessarily one that will commend itself to the majority.  It rests on a set of moral and aesthetic attitudes whose force is not strengthened either by contemptuous disdain … or taking refuge in claims of ecological necessity. Tolerance is required on all sides, along with a certain modesty.” – Joe Sax, Mountains Without Handrails, pp. 108-109 (University of Michigan Press, 1980).
Professor Joe Sax (1936-2014)

Professor Joe Sax (1936-2014)

Joe Sax, father of environmental law citizen suits and the public trust doctrine and Michigan and California professor, passed away last week, leaving a legacy far beyond his 78 years. His wife Ellie Gettes Sax passed away this past December. His sense of justice, family, art, knowledge, wisdom, masterful writing, and passion will be sorely missed by his family, friends, colleagues, and the many students and fans who have had him in class or read his law review articles, essays and books.

But thank you to Joe for the legacy he left—writings that are so sound in research and reason and so visionary in real world application. Like the public trust doctrine from ancient times that he resurrected in the famous 1970 Michigan Law Review, parts of which are quoted above, his body of work will undoubtedly continue to teach students and lawyers how to protect water and the planet for generations to come.

My thoughts go to Joe Sax, his family, and colleagues, and the thousands of law students, lawyers and judges who admire or have been inspired (or jolted) by his work. He will be sorely missed by his family and friends close to him and those who knew him. Fortunately, the beacon of his work burns brightly, as it has done and will do.

I remember the first time I met him as Professor Sax when he spoke at the Michigan State University Union in 1972. I actually didn’t “meet” him that day, but heard him talk to the assembled group about a law (the Michigan Environmental Protection Act) that he had drafted and was signed into law by Governor Bill Milliken.

He spoke mostly about the idea behind it: that the water, watershed, and people who live or work there are all connected as a single natural system, and are collectively protected by this new law and by the public trust. How? Through rights, responsibility, and access (what lawyers refer to as “standing”) to courts to enforce these rights and duties and protect this natural system and trust from harm.

As a recent law graduate then working at the Michigan Supreme Court, I had seen a notice of his lecture posted on the Union bulletin board and wanted to know what it was about. I left the Union that day with one thing on my mind (like so many others, I’m sure): this was I wanted to do as a lawyer.

Little did I know that I’d be so fortunate, and Joe Sax so kind, to study under his personal supervision when I attended Michigan for my Masters in law. That he took me on was a huge gift, one I’ve wanted to return, like so many of us who have been inspired by him, in the day-to-day work that we do by applying and implementing the very values and principles he strived for and espoused so eloquently.

I treasure his trip to Traverse City a few years ago to deliver a keynote on water. I picked him on at the airport and he generously agreed to meet for dinner with Joan and Will Wolfe—friends of his and the citizen duo behind passage of the environmental citizen suit law in Michigan—and all of the lawyers, mostly young, at our firm. Even today they still talk about that evening.

Then there was his keynote address at the State Bar of Michigan Environmental Law Section’s 25th anniversary a few years back, when Joe traveled to East Lansing for another lecture. This time the focus was on accepting the reality of climate change and, as lawyers, beginning to envision pragmatic ways to prepare for the rising oceans and disappearance of habitat in flooded estuaries, wetlands and lowlands.

He wondered aloud how we as lawyers might start thinking about setting aside land use zones now for the new wetlands and sensitive habitats or spawning grounds that will be needed in the future as water levels rise along the shores of the oceans?  Or,  how should we as a society start to address the dropping water levels of the Great Lakes, preparing for the need of new wetlands in exposed lake or river beds?  Figuring out who will own these new exposed lakebeds if they become permanently dry upland property? Will these be considered private riparian or public trust lands or both?

I think about friends who had him as a professor or mentor, at Michigan and later at Berkeley, and can only imagine the stories they have, I’m sure quite similar to my own. Joe Sax wrote and taught eloquently—an artist within the linear framework of law-but he was also a tremendous influence and affected many, many people, in so many good ways.

He left a legacy of accomplishments, although that is not the way he would view them, given his respect, and I think love, for soundly researched, firmly reasoned, and artfully structured and worded writings on law, justice, the arts and culture. Rather, he left a legacy of contributions, giant contributions.  While not close to a list of his body of work, at the end of this post is a list of a few works that cannot go unmentioned.

So many other organizations, leaders, professors, and friends of Professor Sax could say or tell far more than I ever could. But we at FLOW are deeply grateful for Joe Sax and his life, and in mission we hope to fulfill in some pragmatic measured ways what he envisioned.

For in what is still the early morning of the 21st century, the world faces seemingly insurmountable threats, some that point toward global collapse if we continue on the selfish and material path that we now live as civilizations and economies. We have a choice between living in a world of top-heavy wealth of a few that pushes people and the earth’s commons to the point of collapse, or reasserting the fact that “no man (sic) is an island,” that we live in a commons and are tied by those commons to survive and live.

FLOW’s hope is to apply what Joe Sax’s envisioned for the public trust doctrine as an umbrella or benchmark that protects those parts of our world that are the commons, particularly the water that runs through all.  FLOW’s articulation and application of this vision is described in a recently published article:

A possible answer is the immediate adoption of a new narrative, with principles grounded in science, values, and policy, that view the systemic threats we face as part of the single connected hydrological whole, a commons governed by public trust principles. The public trust is necessary to solve these threats that directly impact traditional public trust resources like the Great Lakes and its tributary waters.  The most obvious whole is not a construct of the mind, but the one in which we live – the hydrosphere, basin, watershed, through which water flows, evaporates, transpires, is used, transferred, and is discharged in a continuous cycle.  Every arc of the water cycle flows through and effects and is affected by everything else, reminiscent of what Jacques Cousteau once said, “We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one.” All Aboard: Navigating the Course for Universal Adoption of the Public Trust Doctrine.

Professor Joe Sax, we re-dedicate our work to you and what you stand for.

Memorial Services for Joe and his family will be held Sunday, March 23, 2014, Congregation Emanu-El, San Francisco.

[Please note that the editorializing in the parenthesis in the list below are wholly mine and should not be attributed to Professor Sax. Better to read these selections yourself]:

  • Defending the Environment – A Strategy for Citizen Action (1972) (a ground-breaking book that called for legal standing and access to the courts for citizens and urged responsibility and duty for government and everyone to protect the natural bounty of this world).
  • The Public Trust Doctrine in Natural Resources Law: Effective Judicial Intervention  (a seminal landmark article that compiled and offered the public trust doctrines as a broad and deep approach to address the systemic threats to our most special places, parks, and common waters).
  • The Michigan Environmental Protection Act of 1970 (the first model and adopted citizen suit law to protect the air, water, natural resources and the public trust in those natural features and our common air and water).
  • Takings, Private Property and Public Rights, 81 Yale L. J. 149 (1971) ( some property, whether public or private, are so inextricably related to public health and welfare that protection of such lands and features preserves what is public without taking private property rights, where none can be said to have been truly expected in the first place).
  • The Michigan Environmental Protection Act of 1970: A Progress Report, 70 Mich L. Rev. 1003 (1972) (Joe Sax and Roger Connors published a thorough monitoring of cases and decisions under the new MEPA; Roger Connor was the first of several Professor Sax “protégés” who worked under him to help interpret and understand the facts, data, and law evolving under what was later labeled by the Michigan Supreme Court “the common law of environmental quality”).
  • Environmental Citizen Suits: Three Years Experience under the Michigan Environmental Protection Act, 4 Ecology L. Q. 1 (1974) (Joe DiMento published the second “report” on the MEPA with Joe Sax, this time fleshing out some of the political, statistical, and jurisprudential implications).
  • Michigan Environmental Protection Act in its Sixth Year, 53 J. Urban. L. 589 (1976, University of Detroit Law School) (Jeff published the next report, this time shaping the growing number of trial and appellate court decisions, upholding the constitutionality of the act, demanding high level of judicial review, and imposing duties on government to consider impacts and prevent and minimize environmental degradation).
  • Helpless Giants: National Parks and the Regulation of Private Land, pp. 108-109, 75 Mich L. Rev. 239 (1976) (Joe Sax had a passion for wilderness, particularly protecting the values of our national park system, and considered the authority of the National Park Service to protect those values from activities that impacted them adjacent or near the parks).
  • Mountains Without Handrails: Reflections on the National Parks (University of Michigan Press, 1980) (Joe Sax’s reasoned plea for preserving the values of wilderness and the National Parks through deep personal engagement in the parks to appreciate the “genius” of what energized the creation of the park in the first place).
  • William O. Douglas Award (for extraordinary legal achievement, Sierra Club, 1984).
  • Distinguished Water Attorney Award (Water Education Foundation, 2004).
  • The Limits of Private Rights in Public Waters, 19 Env’t’l Law J. 473 (1989). (Professor Sax pointed out that for 2,000 years water has been understood as public in the sense that it is within the crown or sovereign people, represented by government; and at the very least water has never been owned by anyone, and as such there is no right and should be no expectation of private ownership of water, merely use consistent with the larger public values represented by these common waters).
  • Playing Darts with Rembrandt (University of Michigan Press, 1999) (Here, Joe Sax goes beyond the boundaries of traditional thought, and in riveting short-story like tales of battles, scars and defacing or covering up great works of art and culture makes the case for limitations on the right to destroy or impair art, that is, unless you are the artist her/himself).
  • The Blue Planet Prize (Glass Foundation, 2007) (awarded to Joe Sax for his pioneering work and invention of the environmental citizen suit to democratize a government too much influenced by its own ends or the ends of those who influence it and protect to a degree the ecosystem on whom all depend).

I could go on, but the above selected titles are only illustrative of how deep his passion and love for beauty and the natural world and his sense of justice ran (and, through his legacy, will run). And these writings reveal how his modest but irrefutable strong force of reason and values overwhelmed (and will continue to overwhelm) or piqued his audience.

OP-ED – Great Lakes Echo: Public trust demands Great Lakes phosphorus cuts

Click here to read the article in the Great Lakes Echo


  • Editor’s note, Jim Olson is president of FLOW, a Traverse City-based non-profit legal policy and action organization whose mission is to advance public trust solutions to save the waters of the Great Lakes Basin.

By Jim Olson

The health and public use and enjoyment of the Great Lakes is under siege from systemic threats like climate change, extreme water levels, Asian Carp and other invasive species, and nutrient pollution.

One of the most pernicious dangers is the resurgent excessive phosphorous and other nutrient runoff from farming practices and lack of proper sewage treatment. Moreover, the situation is worsening because of climate change. This nutrient loading has resulted in devastating, harmful algal blooms like the “dead zone” that extended over western Lake Erie in the summer of 2011, covering an area the size of Rhode Island and Connecticut. These algal blooms turn the surface and shores of the Great Lakes into a toxic soup, closing beaches and drinking water plants, killing fish and fishing, marring private property and public beaches, and discouraging tourism.

Lake Erie harmful algal bloom dead zone fish killThese impacts strike at the heart of the Great Lakes and the uses enjoyed and valued by the 40 million residents who live in the Basin. In 2013, Toledo had to spend $1 million to treat its drinking water from toxic globs of algae. Unchecked, this chronic, worsening problem will strike a blow to the economy and quality of life in the Great Lakes region.

Binational report urges action

Fortunately – with a sense of urgency – the International Joint Commission (“IJC”), the bi-national United States and Canadian governing board charged with protecting the Great Lakes, issued its Report of the Lake Erie Ecosystem Priority(February 2014) – A Balanced Diet for Lake Erie: Reducing Phosphorus Loadings and Harmful Algal Blooms.The report calls on Michigan, Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania, and the province of Ontario to take immediate steps to stop this devastating toxic nuisance before conditions worsen, not only in Lake Erie but also in Lake Huron and on the shores of Lake Michigan as far north as the pristine Door Peninsula and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Unfortunately, efforts to date have not reduced phosphorus or curtailed this massive problem, which is too large, too harmful, and too costly to the lakes, their ecosystem, and the 40 million people who live in the Great Lakes region to let this languish a year longer.

While the challenge is daunting, the IJC has taken the helm and focused its scientific studies and strong policies on the responsibility of the states, province, and others whose practices are causing the harm to Lake Erie and parts of the other Great Lakes. The IJC has recommended at a minimum a cut in phosphorus loading from farming and sewage overflows and other runoff by nearly 50 percent. Possible actions include the setting of a total phosphorus limit in Lake Erie and adoption of best practices for the management and use of fertilizers on farms and lawns.

Not only has the IJC set the target at nearly 50 percent and fingered the actions that need to be taken through voluntary cooperation, it has established a fresh legal and policy framework – or blueprint – for sharing responsibility, taking action, and, if necessary, implementing enforcement. The IJC has invoked a fundamental principle embedded in custom and law of the states and province on the Great Lakes – the duties imposed under “public trust” law in navigable waters and their tributary watersheds. In its report, the IJC recognized and urged states and Ontario to apply public trust principles as an overarching measure to address and solve the systemic threat of phosphorus and algal blooms in Lake Erie.

A framework for the public trust

The governments of Canada, the United States, Ontario and the states that share a common boundary on Lake Erie could apply a public trust framework, a set of important common law principles shared by the states, provinces, and both countries. Under these principles the governments should hold Lake Erie as a public trust for their citizens. The public trust framework would provide the governments with an affirmative obligation to assure that the rights of the public with respect to navigation, fishing, swimming, and the water and ecosystem on which these uses depend are protected and not significantly impaired.

In 1892, the United States Supreme Court established a principle that the Great Lakes and their protected public trust uses for boating, swimming, fishing, and other recreation can never be interfered with or significantly impaired now or in the future. A framework with a benchmark is necessary for the immediate reduction of phosphorus in Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes. The framework for cooperation and enforcement to achieve this benchmark is the public trust – a refreshing, straightforward contrast to the layers of rules and regulations that have been unable to stop the spread of devastating toxic algal blooms.

Lake Erie Nutrient Pollution Harmful Algal Bloom Dead Zone public trustAlgal blooms and toxic algae “dead zones” can be prevented and Lake Erie restored by reducing phosphorous loading from farming, sewage overflows, and fugitive residential and commercial fertilizing. If we continue to engage in dialogue but chose not to implement measures or options that will reduce phosphorous and restore Lake Erie, more beaches will close, commercial fishing will dry up, and tourism, riparian property values, public use of the lakes for recreation and enjoyment will continue to sink. The public trust provides a fresh approach based on traditional, time-tested principles that will provide the framework from which the states, stakeholders, and all citizens, who are the legal beneficiaries of this trust, can work together with shared responsibility to save this magnificent shared commons.

The IJC should be commended for this bold and positive step and for its leadership in urging the states and Ontario to implement the public trust principles that apply to all of the states and Ontario and their citizens. These principles move this bi-national issue to a higher level centered on our core values – water protection and restoration, quality of life, and a sustainable economy – that honor the public trust that, in the long run, will protect the waters and uses on which we, our children, and grandchildren depend.

As a citizen beneficiary of the public trust in our Great Lakes, read the report, send the IJC a letter or email thanking the commissioners for taking the action they did in issuing it. Send an email, a letter, and make a phone call to the leader of your state or province, urging application of this public trust framework and these principles. If we follow the benchmark through public trust principles, we will establish a framework for these common waters and interdependent economy and quality of life for this and future centuries.

All hands on deck – for implementing the public trust for water!

  • Reach Jim Olson at FLOW, 153 ½ E. Front Street, Traverse City, MI 49684. Phone: 231.944.1568. Additional background on the author and FLOW.  On May 13 FLOW is hosting a webinar on nutrient pollution and algal blooms. Space is limited; registration required.

World Renowned Water Activist, Maude Barlow, to Speak on Regional Water Issues in Detroit

Click here to view and download the press release as a PDF.

May 14, 2014


Contact: Liz Kirkwoood, Executive Director

231 944 1568 or liz@flowforwater.org

World Renowned Water Activist, Maude Barlow, to Speak on Regional Water Issues in Detroit

Detroit, Mich. – On Thursday, May 22 at 6:30 p.m. the People’s Water Board Coalition will partner with Wayne State University’s Office of Sustainability to host a special discussion on regional Great Lakes water issues and public trust with Maude Barlow.

Barlow is the national chairperson of the Council of Canadians and chairs the board of the national consumer advocacy organization Food & Water Watch. Barlow is the recipient of eleven honorary doctorates as well as many awards, including the 2005 Right Livelihood Award (known as the “Alternative Nobel”), the Citation of Lifetime Achievement at the 2008 Canadian Environment Awards, and the 2009 Earth Day Canada Outstanding Environmental Achievement Award. She is also the best-selling author or co-author of 17 books.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) recently announced its plan to shut-off water at thousands of Detroit residences. At the same time Detroit’s Emergency Financial Manager, Kevyn Orr, has announced his intention to privatize DWSD, the drinking water provider for roughly four-million people in southeast Michigan. This event will highlight the benefits of protecting our water systems from private interests, and why public control is the key to ensuring safe, clean, affordable water for all.

Barlow will be available after the event to sign copies of her new book Blue Future.

This event is free and open to the public.

Who:  People’s Water Board Coalition

Speakers: Maude Barlow, Council of Canadians; Jim Olson, Founder, President and Advisor of FLOW (For Love of Water); others to be announced.

When: Thursday, May 22, 2014, Doors at 6:00 p.m. Program 6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.

Where: Marvin I. Danto Engineering Development Center
5050 Anthony Wayne Drive
Engineering Development Center (EDC)
Auditorium, Room 1507,
Detroit, MI  48202

Parking: Parking Structure 2 – 5150 Lodge Service Drive, Detroit, MI 48202

The cost is $6.50. There is also metered 2-hour parking located on the street. The cost for 2 hours is $2 at a meter.

The People’s Water Board includes: AFSCME Local 207, Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, Detroit Green Party, East Michigan Environmental Action Council, Food & Water Watch, FLOW, Great Lakes Bioneers Detroit, Matrix Theater, Michigan Emergency Committee Against War & Injustice, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute, Sierra Club and Voices for Earth Justice.

# # #

FLOW is the Great Lakes Basin’s only public trust policy and education 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Our mission is to advance public trust solutions to save the Great Lakes.


OP-ED – Toledo Blade: To restore Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes, cut phosphorus

Click here to read the article on the Toledo Blade.

May 18, 2014


By Jim Olson

To restore Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes, cut phosphorus

The principle of public trust, and the duties it imposes, can help clean up Lake Erie

One of the most pernicious sources of harm to Lake Erie, and to public use and enjoyment of the lake, is excessive runoff of phosphorous and other nutrients caused by farming practices and a lack of proper sewage treatment.

This condition will only worsen without immediate action. Defining such action as a matter of public trust can help ensure that it occurs.

Exacerbated by climate change, nutrient loading has caused devastating, harmful blooms of algae such as the dead zone that extended over western Lake Erie in 2011, covering an area the size of Rhode Island and Connecticut combined.

These noxious blooms turn the surface and shores of the Great Lakes into a toxic soup — closing beaches and drinking-water plants, killing fish and fishing, marring private property, and discouraging tourism. Such effects strike at the heart of Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes, which contribute immeasurably to the quality of life of the 40 million residents of the lakes region.

Nutrient loading also threatens public health and increases costs to taxpayers. Last year, the city of Toledo had to spend an additional $1 million to treat its drinking water for toxins in algae.

With a sense of urgency, the International Joint Commission — the American-Canadian governing board that is charged with protecting the Great Lakes — issued a recent report on Lake Erie’s ecosystem. It urges both federal governments and the Great Lakes states and provinces to take immediate steps to stop the lake’s toxic plague.

Jim Olson FLOW FounderThe joint commission recommends an immediate cut of nearly 50 percent in phosphorus loading from excessive use of farm fertilizers and municipal sewage overflows, through modifications of current practices. It calls for a fresh legal and policy framework for sharing responsibility and achieving the necessary reduction in phosphorus to restore Lake Erie and renew its beaches, fishing, and other natural advantages.

Specifically, the commission proposes that the affected nations, states, and provinces hold Lake Erie as a “public trust” for their citizens. That framework “would provide the governments with an affirmative obligation to assure that the rights of the public with respect to navigation, fishing, swimming, and the water and ecosystem on which these uses depend are protected and not significantly impaired,” the report says.

The principle of public trust, and the duties it imposes in navigable waters and tributary watersheds, are embedded in the law of the states and provinces on the Great Lakes. In 1892, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that government has a duty to its citizens to ensure that their use and enjoyment of the lakes are never measurably impaired, now or in the future.

This trust principle provides a benchmark, easy to understand and equally applicable to everyone. That’s a sharp contrast to the layers of rules that have been unable to stop the spread of devastating blooms of toxic algae.

These blooms and toxic dead zones can be prevented. If we continue just to talk, but choose not to take the measures necessary to restore Lake Erie, more beaches will close, commercial fishing will dry up, and tourism, property values, and public use of the lake for recreation and enjoyment will continue to sink.

By contrast, if we choose to follow the joint commission’s public-trust recommendation, our government leaders, stakeholders, and citizens — who are the legal beneficiaries of this trust — will have a strong opportunity to save this magnificent shared resource.

The commission should be commended for its bold leadership in urging public-trust principles for Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes. We should urge our government leaders to apply these principles, to reduce phosphorus pollution, and to restore Lake Erie.

  • Jim Olson is founder and president of FLOW (For Love of Water), a policy organization based in northern Michigan that promotes preservation of the Great Lakes basin.

The Greatest Threat to the Great Lakes that No One Seems to Know About

The Greatest Threat to the Great Lakes and No One Seems to Know About It: Expanding Enbridge’s Line 5 Through the Straits of Mackinac

Click here to read and download PDF

How often do you hear a story in the news and then feel utterly shocked that you didn’t know anything about it? Well, that’s how all 40 million of us living in the Great Lakes should feel about the Enbridge Line 5 expansion across the Straits of Mackinac—a pipeline expansion project that will transport tar sands oil directly through the heart of the Great Lakes. In a nutshell, this just may be the greatest threat facing the Great Lakes at this time in history. “An oil spill in the Straits of Mackinac isn’t a question of if—it’s a question of when,” according to National Wildlife Federation’s (NWF) comprehensive report on this issue, Sunken Hazard.

What would a tar sands oil spill the size of Exxon-Valdez mean for the Great Lakes? Goodbye fisheries, aquatic food links, goodbye wildlife, goodbye municipal drinking water, goodbye Mackinac Island, goodbye tourism and property values, and goodbye to one of the world’s largest freshwater inland seas.

What company is stealthily completing this hazardous energy venture with limited public scrutiny? Enbridge—the same Canadian company responsible in 2010 for a million gallon tar sands oil pipeline rupture and a $1 billion cleanup along a 35-mile stretch of Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. Known as the largest transporter of crude oil, Enbridge is requesting a permit from the State Department’s U.S. Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to expand its existing pipeline—Line 67 also known as the Alberta Clipper—to transport heavy tar sands oil originating from Alberta, Canada to Superior, Wisconsin. From there, Enbridge, according to company officials, has already expanded the capacity of a second existing pipeline—Line 5—that travels directly through the Straits of Mackinac to a refinery located in Sarnia, Ontario. The 1,000+ mile Alberta Clipper pipeline route will double the tar sands oil that it currently carries and will deliver even more tar sands oil than the highly publicized and controversial TransCanada Corp’s Keystone XL pipeline.

Built sixty years ago in 1953, Line 5’s twin pipelines that cross the Straits of Mackinac—each 20 inches in diameter—were designed to transport light conventional crude oil, not Enbridge’s viscous, heavy tar sands oil or “bitumen” blended or diluted with volatile natural gas liquid condensate, also known as “dilbit.” Dilbit spills are particularly difficult to remediate because the bitumen and diluents separate, releasing toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and heavy, sticky bitumen material. And in Lake Michigan, who knows how long it would take to actually clean up these pollutants. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that it takes an average of 99 years to rid of pollutants in Lake Michigan.

Now let’s dig a little deeper into Enbridge’s depressing track record. According to NWF, “Enbridge’s pipelines had more than 800 spills in the U.S. and Canada between 1999 and 2010, leaking 6.8 million gallons of oil.” So with the combination of strong currents along the Straits, Enbridge’s inexcusable track record, its weak emergency response, and a strong likelihood of mechanical pipeline failure in this fragile ecosystem, we must ask ourselves: is this a risk we as citizens, inheritors, and future protectors of the Great Lakes are willing to accept?

This Enbridge pipeline expansion is a perfect example of why we have the public trust in our navigable waters—an ancient legal doctrine dating back to the Roman times—designed to protect our common shared resources like the Great Lakes. The public trust empowers us as a democratic and thoughtful people to question the impacts of proposed actions like Enbridge’s and determine whether they will impair, pollute or irreparably harm our water resources, and jeopardize protected water uses like fishing, swimming, and navigation.

This proposed action is a clear violation of the public trust as the pipeline threatens to destroy the Great Lakes’ common waters, which support the region’s $62 billion economy with 1.5 million jobs, drinking water for 40 million citizens, as well as our very social fabric, quality of life and enjoyment, and shared ecosystem with wildlife. The unprecedented scale of such an ecological and economic disaster also would undermine the $1 billion already invested in the U.S. government’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. This is why the public trust and its protection of the commons is more important than ever.

What this debate really boils down to is a much-needed larger national conversation about our country’s future energy policy. Not only does President Obama need to have the Keystone XL pipeline on his radar, but all pipeline expansions like this project, in assessing the impacts of climate change. It’s time that our nation makes good energy choices that respect the Great Lakes as a shared common resource protected by the public trust. We need to put the safety of our water and our future generations before our overzealous energy development. If we do this, we can chart a future with clean and abundant water, food, energy and a prosperous economy.

Looking for something concrete to do about this pressing pipeline issue? Come join FLOW, TC350, 350.org, National Wildlife Federation, Michigan Land Use Institute, Food & Water Watch, and many other organizations and attend the Oil and Water Don’t Mix: A Rally for the Great Lakes on July 14th at the St. Ignace Bridge View Park, just north of the Mackinac Bridge. The purpose of the rally is to bring attention to the dangers of this pipeline and its expansion, and to organize a response to these risks. We want to pressure our leaders to put safety measures in place to prevent a devastating oil spill in the heart of the Great Lakes. Click here to sign up and RSVP via this Facebook event.

oil and water dont mix photo