Tag: Public Trust

Keep Michigan’s Water Affordable and in Public Hands

Photo: Liz Kirkwood is Executive Director of FLOW (For Love Of Water), the Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City, Michigan. Reach her at liz@flowforwater.org.

Editor’s note: The following op-ed originally appeared Jan. 17, 2023, in Bridge Michigan.


Michigan is a water wonderland — think Great Lakes, 36,000 miles of rivers and streams, groundwater that supplies 45 percent of our state with drinking water, and more than 6 million acres of wetlands.

But these waters face a daunting array of challenges, everything from microplastics to toxic “forever chemicals,” inadequate infrastructure funding to the stresses of climate change. The impact on residents includes soaring water bills, water shutoffs and widespread concern about lead and chemical contamination.

In 2023, Michigan needs an inspiring vision for Michigan’s water. I urge Gov. Whitmer in her Jan. 25 State of the State message to declare 2023 the Year of Keeping Water Public and Protected for All in Michigan.

In 2023, Michigan needs an inspiring vision, championed from the highest places inside our government and out. In her State of the State message set for Jan. 25, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has a chance to show the way by articulating bold proposals for Michigan’s water. I urge her to declare 2023 the Year of Keeping Water Public and Protected for All in Michigan.

Our water fares best when it remains in public control.

Privatization of water and sewer services elsewhere has led to inferior maintenance and higher costs to customers. Allowing private interests to commodify groundwater drains a vital public resource without benefit to the public. The future of our water is too important to leave to short-sighted, profit-seeking private interests.

Michigan should ban residential water shutoffs, impose royalties on water bottlers who take waters owned by the State of Michigan at practically no cost, and maintain public control on water services.

Here are a few steps Michigan must take to keep our water public and protected:

Secure Affordable Rates and Public Control

  • Water affordability and access: Water is essential to sanitation, health and life itself. No Michigander should be denied public water service because of inability to pay. Michigan should enact legislation to ban residential water shutoffs, fix the affordability crisis and address water injustices.
  • Public water legislation: The state should enact legislation imposing royalties on bottlers who commodify waters owned by the State of Michigan at practically no cost and reap extraordinary profit on the resale. The royalties should make up a clean water trust fund to serve Michigan residents and communities for dedicated public purposes, including ending water shutoffs and helping people whose wells are contaminated.
  • Keep municipal water utilities public: Michigan must draw a clear line against any plan to privatize public water services, which weakens local control and can ratchet up rates while maintenance lags.

Protect Drinking Water and Public Health

Michigan should dedicated more funds to the cleanup of toxic sites and prevention of groundwater contamination, develop new long-term funding sources for our water infrastructure, and require chemical manufacturers to demonstrate the safety of the chemicals before they can be authorized for sale.

We have made considerable progress in dealing with the kind of pollution the 1972 Clean Water Act targeted, but new threats continually emerge for which our laws are ill-prepared. The governor should call for actions to address not only these threats but also the mistakes of the past:

  • Groundwater: These vital but largely invisible waters are contaminated in over 15,000 localities. Another $50 million a year should be dedicated to the cleanup of toxic sites and prevention of groundwater contamination.
  • Climate resilience and water infrastructure funding: Climate change is putting unprecedented stress on already-faltering water systems. Despite a one-time infusion of federal funds last year, our water infrastructure faces a multi-billion dollar investment gap. We need long-term funding sources, and new water projects must be designed for an era of intensifying storms.
  • A new approach to chemical contamination: We can no longer deal with chemicals like PFAS one-by-one and after they have done environmental harm. Instead, the precautionary principle should be the foundation of our chemical policy, requiring chemical manufacturers to demonstrate the safety of the chemicals before they can be authorized for commerce.

Our actions now will define and shape the future of the Great Lakes. This future demands a new relationship with water, and recognizes, in the words of Jacques Cousteau, that “the water cycle and the life cycle are one.”

Imagine a future where we place water at the center of all decision-making. And imagine the profoundly positive impacts that result in energy choices, food systems, the transportation and housing sectors, urban development, manufacturing and more.

Safeguarding our Great Lakes is a deeply shared value and, keeping our water public and protected for all can help secure Michigan’s future.

Safeguarding our Great Lakes is a deeply shared value and, despite daily indications of bitter polarization in our politics, this important area of common ground bridges political divides. Prudently conceived and boldly implemented, keeping our water public and protected for all can help secure Michigan’s future.

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.

enbridges-line-5-under-the-straits-of-mackinac-4f9997139d321d60

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.

The State of Water Quality in Michigan

Above: Satellite imagery from August 2022 shows the extent of a western Lake Erie algae bloom.  Similar nuisance and hazardous blooms, spawned by excess agricultural fertilizer and animal waste, have plagued the lake for 20 years. But officials continue to insist that only voluntary measures by agriculture are needed to put the lake on the road to recovery. (Photo/U.S. EPA)


Although few people are likely to read it, a key report about the state of clean water in Michigan was published this year.

Prepared by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, the document has the ungainly title. Water Quality and Pollution Control in Michigan: Sections 303(d), 305(b) and 314 Integrated Report 2022. Nonetheless, it is important reading for anyone who cares about clean lakes and streams in the Great Lakes State.

Two key themes emerge from the report. First, most of Michigan’s open Great Lakes waters meet standards and support public uses such as swimming — and beach water quality is generally high. 

Two key themes emerge from the report. First, with the exception of pollution of fish by PCBs, mercury, and other long-lasting contaminants, most of Michigan’s open Great Lakes waters meet standards and support public uses such as swimming. In addition, beach water quality is generally high: 

  • In 2020, 143 of 157 monitored public beaches on Michigan inland lakes reported no exceedances of the state’s E. coli standard. The remaining 14 beaches had 23 exceedances.
  • Also in 2020, of 116 publicly accessible beaches on the Great Lakes and connecting waters, 92 reported no exceedances of the E. coli WQS for total body contact. The remaining 24 beaches reported a total of 57 exceedances.

Second, there are large pockets of degraded water quality that stubbornly resist pollution-control efforts.

Second, there are large pockets of degraded water quality that stubbornly resist pollution-control efforts.

“Repeated, persistent, and extensive cyanobacteria blooms,” resulting from an excess of phosphorus runoff from agricultural sources, undermine the water quality of the inner portion of Saginaw Bay. Therefore, EGLE has determined the inner bay is officially impaired.

Cyanobacteria blooms in western Lake Erie, also from agricultural processes, warrant an impaired listing. But EGLE continues to insist the best way to deal with this is to continue a collaborative process with Ontario and Ohio that has delivered little in water quality improvements, instead of writing its own plan.

Despite this generally good news, 50 years after the passage of the federal Clean Water Act, which called for making all of America’s waters swimmable and fishable by 1983 and the end to all pollution discharges by 1985, we are far from where we should be. The Act’s failure to deal effectively with agricultural pollution is a major reason.

A Modest Proposal: The Biggest State Park in America

When Michiganders want to point out where a specific location lies in the state, we often raise our hands and point at a spot somewhere on our palms.  Indeed, our identity is tied up in nicknames like The Mitten State.

But the legal boundaries of Michigan look nothing like a mitten or a hand. They are far broader, too.

Michigan includes over 38,000 square miles of Great Lakes surface area and underlying submerged lands.  These often-forgotten lands, when added to the Michigan land base above water, move Michigan from 22nd largest state to 11th. The 38,000 square miles of underwater land constitute more than one-third of the total area of Michigan and are larger than 11 states in the Union. Over water, Michigan borders not just Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio, but also Minnesota and Illinois.

By virtue of the public trust doctrine, both the open waters of the Great Lakes and underlying submerged lands are held in trust by the State of Michigan on behalf of the people of Michigan. The title and ownership of these waters and underlying submerged lands vested in the State of Michigan on admission to the Union on January 26, 1837, to be held in trust for the benefit of its citizens.

The public trust doctrine confers an obligation on the State of Michigan, as trustee, to protect public ownership of these open waters and submerged lands and to protect public uses of them including swimming, boating, fishing, sustenance, drinking water, sanitation, and many others.

Great Lakes submerged lands contain significant historical, ecological, biological, geological and other features–everything from suspected ancient aboriginal hunting sites established when water levels were far lower, to lake bottom sinkholes that mimic the environment of the early Earth.

Great Lakes open waters and underlying submerged lands are a unique endowment belonging to the people of Michigan, unlike that of any other state, and should be a source of pride for all Michiganders. They should be even more than that. They should be declared a state park officially open to all, for enjoyment by all.

It is not a new idea. Legislators proposed an official state park designation for Michigan’s Great Lakes waters and submerged lands in 2007 and 2008. But the legislative clock ran out.

Designating Great Lakes water and submerged lands a state park will affect their use little if at all in the short run. There won’t be an entrance fee as exists at traditional state parks. But the park concept would open the door to education and awareness among Michigan residents of the beauty beneath the waters and the need to protect it. Michiganders would benefit from that.

It’s time to revive the idea. Talk about national notoriety–a new state park larger than the entire state of Indiana.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FLOW’s Jim Olson Honored with Large Lake Champion Award

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public Trust Bill Package Boosts Groundwater Protection in Michigan

Editor’s note: This is a FLOW media release issued March 17, 2022. Members of the media can reach FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood at Liz@FLOWforWater.org or cell (570) 872-4956 or office (231) 944-1568.


FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood expressed strong support for legislation introduced in Lansing today that would shore up public trust protections for the Great Lakes and groundwater against water-bottling companies thirsting for profits and strengthen safeguards for waterways on state land.

“The Great Lakes must never be for sale,” Kirkwood said in a video-recording message for the press conference announcing the legislation. “And Michigan’s groundwater must never become privatized and siphoned away.”

Watch Liz Kirkwood’s video message below:

The three-bill package (House Bills 5953, 5954, and 5955) introduced by Michigan Reps. Yousef Rabhi, Laurie Pohutsky, Rachel Hood, and Padma Kuppa would close the legal loophole in the Great Lakes Compact that allows private interests and international regimes to take massive amounts of Great Lakes water as long as it is extracted in containers of 5.7 gallons or less. The legislation also would explicitly apply public trust protections to groundwater, which provides drinking water to 45% of Michiganders and helps recharge the Great Lakes, and would direct the Department of Natural Resources to be strong public trustees of the lands and waters it manages. Rep. Kuppa also plans to introduce a groundwater resolution on March 22, World Water Day.

“These prudent changes will ensure that Michigan has the ability to stop privatization of the Great Lakes and groundwater, and reject future water withdrawals that are not in the public’s interest,” said Kirkwood, an environmental attorney who directs FLOW (For Love of Water), the Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City. “We must protect every arc of the water cycle.”

Michigan’s groundwater supplies drinking water to 45% of Michiganders. Groundwater that discharges to lakes and streams also is crucial to sustain coldwater fisheries, stream ecology, and wetlands, and also accounts for approximately 20-40% of the volume of the Great Lakes.

“Without these protections explicitly in place we face the very real possibility that our most valuable natural resource, the water which defines our state, could be treated as a commodity for sale like oil,” Kirkwood said, “and virtually eliminate the state’s ability to protect this vital resource.”

Securing Public Ownership of Our Water as a Human Right, Public Trust, and Defense against Privatization

By Liz Kirkwood

Water is life. It is the resource that not only keeps us alive, but also powers everything we do on this small blue planet. Living here in the Great Lakes, we are stewards of some 20 percent of the planet’s fresh surface water. It is an enormous gift and an enormous responsibility, particularly in the face of the global water crisis

Water access and equity issues are striking the poorest communities the hardest, leaving 2.2 billion people worldwide without access to water and 4.2 billion people without sanitation. The United Nations estimates that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world’s population could be living under water-stressed conditions.  

FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood

Water insecurity and climate change, in turn, are fueling the increased economic value of water supplies, an alarming interest in the financialization and commodification of water, and accelerated privatization of public water infrastructure. 

For the first time ever, in December 2020, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) listed California water futures as an investment to be bought and sold like grain or oil. In 2021, a private equity hedge fund called Blue Triton purchased all of Nestlé’s U.S. water bottling operations except Perrier. These and other privatization efforts degrade the singular importance of water, risk what is essential to all life on this planet, and exacerbate growing global and regional inequities between rich and poor to access potable water supplies. 

To counter this privatization trend, the UN’s recent report titled, Risks and impacts of the commodification and financialization of water on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, recommended “that States take urgent legal measures to prevent water, as a public good, from being managed in the futures markets as a financial asset under the speculative logic that presides over these markets, thereby avoiding the risks of price volatility and speculative bubbles that threaten the human rights to drinking water and sanitation of those living in conditions of poverty and vulnerability, the sustainability of aquatic ecosystems and the most vulnerable economies.” 

States and communities can accomplish this by resolutions, declarations, statutes and laws, or constitutional enactments or current ones, properly interpreted so that water remains in the public domain protected by public trust and commons principles.

In June 2021, the Board of Commissioners of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) unanimously approved a resolution affirming water as a human right and expressing concern about the trend toward treating water as a commodity. The resolution also affirms that “the water of the Great Lakes … shall remain in the public trust for the people of the Great Lakes region.” Read FLOW’s coverage here.

This resolution promises to be a milestone in the looming controversy over the creation of water futures markets and to establish clear principles to guide public policy and investments in water system infrastructure priorities in communities across the Great Lakes Basin. The issue of ownership and sale of Great Lakes water is not on the horizon; it is already here at our doorstep.

FLOW seeks to promote and extend this affirmation in Michigan communities and others across the Great Lakes watershed. Traverse City, whose City Commission will consider the resolution at 7 p.m. on December 6,  has a unique opportunity and responsibility to join this movement to assure public ownership of water. The opportunity lies in securing newly available federal funding to beef up our public water infrastructure and to ensure clean drinking water, eliminate sewage overflows, protect shoreline and prevent beach closures as a result of E. coli contamination and other contaminants. The responsibility lies in demonstrating stewardship by avoiding the trap into which other communities have fallen by privatizing ownership of water services. This has led to dramatically higher water rates for customers and deteriorating maintenance of infrastructure. Keeping water public provides avenues for accountability and keeps decisions in our hands as residents and voters.

Now is the time to clearly articulate our community values and principles around protecting our water as a public commons as  we prepare to make long-term water infrastructure investments and build climate resilience in communities across the Great Lakes. 

Please Support Keeping Water Public in Traverse City
The Traverse City Commission will hold its regular meeting at 7 p.m. ET on Mon., December 6, 2021, at the Governmental Center, 400 Boardman Avenue, Traverse City, Mich.
New business on the agenda includes this resolution being advanced by FLOW: A Resolution Proclaiming Water and Sanitation as Basic Human Rights, and that Water Shall Remain in the Public Trust. Please plan to attend or, if you cannot, watch the livestream.

FLOW Deeply Disappointed in Court Decision Today Leaving State of Michigan’s Lawsuit to Shut Down ‘Line 5’ in Federal Court, Denying the State’s Request

Editor’s Note: The following is a media release issued by FLOW on November 16, 2021; please contact Executive Director Liz Kirkwood at (570) 872-4956 or Liz@FLOWforWater.org or Senior Legal Advisor Jim Olson at (231) 499-8831 or Jim@FLOWforWater.org.

Judge Neff’s decision today addresses only the narrow, procedural issue of whether a state or federal court should decide if the State of Michigan lawfully ordered the shutdown of the Line 5 oil pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac. Although the federal court’s decision to exercise jurisdiction over this matter is disappointing, it does not resolve the validity of the State’s action to protect the public’s legally revered interests in the Great Lakes. Canadian energy transport giant Enbridge continues to defy the order to shut down Line 5.

The decision is legally deficient for multiple reasons, most notably because it failed to consider express provisions of federal law that affirm Michigan’s sovereign right to apply and enforce its own laws to protect its waters and environment. The court also did not properly consider the State’s sovereign interests as required when making a jurisdictional determination. 

“The court overlooked the sovereign public interests of Michigan, an omission that seriously threatens not only Michigan’s sovereignty over its navigable water, but every state in the nation,” said FLOW Founder and Senior Legal Advisor Jim Olson

The decision also threatens the sovereign interests of states by setting an extremely low bar for removing state-court lawsuits to federal court. This could result in the weaponization of federal jurisdiction by foreign corporations seeking to litigate disputes involving state law in federal court.

“Fortunately,” said Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director of FLOW, “until decided by a court, Governor Whitmer’s revocation of Line 5 stands firm. FLOW stands in solidarity with the State of Michigan as Attorney General Nessel defends the public waters of the Great Lakes in this nationally significant litigation.” 

Background from FLOW:

Key Context on Federal Lawsuit:

Recent  Line 5 Analysis:

State’s Line 5 Shutdown Deadline:

Reality Check:

Gov. Whitmer’s Line 5 Shutdown Order & Reaction:

For more information, see FLOW’s Line 5 fact sheets and blogs:

FLOW’s Blog Coverage: Line 5 blogs providing news & analysis.