Tag: Public Trust

The Wisconsin Water Diversion Giveaway

The 10-year-old Great Lakes Compact is not just an agreement among eight states. It is also a compact between the citizens and public officials of those states. A decision yesterday in Wisconsin puts both compacts at risk.

Wisconsin has now approved a diversion of up to 2.7 million gallons a day of Lake Michigan water to be used by Foxconn for industrial purposes.

But the premise of the Compact is that governments will do everything in their power to prevent diversions of Great Lakes water, reflecting the will of the people of this region. After all, the compact arose from public outrage over a 1998 proposal to ship Lake Superior water to Asia. It wasn’t government that initiated the compact, it was a clamor from the public.

In two ways, the fine print of the Compact departed from the public’s opposition to water diversions. First, the Compact exempts from its ban on diversions shipments of water for sale as long as the shipments are in small containers, such as bottles. This condones the privatization of a public trust resource and could yield control of the Great Lakes over to commercial interests.

The other, supposedly more limited exemption is one for public health. Communities straddling the Great Lakes watershed boundary, or outside of it but in a straddling county, are allowed to seek diversions to supply public drinking water if there is no alternative. Specifically, the Compact provides that the exempted diversion water “shall be used solely for Public Water Supply Purposes.”

But under Governor Scott Walker, Wisconsin is attempting to use Lake Michigan as yet another giveaway on top of $3 billion in other tax incentives to lure Foxconn and the jobs it would create to his state. The company’s facility, just outside the Great Lakes watershed, will enjoy the bulk of up to 2.7 million gallons a day of water from the lake that it would not return.

The City of Racine’s application is clear that the water it seeks will help “meet forecasted demands for water resulting from expected development in the Village of Mount Pleasant along the Interstate-94 corridor.” The Wisconsin DNR website affirms that the area served includes the area identified as the future site of the Foxconn facility. Clearly, the purpose of the proposal is primarily industrial. Until there is a factual basis that demonstrates the proposal will serve “largely residential customers,” and that the industrial portion of the proposal is merely incidental, this application cannot be approved.

An additional problem is that as currently construed by Wisconsin, the other seven Great Lakes states have no formal role to play in approving or rejecting the Foxconn proposal. That’s because the village in which Foxconn would be located is a “straddling community,” whose fate the Compact leaves to the originating state in most cases.

This proposal turns the Great Lakes into a subsidy for development – just like a tax break – outside the Great Lakes watershed. It could lead to a Great Lakes industrial water reservoir available for all states to create, populated by dozens of industries in existing or even new straddling communities, subject only to a single state’s approval. 

The question then becomes if the Great Lakes states themselves can tap the lakes for politically favored interests, why can’t other states do the same? Clearly, under this interpretation, the Compact is not solely concerned about the health of the lakes or the health of the people close by. It is a cash cow for private interests — and vulnerable to legal attack from outside the watershed.

Dave Dempsey, FLOW Senior Advisor

That’s not what the public thought it was getting. It breaks the compact between the governed and those who govern. Moreover, when the states approved the Compact, Wisconsin included, they adopted a provision that they must follow the standards of the Compact. This means the threshold question of whether Wisconsin is construing the “straddling community” “incidental industry” standard too loosely to serve its own ends is not for Wisconsin to decide alone, but for all the states to the Compact and the citizens of the Great Lakes watershed it protects.

The Great Lakes states must honor their promise, insist on a stringent interpretation of the “straddling community” exception and stop the Foxconn water giveaway.


Running Michigan’s Water Into the Ground

byzantine-empire-public-land.-trusts
FLOW’s organizing principle is the public trust doctrine.  What sounds like an exotic concept is quite simple.  This centuries-old principle of common law holds that there are some resources, like water and submerged lands that by their nature cannot be privately owned.  Rather, these commons – including the Great Lakes — belongs to the public.  And governments, like the State of Michigan, have a responsibility to protect public uses of these resources.  We explicitly address public trust concerns on what we’re calling Public Trust Tuesday. 

Last week, Michigan Radio broadcast a two-part series on Michigan’s groundwater. They found that there are more than 2,000 places around Michigan where, instead of cleaning up contaminated groundwater, the state bars people from using it or even touching the soil — and this is an extremely conservative estimate.

How did we get to this point? Groundwater is profoundly important to our state. Michigan has more private drinking water wells than any other state. About 45% of the state’s population depends on groundwater as its drinking water source. Manufacturing industries and agriculture depend heavily on groundwater. As much as 42% of the water in the Great Lakes originates from groundwater.
 
And yet state policy treats it as disposable.
 
Michigan water quality protections in theory already extend to groundwater. As defined in state statute, “Waters of the state” means groundwaters, lakes, rivers, and streams and all other watercourses and waters, including the Great Lakes within Michigan’s boundaries.
 
Michigan’s Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act (NREPA), Part 327, declares that groundwater and surface water are one single hydrologic system. Groundwater can recharge surface water, and surface water on occasion loses water to recharge groundwater. The waters of the state should be considered one resource for any groundwater protection regulation or standard.
 

Dave Dempsey, FLOW Senior Advisor

Part 327 recognizes water in the Great Lakes basin and Michigan is held in trust for the benefit of citizens. This principle should govern every water statute, and any statute regulating activities that protect groundwater, to assure that contaminants do not impair the public trust in connected wetlands, creeks, streams, and lakes, and Great Lakes.

 
In short, the public trust doctrine applies to groundwater, part of the larger hydrologic system. FLOW will be working to affirm this — and to make sure these vital waters are protected.

Grand Traverse Islands National Park Proposal

Eight states border the Great Lakes, but only five national parks.  For those who think the spectacular values of the freshwater coast are underrepresented among the crown jewels of the national park system, there is good news:  a small but dogged group of Wisconsin citizens is keeping the torch lit for the establishment of a national park on the Grand Traverse Islands of their state and Michigan.

Not to be confused with the Grand Traverse region of the northwest Lower Peninsula of Michigan, the Grand Traverse Islands span “the gap between Door County, Wisconsin, and Michigan’s Garden Peninsula. Marking the dangerous maritime divide between the warmer, shallower waters of Green Bay and the colder, deeper waters of Lake Michigan, they are a richly biodiverse, historically significant, and largely undeveloped wilderness archipelago,” in the words of the citizen group.

Friends of the Grand Traverse Islands are proposing a park of about 7,000 acres scattered across two Michigan islands, four Wisconsin islands, and various features of the tip of the Door Peninsula.  Significantly, all of the proposed parkland is already in public (federal, state and local) ownership, nullifying resistance from those who might oppose acquisition of private lands.  Still, Washington is not particularly friendly to expanding the federal domain, so park backers acknowledge they are in this for the long haul. 

The other Great Lakes national park in Wisconsin, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, took 40 years to get Congressional approval, Friends of the Grand Traverse Islands Chair John Bacon points out.  “When we started this, we never expected it would happen tomorrow, or even in five years.  The logic will eventually win out.”  A sea kayaker and guide, Bacon has frequently recreated in the archipelago and said it so impressed him that he wondered from his first experiences in the area why it was not already a park.

The idea of creating a park among the islands dates back to at least 1970, when an Islands of America report released by the federal Bureau of Outdoor Recreation recommended something called an “interstate wilderness park” encompassing 6,000 acres on what it called the 14 Green Bay islands.  “Yet 45 years later, after attempts made by Michigan and Wisconsin, the island chain remains unopened, unprotected, unsung and falling apart.  This is a national tragedy,” the Friends say in their proposal.

St. Martin Island Lighthouse, photo by John Bacon

State officials from both Michigan and Wisconsin pursued the idea for about a decade before Michigan pulled out.  Because of local opposition to inclusion of land on Michigan’s Garden Peninsula, the Friends have scaled back the Michigan portion of their current proposal to only St. Martin’s and Poverty Islands, which are already in federal ownership.

The Friends’ lyrical description of the proposed park’s assets is enticing.  A central feature is the Niagara Escarpment. The islands “consist of dolomitic limestone rock formed 420 million years ago from the compressed sediments of a shallow, tropical sea. Rare wildflowers and orchids found almost nowhere else on earth call them home. Neotropical songbirds, bats, and butterflies return to them each and every summer. And trees believed to be over 500 years old cling to their nearly vertical, rocky bluffs.”

David Hayes, a retired Park Service regional planner, owner of a bed and breakfast in Sturgeon Bay and now a member of the Friends group, says he has long supported the designation of a Great Lakes national maritime park.  Learning of the Grand Traverse Islands proposal, he joined forces with Bacon and others. 

Hayes told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “it’s unbelievable to have such a large geologic formation in the U.S. that has no national anything. This is huge – it’s over 500 miles worth of geologic formation. That alone to me is one very important reason to do it.”

Creating a national park is about more than safeguarding geology, scenery and natural resources, backers say.  Recreational opportunities, ranging from birding to camping to sailing to kayaking to snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, are abundant.  There are historic sites reflecting both indigenous peoples and European settlers, and historic lighthouses.  And a national park would be an economic shot in the arm, proponents say.  Apostle Islands has generated approximately 300 jobs for a northern Wisconsin community where they make a significant difference.  Meanwhile, existing uses on adjacent lands and waters, including timber harvest and commercial and sport fishing, would be unaffected.

Dave Dempsey, FLOW Senior Advisor

The initial Congressional objective, Hayes says, is an NPS special resource study, a necessary prelude to park creation.  The study would review the area’s national significance, cost and suitability.  Bipartisan support for the study exists, he says.

“There’s something about national parks that touches the imagination,” Hayes says. “They bring people from all over the world.”


Highlights of the Grand Traverse Islands National Park Proposal

 

Michigan proposed lands:

 

St. Martin Island (Federally-owned parcels)

Acreage & Ownership: 1,244 acres under federal ownership.

FeaturesNiagara Escarpment, old hunting/logging cabins, old fishing village sites, small harbor on south shore with dock, access to St. Martin Island Lighthouse.

 

Poverty Island

Acreage & Ownership: 171 acres under federal ownership.

FeaturesNiagara Escarpment, Poverty Island Lighthouse.

 

Wisconsin highlights:

 

Door Bluff Headlands County Park, Door Peninsula

Acreage & Ownership: 156 acres under county ownership.

FeaturesNiagara Escarpment, Native American pictographs, beach, hiking trail, commanding view of Green Bay.

 

Plum & Pilot Islands

Acreage & Ownership: 330 acres under federal ownership.

Dolostone Pillar on NE Shoreline of Rock Island, photo by John Bacon

Features: Niagara Escarpment, Pilot Island Lighthouse & Fog Signal Building; JE Gilmore, Forrest, & AP Nichols Shipwrecks; Plum Island Lightkeepers House, Fog Signal Building, & Range Lights; ruins of Old Plum Island Lighthouse; last remaining Duluth-style US Life Saving Station on Great Lakes; two beaches; Grapeshot shipwreck; maintained trails.

 

Rock Island State Park, Rock Island

Acreage & Ownership: 912 acres under state ownership.

Features: Niagara Escarpment, Thordarson Estate, small boat dock, sand beach, old fishing village site, numerous cemeteries, Native American archeological sites, the first lighthouse built in Wisconsin, campground, maintained trails, and backcountry campsites.


Common Water, Public Health, and the Common Good: Just What Does the Term “Public Trust” Mean Anyway?

byzantine-empire-public-land.-trusts

FLOW’s organizing principle is the public trust doctrine.  What sounds like an exotic concept is quite simple.  This centuries-old principle of common law holds that there are some resources, like water and submerged lands that by their nature cannot be privately owned.  Rather, these commons – including the Great Lakes — belongs to the public.  And governments, like the State of Michigan, have a responsibility to protect public uses of these resources.  We explicitly address public trust concerns on what we’re calling Public Trust Tuesday.


The words “public trust” appear in many news and social media articles these days, and the meanings of the phrase often overlap as they should.

First, for those who follow FLOW’s mission and work or the news about the world water crisis, there is the public trust in our bodies of water, like our lakes and streams, or the groundwater that replenishes them. This is known as the public trust doctrine, an ancient principle in our common law that imposes an affirmative duty on government officials to protect the paramount rights of citizens concerning fishing, aquatic wildlife and habitat, boating, swimming, and access to safe and affordable drinking water. A breach of this public trust duty is legally enforceable when government fails to act or acts in a way that interferes with these rights or impairs these waters and uses. Government cannot sell off the bottomlands and waters of the Great Lakes, for instance, for a purely private purpose or gain. Government can’t authorize a landowner to fill in the bottomlands of a lake for a permanent private deck, because it would exclude the right of the public to the use of the surface of the lake for these protected public trust rights and uses. A private cabin owner can’t fence a stream and block fly fishers from wading and casting for fish. Cities can’t divert a tributary stream that impairs a downstream navigable lake. A federal judge in Oregon recently ruled that the public trust in bodies of water can force the government from dragging its feet to implement the reduction of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, which contributes to global warming, and extreme weather that interferes with or harms citizens’ right to drinking water, fishing, swimming, and boating.

Second, public trust refers to a public official’s conflict of interest or self-dealing, or breach of governmental office. This most often means an official in her or his official capacity uses that capacity to help approve a business contract for a partner or family member. Or, it might mean an official takes a bribe to vote for a lobbyist’s pet project or to influence an agency to grant a permit for a land development, mall, or perhaps a new urban water infrastructure deal that forces local governments to go along with privatizing the water services system, because the city can’t raise the taxes or collect enough user fees to fix a broken system or find a new water source.

Third, there have been charges of breach of public trust over state and federal agencies’ callous inaction or deliberate indifference toward the health and well-being of citizens– that is, the failure of government to fulfill its duty to promote the common good and public health, safety, and welfare. This could well encompass what happened in the Flint water tragedy, where officials rushing to transfer Flint’s water supply from the established Detroit system to a local water plant that withdrew water from a seriously polluted river. Or, perhaps, it would cover the Detroit water shutoff of tens of thousands of poor home occupants who cannot afford a $200 a month water bill.

All of these charges of breach of public trust have one common denominator: the breach of a legally enforceable duty or ethical expectation and duty to protect the common good in public land, water, health, and the general welfare. Regrettably, with increasing frequency, these breaches of public trust overlap. The water in Detroit is withdrawn from the Detroit River and Lake Huron, both public trust bodies of water. The State forced Detroit to suspend and transfer its power to an emergency manager appointed by the governor to fix the city’s bankruptcy. The emergency manager began getting rid of deadbeat customers by cutting them off from the water services, because they didn’t pay. Within a year, the once highly regarded Detroit regional water system ended up in the hands of a government created Great Lakes Water Authority, controlled by the suburbs, so Detroit could exit bankruptcy. In Flint, inaction or deliberate indifference by state and federal officials failed to prevent continued exposure to lead in the drinking water when another emergency manager, appointed to take charge of the city, hurried the switch to the Flint River. The same inaction has led to the continuing massive algal blooms that have ravaged western Lake Erie. Here, the breach of the traditional public trust duty toward protecting the destruction of fishing, boating, swimming, and recreation in Lake Erie soon led to the exposure of more than 400,000 residents served by Toledo’s public water system, a deliberate refusal to take action against influential corporate farming interests to reduce phosphorus loading from fertilizer runoff exacerbated by extreme weather caused by climate change.

All three of these meanings of public trust point to one thing: more and more, governmental officials are fixated on protecting and promoting profit, gain, and private interests over the common good of the public– whether breach of public trust in our common waters, a breach of a duty and charge to protect the health of citizens or peddling and using influence to ignore doing the right thing in favor of a personal favor. 

Jim Olson, President and Founder

Perhaps, upholding the public trust in our water, health, ethics, and the common good is the litmus test for the coming decade for anyone elected or appointed for public office. Ultimately, it is up to citizens to see, claim, and enforce the public trust for the good of all.  It might even make for better business, jobs, economy, and quality of life that will be more lasting.


Violation of the Public Trust: The Time Is Now for Decisive Court Action to Stop the Destruction of Lake Erie from Harmful Algal Blooms

byzantine-empire-public-land.-trusts

FLOW’s organizing principle is the public trust doctrine.  What sounds like an exotic concept is quite simple.  This centuries-old principle of common law holds that there are some resources, like water and submerged lands that by their nature cannot be privately owned.  Rather, these commons – including the Great Lakes — belongs to the public.  And governments, like the State of Michigan, have a responsibility to protect public uses of these resources.  We explicitly address public trust concerns on what we’re calling Public Trust Tuesday.


Last week, the Ohio EPA designated a thousand square miles of toxic green algae that spreads over the western end of Lake Erie in summer months “impaired.” This sudden reversal came after Ohio EPA filed a report under the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Epiphany? No, that opportunity ended with Lent. So why did Ohio’s EPA and Ohio Governor John Kasich finally come around? A metanoia that allowed them to drop the years of delay on requiring any action by corporate agriculture, allowing them to address phosphorous reduction from runoff and climate change-influenced weather on their own time.

Why did they change their minds? Because nature doesn’t wait. But that’s only part of it:  Lake Erie fishing, boating, swimming, beaches and tourism have been severely damaged since the western third of Lake Erie turned into a green mat of algae in the summer of 2011. If that wasn’t enough, in 2014 toxic algae shut down the public drinking water supply of 400,000 people in Toledo, and another 100,000 up the coast all the way to Monroe, Michigan. Now the shadowy green mat of harmful algae is as much an annual event as the corn crop production in the Ohio, Indiana and Michigan river valleys that causes it. 

In 2014, the international Joint Commission (“IJC”) urged a 40 percent reduction of phosphorous levels in Lake Erie within four years; states like Ohio picked this target up but gave it lip service by moving the target back to 2025. Nothing has been done to set a target to prevent impairment or destruction from algal blooms. Professor Don Scavia at University of Michigan has warned that prolonged delay in achieving limits will be offset by increased global warming and extreme weather events caused by climate change.

ELPC Lawsuit for Governments Violation of the Clean Water Act

So, what else caused Ohio EPA to change its mind?  The United States EPA and Ohio EPA were about to get slapped hard by a federal court for failing to designate the waters of western Lake Erie as “impaired waters” in violation of the federal CWA. The Environmental Law and Policy Center (“ELPC”) out of Chicago and a team of lawyers filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court on behalf of Toledo and Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie to reverse the federal government and Ohio’s denial of reality, ELPC’s lawyers recently argued the case before Judge Larry Carr in Toledo. In a move to avoid penalties and embarrassment by an adverse ruling in May, U.S. EPA changed its acceptance of Ohio’s “non-impairment” designation and ordered the state EPA to reconsider. Last week, Governor Kasich announced that Ohio’s EPA has designated the open waters of western Lake Erie as “impaired waters.”

What does this mean? While it is obvious to the naked eye that Lake Erie and its paramount fishery, boating, swimming, tourism, and its source for drinking water have been severely impaired for years, under the CWA “impaired” means that the State in consultation with U.S. EPA and others must set targets for the maximum daily load of phosphorous from farm runoff and to a lesser degree sewage discharges. The targets have to achieve and assure unimpaired waters for recreation and safe drinking water purposes.

While ELPC will see to it that Ohio EPA’s and the feds’ feet will be held to the fire, the CWA process for setting the targets and enforcing them by rule could take years– years Lake Erie, cities and towns, tourist businesses, property owners and citizens don’t have. Funding is short, political negotiations with stakeholders takes years, and, frankly, Ohio’s goal of achieving reduced phosphorous levels to prevent reoccurring algal blooms for 2025 is too late. Chesapeake Bay was designated “impaired” decades ago, and the so-called stakeholders are still fighting over a labyrinth of legal complications. Are businesses, communities, the public and citizens supposed to suffer billions of dollars in losses and natural resource damages while Lake Erie remains severely impaired?

It Is Time for a Lawsuit 

The public trust doctrine is an ancient principle dating back to the Justinian Codes of Rome and some of the earliest court precedents in our country’s history. It holds that commons like air and water are held by each state as sovereign for the benefit of its citizens. When each state joined the Union, the sovereign title to navigable waters vested absolutely in that state in trust to protect the water and aquatic resources for the enumerated uses of fishing, navigation, boating, swimming, recreation and sustenance–drinking water—for present and future generations. The United States Supreme Court and every state in the nation recognizes the public trust doctrine. The doctrine has standards with teeth sharper than a Northern Pike: (1) no one can alienate or subordinate these public trust waters and uses for private purposes; (2) no one– not private corporations, persons, or any government or political subdivision–can impair or substantially interfere with the quality and quantity of these waters or the enumerated public trust uses; and (3) the public trust imposes an affirmative, high and perpetual duty on government to see that no alienation or impairment occurs!

So, what are we waiting for? What are Governor Kasich and the Ohio EPA waiting for?  The state Supreme Courts of Indiana, Michigan and Ohio–where the phosphorous runoff is occurring– have all recognized and adopted the common law public trust doctrine. The public trust doctrine prohibits foot-dragging like the failure to take swift definitive action against corporate farms and cities that are the combined source of this wholesale destruction of Lake Erie. To be sure, there are stakeholders with interests that must be accommodated and balanced, but not at the expense of the damage caused by the continued blatant violation of the public trust doctrine. The public trust standards are the outer limit, these standards are not discretionary, they are mandatory, they can’t be ignored and they can’t be subordinated. In other words, all of the stakeholders are subject to the non-impairment standard, and all involved are legally obligated to comply with the public trust principles first.

How is this done?  It’s straightforward at this point. The ELPC lawsuit or a new lawsuit brought by plaintiffs who are citizens, communities, organizations, property and tourist business owners should seek to declare a violation of the public trust and take steps to enforce it by ordering those contributing to the damage to immediately prevent phosphorous from entering the streams and rivers that flow to Lake Erie. Two years ago, Michigan declared its share of western Lake Erie “impaired.” Now Ohio has determined its share is also “impaired.” If it’s impaired under the CWA, it’s also impaired under the common law of the public trust doctrine. Those who are causing or contributing to the impairment must be named defendants, all or some lead defendants, including the large corporate farms and the Ohio EPA and Michigan DEQ – unless of course Michigan wants to join as plaintiff in bringing this claim forward.

Because the waters are impaired in violation of the public trust, the only question is allocating liability and holding hearings to determine the remedy– the limitations and actions required of all defendants and others to reduce phosphorous and stop the harmful algal bloom destruction of Lake Erie.

The lawsuit or lawsuits can be filed in the same way any public interest litigation proceeds. The court oversight after the BP Deep Horizon spill worked to minimize the impairment of the Gulf of Mexico. In a major settlement, tobacco companies were forced to pay damages caused to the public health in each state.

There is nothing new here, and in fact a public trust case like this would be both simple and unifying. First, the factual finding is done – there is impairment. Second, this impairment violates the public trust. Third, it is well documented to a strong degree of certainty who and what causes the harmful algal blooms. Sorting out and allocating fault is not a barrier to a public trust case, it is simply what a court does in the name of equity and justice to fairly apportion responsibility. If a hearing on the allocation and remedies is needed, then hold it and bring in the experts. There are many in Ohio, Michigan and throughout the Great Lakes region, including the fine scientific universities and groups working on the algal blooms and climate change under the auspices of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the IJC.

This is the time to end the impairment and destruction of harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie (and elsewhere in the Great Lakes). We have three branches of government. The courts are one.  When the other branches fail or are unable to take the action that is needed when it is needed, our constitution assigns to the courts the role of taking over the controversy, especially when the harm is severe and an imminent threat to public health, property, safety and the general welfare.

Jim Olson, President and Founder

We don’t need a bureaucracy to get around to doing something on its own time through a drawn-out process like the somewhat uncertain establishment of targets and enforcement under the CWA. Why rely only on the CWA and federal and state bureaucracies when a court can take charge, find a violation, set the target, allocate the responsibility, and order actions that reduce phosphorous and stop the destruction of Lake Erie. Ask the legally protected beneficiaries of the public trust doctrine, our citizens and businesses and communities who continue to suffer devastating harm. The time for judicial action and supervision action under the public trust doctrine is now!


Humoring Ourselves to Get Off the Bottle

Today at FLOW, we are launching our latest campaign. It’s called Get Off the Bottle, and it combines facts, law, and policy with good old fashioned humor about the absurd implications of bottled water, whose sales surpassed the sales of soda for the first time in 2016.  

Just think about that for a moment. Did you ever think there would be a moment in your lifetime when bottled water sales would outstrip soda sales? For some of us, the question is even more basic: did you ever think companies like Nestle, Coke, Pepsi, Evian would make billions of dollars annually by selling you tap water (which you already paid for via taxes and fees) in plastic water bottles? I don’t know about you, but I guess I spent a lot of my childhood dehydrated!

The “Get Off the Bottle” campaign is designed to get citizens thinking and to empower them to make smart, protective decisions for our Great Lakes. We raise important questions about the cost, misleading labels, flavor, safety, energy waste, harm to streams and wetlands, lack of disclosure, plastic waste and other related issues. And what better way to explore these subtle yet complex issues than with humor?

Bottled water is part of a larger conversation and awareness about interconnected issues of failing water infrastructure, water affordability, equity, and privatization. As we launch this campaign, we will get bottled water in people’s thoughts and out of their hands.


World Water Day

Today is World Water Day, focusing attention on the importance of water. The theme for World Water Day 2018 is Nature for Water – exploring nature-based solutions to the water challenges of the 21st century.  

In Michigan, citizens are rallying to call attention to the failure of state policymakers to protect our water.  Shannon Abbott, vice president of the Grand Rapids Water Protectors, said water contamination has been largely ignored by state officials.   

Pressing issues for the Great Lakes

FLOW shares these concerns and others related to water:

  • The state’s failure to exercise its public trust prerogatives to shut down the Enbridge Line 5 pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac.  A rupture of one of these lines would have catastrophic impacts in Michigan.
  • The state’s failure to block efforts by Nestle to dramatically increase its Michigan water extraction to increase private profits it derives from selling the public’s water.
  • Proposals to install factory fish farms in the open waters of the Great Lakes.
  • State legislative efforts to give special interests veto power over state rules protecting water and other resources.
  • A state legislative proposal to give automatic approval of major water withdrawal proposals for factory farms — and keep the information on which the withdrawals are based from becoming public.

These policies are inconsistent with the wishes of Michigan citizens.  They want clean, abundant water. World Water Day is an opportunity to speak out for our water and the Great Lakes.

High stakes

Here’s what’s at stake in Great Lakes protection:

  • The Great Lakes contain almost 20% of the surface freshwater in the world.
  • The Great Lakes contain 84% of the surface water supply of North America.
  • Only 1% of the volume of the Great Lakes is renewed annually from precipitation and runoff; the water balance of the Lakes is delicate.
  • The average drop of water takes 191 years to pass through Lake Superior.
  • Spread evenly across the 48 contiguous states, the Great Lakes would turn the U.S. into a swimming pool 9.5 feet deep.
  • There are approximately 35,000 islands in the Great Lakes, including the largest lake island in the world, Manitoulin.
  • There are about 10,900 miles of Great Lakes shoreline, 200 miles less than the distance between Detroit and Perth, Australia.
  • Measured by surface area, Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Huron is third, Lake Michigan is fourth, Lake Erie is tenth and Lake Ontario is twelfth.
  • Lake Superior could contain all the other Great Lakes plus three more lakes the size of Lake Erie.
  • Eight states and Ontario border the Great Lakes.  Michigan is the only state almost entirely within the Great Lakes watershed.

Wisconsin Water Diversion Proposal Flouts Public Trust

byzantine-empire-public-land.-trusts

FLOW’s organizing principle is the public trust doctrine.  What sounds like an exotic concept is quite simple.  This centuries-old principle of common law holds that there are some resources, like water and submerged lands that by their nature cannot be privately owned.  Rather, these commons – including the Great Lakes — belongs to the public.  And governments, like the State of Michigan, have a responsibility to protect public uses of these resources.  We explicitly address public trust concerns on what we’re calling Public Trust Tuesday.


A proposal by the City of Racine, Wisconsin to divert 7 million gallons a day of Lake Michigan water to support an industrial development risks a dangerous precedent that could undermine the Great Lakes Compact, and is inconsistent with the public trust.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is accepting comments until tomorrow on the City’s application.  The City, and Wisconsin state officials, have made no secret of the fact that the water is largely going to supply a new business development, Foxconn, outside the Great Lakes watershed.

The Compact, however, is clear that any water exempted from its general ban on diversions “shall be used solely for Public Water Supply Purposes.” State and local government officials have explicitly stated that the water will be used primarily to facilitate a single industrial use. The Compact’s definition of Public Water Supply Purposes is “a group of largely residential customers that may also serve industrial, commercial, and other institutional operators (emphasis added).” This clearly means that any industrial or commercial uses must be incidental, not the primary purpose.

From FLOW’s perspective, an equal or greater concern is that the proposed use is inconsistent with the public trust doctrine.  The waters of the Great Lakes and navigable waters of Wisconsin are subject to the doctrine, which requires any diversion of this kind to promote a primarily public, not private purpose, under U.S. Supreme Court, Wisconsin, and Michigan Supreme Court law. The doctrine also requires the Wisconsin DNR to consider the effects of the diversion or transfer out of the basin on the Great Lakes and all navigable waters and the uses dependent on those waters that are potentially affected by the transfer, use, or return and/or net loss.

Under the rules of the Compact, review by the other seven Great Lakes states for this diversion is not required.  That’s largely because the jurisdiction in which Foxconn will be sited is the Village of Mount Pleasant, a so-called “straddling community” that sits partly inside and partly outside the Great Lakes watershed.  If the Village were entirely outside the watershed, all eight Great Lakes states would formally participate in the decision.

The Wisconsin DNR is obligated to consider comments from the public on this proposal. You can make your thoughts known by email to DNRRacineDiversionComments@wisconsin.gov.


Racing to the Top: A Reason for Hope by Liz Kirkwood

There’s no question that this is a tough time to be an environmental lawyer.  Just Google “roll back of environmental regulations” and you’ll get hits like “67 Environmental Rules on the Way Out Under Trump” or “A Running List of How Trump is Changing the Environment.”  And that’s just a tiny snapshot of what’s happening at the federal level.  Here in Michigan, in the heart of the Great Lakes, we also are witnessing a wholesale attack on groundwater laws for big ag, rulemaking authority for environmental agencies, and even the Great Lakes Compact.  

But I’m also a historian of sorts where I voraciously hunt for glimmers of hope.  I look for those stories that demonstrate human innovation, collaboration, and desire to take risks, do good for the planet, and imagine the impossible.

Lo and behold, I found one of these gems the other day.  It was a news story about five water utilities in the Great Lakes competing with one another to reduce their energy consumption and air emissions. These select water utilities are using technology to track and then shift to lower polluting power sources that reduce lead, mercury, carbon-dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrous oxide emissions from the atmosphere.  Using new technology called Locational Emissions Estimation Methodology (LEEM) designed at Wayne State University, these water utilities opt to pump water when the lower polluting electric power sources are online.  As a result, a Wisconsin utility has reduced its mercury emissions by 25 percent by pumping water at off-peak hours and alternative times in a day.      

Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director

Imagine if we saw this kind of competition across all sectors in health, energy, agriculture, industry, food, and water.  Imagine that we all saw ourselves in a race to the top, bringing everyone up together.  Let’s keep thinking big, and in the meantime, let’s give three cheers to these communities that are leading the way: Bayfield; Detroit; Ann Arbor; North Syracuse, New York; Highland Park, Illinois.


Court Charts Path Forward for Generational Commitment to Save Humanity and Earth from Rising Devastating Effects of Climate Change

byzantine-empire-public-land.-trusts

FLOW’s organizing principle is the public trust doctrine.  What sounds like an exotic concept is quite simple.  This centuries-old principle of common law holds that there are some resources, like water and submerged lands, that by their nature cannot be privately owned.  Rather, these commons – including the Great Lakes — belongs to the public.  And governments, like the State of Michigan, have a responsibility to protect public uses of these resources.  We explicitly address public trust concerns on what we’re calling Public Trust Tuesday.


Between 2010 and 2016, several groups of young people filed lawsuits in different regions of the United States, claiming the states and federal government had failed to fulfill their higher duties under their authorized powers to do something about CO2 and greenhouse gases (GHGs) that have fired warming of the planet, extreme weather events—climate change—causing devastating harm to their lives, homes, families, waters, fishing, and communities.  

Federal and state governments stonewalled their efforts, claiming that they could not be compelled to take action because the children did not have a liberty or property interest protected by the Constitution, and that they had no right or interest – standing— to bring a lawsuit.[1]  At first, the government succeeded, and then one or two courts recognized that these children’s lives and interests were threatened, and that climate change was a clear danger if not the cause of serious injuries and damage, and opened the door for litigation. But none of these efforts resulted in a clear recognition that these children, or other people threatened or harmed by climate change induced extreme weather, had a constitutional interest in “liberty” or “property,” or an interest as beneficiaries of a public trust imposed on government to protect vital interests—like drinking water, property and home, and fishing, boating, or farming.

 

A Watershed Moment

Nothing much happened, that is, until Kelsey Cascadia Rose Juliana and other children, through their legal guardian, climate scientist James Hansen, filed suit in the federal court in Portland, Oregon in early 2015.[2] The child plaintiffs charged that the federal government had violated their constitutional and public trust rights – a generational right to non-impairment of their beneficial rights in water and use of water for essential needs based on the public trust doctrine.[3] The children charged that the government and EPA had failed to take sufficient action to stem the harm and dangers of climate change, that the window for action to prevent increasing catastrophe was short, and requested an order from the court to compel the government to develop and implement a comprehensive plan to reduce CO2 and effects of climate change.

Once more, the federal government, joined by intervening industry organizations, moved the court to toss the suit because there was no legal precedent for these claims, and even if they existed, the children lacked standing or any real interest to protect, and that the students were interfering with the exercise of political discretion left to the government. In sum, the government argued the claims even if real were not the students’ business or the stuff that courts should decide.

But this time, the federal government lost. The magistrate ruled that the children had stated facts, endangerment, and harms sufficient for the early phases of the suit to proceed.[4] But government and industry, now threatened by the suit, filed motions before the federal district judge assigned to the trial of the case. In an enlightened opinion in late 2016, Judge Aikens rejected government and industry contentions, adopted the magistrate’s earlier decision, and ruled that the children plaintiffs had the right to bring the suit. He also ruled that the children had properly stated the critical dangers of climate change, the deliberate indifference on the part of the government, and properly claimed a violation of “liberty” under the constitution and the government’s high duty under the public trust doctrine to protect the children’s present and future from threats of rising oceans and impairment of the nation’s waters.[5] 

Judge Aikens considered the threat to the children was real, had already caused serious damage, and posed imminent danger to them and humanity in the near future. Exercising what he considered the traditional role of the courts, because the judiciary can’t ignore a “wholesale failure” that unchecked would result in a “collapse” of humanity. Judge Aikens ordered the parties to prepare for a trial that would determine the basis of climate science, the children’s claims, and apply the law and Constitution.

 

Hurricanes Harvey and Maria

More recently, Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and Hurricane Harvey, and the raging fires in California, have jolted us into the realization that global warming and extreme and increasingly chronic effects have caused and are causing devastating and chronic harms and interference with communities, property, and water. To list a few, rising sea levels wreaking havoc in coastal cities, flooding, drought and heat and fires, endangered public health, shut off of public services and water systems, landslides and other damage to property and lives.

Closer to home, in the Great Lakes region, including Michigan, we’ve seen climate change effects exacerbate and foster algal blooms that have shut down Toledo’s drinking water for 400,000 people, and more in Monroe, Michigan. We’ve seen extreme rainfall events overwhelming stormwater controls and drains, resulting in sewage overflows and serious flooding.

In the last century, some courts still held fast to the idea that the air was the atmosphere, lakes and streams were surface waters, and the water beneath our feet—groundwater—was simply “out of sight, out of mind.” In the last 30 years, hydrogeological and weather scientists have made one thing clear: We live in a water cycle, the hydrosphere, where every arc of the water cycle is connected to the others. The arc of precipitation falls to the earth; the arc of runoff flows over the land surface to drains, gullies, and into creeks, streams, rivers, and lakes. The water percolates into the earth and forms aquifers—water sources—and groundwater, another arc, which then discharges through seeps, springs to form creeks, streams, rivers, and lakes. Then, these surface waters flow to the ocean. From the arc of evaporation—from the surfaces of vegetation and water bodies, transfers water into the atmosphere. In the atmosphere, water is diverted into the arc of the air or our hydrosphere, in the form of concentrated “rivers” and “lakes” of moisture and water. 

Climate change is not just an air pollution question, it is also a water question– hydrosphere—climate change directly affects the hydrology and movement of water in every arc of the water cycle, and interferes with and impairs water, land, homes, community, and people everywhere. The effect of climate change on water and earth and life dispel any doubt that we and everything else are inextricably connected by the flow and movement of every arc of the water cycle.

Yet despite efforts to do something about climate and water and to become more resilient to live as best we can with the coming changes and impacts from climate change, the federal government continued to drag its feet.  The federal government was forced and prodded by the federal courts to treat CO2 as a “pollutant” under the Clean Air Act, but our current President has thumbed his nose at climate change rules and denounced the Paris Climate agreement. It is not unreasonable to conclude there has been a deliberate indifference on the part of governments and industries to reduce the rising dangers and imminent threat to millions of people, water and the hydrosphere.

 

Constitutional Rights and the Public Trust in Water

In 2011, For Love of Water (FLOW) and the Council of Canadians (Canadians) filed a formal report and request with the International Joint Commission (IJC) to recognize the legal interest of citizens and the duties of both countries and state governments to protect water quality, flows, levels, and its protected uses that citizens rely on for their lives, sustenance, and livelihood based on the public trust doctrine. The public trust is a well-established ancient principle that protects navigable waters and the rights of fishing, navigation, drinking water, swimming, bathing, and sustenance. Because current laws and the governments’ ability to address increasing systemic threats to the Great Lakes and all tributary waters–like algal blooms, Asian Carp, rises and drops in water levels from extreme weather, toxic chemicals, and algal blooms from nutrients and climate– FLOW and the Canadians asked the IJC to recognize the public trust doctrine, and urge governments to fulfill their duties as trustees of these waters and public trust natural resources. After supplemental reports and considerations, the IJC issued a report in 2016 that recommended the public trust as a “backstop” to fill the gaps and limitations of existing laws and efforts.

At about the same time, Michael Blumm at Northwest Law School in Portland and Mary Christina Woods at University of Oregon pioneered claims that the public trust doctrine should be applied to the atmosphere in order to force governments to drastically reduce CO2 and GHGs.[6] 

Even without extending the public trust doctrine to protect the atmosphere, FLOW argued that because the arcs of the water cycle formed a single hydrological system—hydrosphere– the traditional application of the public trust doctrine to navigable waters could be used as a basis to reduce CO2 and GHGs, because the effects on the hydrosphere had a direct effect on streams, lakes, and the oceans, and impaired if not destroyed fishing, drinking water, and other life-sustaining public trust uses.[7]  Judge Aikens followed similar reasoning in accepting the children’s public trust claim in the Juliana suit.[8]

 

Trump Administration Climate Change-Deniers Try to Torpedo the Children’s Trust Lawsuit

In a last-ditch effort to avoid a trial over the children’s climate change suit, newly appointed federal officials and their lawyers looked for a way to deep-six the Juliana lawsuit before federal district court Judge Aikens. Justice Department lawyers filed an unorthodox request with a federal court of appeals to take over control of Judge Aikens’ handling of the lawsuit, and peremptorily dismiss the case. But the Seattle federal appeals court slapped down the federal government’s bid, ruling that their attempted appeal was a “drastic remedy” on the claims brought by the children because the issues would “be better addressed through the ordinary course of litigation.”[9]

Commentators everywhere exclaimed that the appeals court ruling affirmed the federal district court that the children could proceed and signaled a landmark ruling on the science and causation of greenhouse gases and climate change. In a classic traditional role, the courts– our third branch of government—have stepped in to interpret what the law is to remedy the unjust deliberate indifference of government and climate deniers. Since Juliana and twenty-one other children filed their suit in 2015, the cities of New York and San Francisco filed suits against Chevron, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips and Royal Dutch Shell to pay for the damage and infrastructure needed to combat climate caused by the sale and burning of fossil fuels. Like in the lawsuits against the tobacco industry, the fossil fuel industry has known fossil fuels have heated the climate beyond acceptable levels and endangered cities, water, and the planet. And like the tobacco industry, they’ve done what they can to foster denial and obstruction to the required shift to renewable energy and rapid reduction of CO2 and greenhouse gases.

Jim Olson, President and Founder

In a way, climate change denial by government and industry is reminiscent of the Scope’s trial, fictionalized by Spencer Tracy as Darrow and Frederick March as Bryant in the 1960s movie Inherit the Wind. But the passion of Bryant was based on a genuine belief in the deeper role the Genesis story in defining the human’s place in a world created by God. The coming climate change trials are not so much a denial of science or genuine passion of belief, but a corporate defense of a fossil-fuel grip on the economy, to protect a financial empire that is causing damage and a growing danger of the collapse of humanity with a shorter and shorter period to do anything about it.

Postscript:

Congratulations to lead attorney in Juliana v U.S., Julia Olson (no relation), and Professors Michael Blum (Northwest School of Law, Lewis and Clark, Portland) and Christina Woods (University of Oregon, Eugene), and so many others. Is there any question that the effects of intense storms on the people of Puerto Rico and Houston or the raging fires in California are attributable to climate change? The Children, their lawyers, scientists, and so many organizations and people are bringing justice to those injured by breach of government affirmative duties to protect water, atmosphere, life, and the public trust.  We are grateful. The public trust in water and our hydrosphere are the heart of our mission and work. www.flowforwater.org. Join us, read up on background articles, and share. The time for mitigating climate change effects is short.


[1] E.g. Alec L. v. Jackson, 853 F Supp. 2d 11 (D.D.C. 2012).

[2] Juliana et al. v. United States, 2016 WL 183903 (Magistrate., Ore. D. Ct., Order, Jan. 14, 2016).

[3] The public trust doctrine imposes a “solemn” duty on governments, as trustees, to protect certain waters—oceans or inland lakes and streams of the state, or their tributaries, from impairment or from interference with boating, fishing, swimming, bathing, drinking, navigation and other public uses of these waters. See Illinois Central R Rd. v Illinois, 146 U.S. 387 (1892); Joseph Sax, The Public Trust Doctrine in Natural Resources Law: Effective Judicial Intervention, 68 Mich L. Rev. 471 (1970); James Olson, All Aboard: Navigating a Course for Universal Adoption of the Public Trust Doctrine; 15 Vermont J. Env. L. 135 (2014); see generally, Flow for Love of Water, a Great Lakes law and policy center dedicated to the preservation of citizens public trust in water and nature. www.flowforwater.org.

[4] Juliana v U.S., supra, 2016 WL 183903.

[5] Juliana v. U.S., 217 F Supp. 3d 1224 (2016).

[6] See Mary Christina Woods, Nature’s Trust (Cambridge Univ. Press 2013).

[7] James Olson and Elizabeth Kirkwood, FLOW Report to International Joint Commission on “Draft International Joint Commission 10-Year Review on Protection of the Waters of the Great Lakes Basin,” (June 30, 2015).

[8] Juliana, supra, 217 F Supp. at 1275.

[9] United States v U.S. Dist. Court, 2018 U.S. App. Lexis 5770 (9th Cir., Mar. 7,  2018); “We’ll See You in Court: Kids Climate Moves Forward After Judge Denies Trump,” www.ecowatch.com/kids-climate-lasuit-trial-2544414443.html. Mar. 11, 2018.