Tag: water rights

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

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

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

By Jim Olson

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

And there’s no end in sight.

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

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

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 The waters delivered by the City of Detroit’s Water Board are withdrawn, treated, distributed, collected, treated as sewage, and returned to Lake Huron and the Detroit River.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sign of the Times: Toledo Voters Pass Bill of Rights for Lake Erie

Above: A Summer day on western Lake Eire


A lake, river, creek, parkland, wilderness, or canopy of redwoods or old sugar maples can’t walk to the courthouse to file lawsuits to protect their right to be free from harm, nor can they walk into a precinct and vote. Come to think of it, neither can children who will inherit the earth in the shape we leave it. For children, we have a system to appoint guardians who represent their best interests and even go to court when it is necessary to protect them.

As for the lakes and trees, after the first Earth Day in 1970, our legislators passed laws—including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and Safe Drinking Water Act—to protect the environment. Several states enacted “citizen suit” laws that granted rights to citizens to file lawsuits to protect the air, water, and natural resources. Then, after University of Michigan Professor Joe Sax’s law review article, air, water, wildlife, and public lands of a special character were understood to be held in trust by government for the benefit and basic needs of citizens. It’s called the public trust doctrine. When it comes to navigable waters like Lake Erie, the Great Lakes or any lake or stream, the government must act in the best interests of citizens, the legal beneficiaries of the trust.

Holy Toledo! The Frustration!

So what happened? Why, nearly 50 years after Congress and the states passed a wave of environmental laws, did the residents of Toledo, Ohio have to go to the ballot box to confer rights on Lake Erie? 

In a word—frustration!

Anger and indignation at the health threats and the loss of swimming, beach access, fishing, and other recreation drove voters to take action. They were frustrated by the loss of a right each of us has in common and shares with one another. Loss of respect and faith in government leaders in Columbus, Ohio and Washington, D.C.

In short, the government abdicated its sovereign duty—meaning our leaders stopped doing the job the law imposed on them. Today, governments have not only stopped doing what they are supposed to do, they have attacked these laws limiting a citizen’s standing or right to bring a lawsuit to enforce the duties and protect air, water, the common good. The recent rollbacks of our air and water laws and wetlands protection, deliberate indifference to climate change, and the cutting of budgets reject protection of environment, health, and the common good. In Michigan, for example, legislators and the recently departed Snyder administration flagrantly disregarded or twisted the meaning of water and public trust laws to allow bottled water companies to rob headwater creeks of cold water and passed a law to turn over control of the bottomlands under the Straits of Mackinac for 99 years for a crude oil pipeline.

The dead zones of Lake Erie are perhaps the most glaring example of the government and corporate attack on water, environment, and the common good. The people of Toledo, Ohioans, Michiganders, and Great Lakes communities and citizens have witnessed toxic “blooms” of harmful algae smother the western-third of Lake Erie. These harmful algal blooms from farm runoff started to show up a decade ago, and the Ohio government did nothing. Five years ago, a harmful bloom turned most of the west end of Lake Erie into a slimy mat of green, destroying aquatic life, killing fish, poisoning and shutting off the drinking water of 400,000 people, and closing beaches. Despite the annual recurrence of these blooms, no real action by government is in sight.

Well, not exactly no action

Ohio and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) could have declared the lake “impaired” to start the ball rolling toward action that would have set a phosphorous limit to end the blooms, but they refused to do so. It took a lawsuit by the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago to force a showdown. Ohio and EPA quickly blinked, and conceded that the lake was “impaired,” a shameful admission since it had been quite obvious to anyone living on the lake in Toledo or watching a pea-green Lake Erie from satellite photographs. While this was a “victory” of sorts, it has only triggered a regulatory process that could take years, if it succeeds at all.

Toledo is a Telltale Sign

On February 26, 2019, less than a month ago, the voters of Toledo blew into the voting booth and won—61 percent to 39 percent—and adopted a new local law, a “Lake Erie Bill of Rights” to prohibit activities and projects that threaten or harm Lake Erie!

Is it legal? Maybe. Will it work? Maybe, maybe not. Does that matter? No.

What matters is that in northwestern Ohio, in the year 2019, almost 50 years after Earth Day, citizens from all walks of life and backgrounds have said: Enough! We’re doing it ourselves, and not only for ourselves, but for the things in nature we hold dear, depend on for jobs, health, and life.

Citizens everywhere are taking action against the attack on the common good and the dignity of human beings and our water, air, and community—the vote in Toledo, protests against Amazon’s government-backed subordination of the needs of citizens in New York, and the children’s movement across the globe to stem the deadly future of global warming that threatens to destroy the fabric of their life in less than 30 years.

Toledo is a cry for change, and a harbinger of the coming cultural and political revolution where ordinary people and communities facing climate change and other systemic threats to water, water shutoffs, and lead pipe exposures can rally to break the grip of a government-led plutocracy that puts wealth first and people and their planet last. Toledo is a telltale of not only political change but a shift in the very way we see ourselves and our community, environment, and nature — no longer objects, but living in relationship as part of the common good.

Symbolism, Standing, and Redress

While the vote for Lake Erie’s rights is culturally inspirational, from a purely legal or legal policy standpoint, it doesn’t change the basic reality that only the courts under the common law or people and/or legislatures by constitutional or statutory provisions can declare and grant legal rights in nature, Lake Erie, a river, or trees—first, of standing based on actual, or threat of, harm to a recognized right or interest, and second, of a legal claim that can redress the wrong. A city may do so, by an amendment to a charter, for example, and it may satisfy the first, at least within its boundaries, as to the right threatened and standing, but there are limits outside its own boundaries what it can affect or do. 

I suppose a person in the city, once the amendment is adopted, can point to the right and file a lawsuit in the name of the natural living feature, like Lake Erie, and a court may or may not recognize standing of the object, protected by citizens filing suit on its behalf. However, it is doubtful that a cause of action or claim can be created, because that is left to courts and legislatures as noted above. So at best, it may establish standing, at least for the rights of nature, within the municipal boundaries of Toledo. But this does not mean from a cultural, educational, and advocacy viewpoint the rights of nature are not important. I think they are.

Recognizing Rights, and Ourselves, in Nature

Here’s why: With the recognition of rights in nature, people see a relationship between themselves and nature, both connected and worthy of protection as “beings” or a life form. When this happens, they are more likely to protect that relationship when it is harmed or threatened with harm. Courts or legislatures are more likely to be receptive and understand this, too, and therefore articulate new laws or pass constitutional provisions that declare rights, protection, and enforcement where there is a violation of the duty to protect or sustain.

Perhaps equally important, if not more so, people will become more likely to look for ways they can bring civil actions to protect those new “rights in nature” by a local initiative or law or court action. 

When citizens do this, they will discover the following: There already exists, in the common law, the public trust doctrine that applies to all navigable waters and arguably all waters and the human activity within a watershed that affect those waters—uses or impacts to land (like nutrient loading from farming) that percolate or runoff into creeks that, in turn, impair or pollute navigable waters like Lake Erie that are subject to the public trust doctrine. Under the public trust doctrine, citizens as legal beneficiaries have a legal right, standing, and right to file lawsuits against government when it fails in its legal duty as trustee to protect these waters and the health of citizens from impairment by private or governmental interests.

The claim exists directly against those who damage the public trust waters and resources and/or interfere with legally protected interests and uses like boating, navigation, fishing, swimming, beach access and walking, and drinking water. There are numerous cases where citizens have protected natural features through public trust cases. The most visible examples are the beach-walking cases and, more recently, the children’s trust cases, like the federal lower court decisions in Juliana v United States: The court recognized the children’s right to proceed to trial on a public trust claim to force the government to reduce greenhouse gases to prevent impairment of their rights to drinking water, sustenance, fishing, and health attributable to climate change.

Michigan, Ohio, and the Public Trust

In Michigan, the legislature in 1970 passed the Michigan Environmental Protection Act (“MEPA”). The MEPA established the right of citizens to bring civil suits against those who pollute, impair, or destroy the air, water, and natural resources or the public trust in those resources. The new law created a claim to protect the commons—air, water, and natural resources—similar to the public trust doctrine. Because these claims already exist, the declaration of rights in Lake Erie of nature can be seen as the inspiration for this new cultural shift to restore the common good above private self-interests of a few through citizen-initiated actions.

Now that Lake Erie is officially impaired and the people of Toledo have spoken through their constitutional right of local government initiatives, the people won’t wait, don’t have to wait, for government to eventually get around to putting an end to nutrient runoff. They have the right and means to file lawsuits under the existing public trust doctrine and take other actions to put teeth into the cry and realization that they’ve had enough.

How? The public trust doctrine offers present rights and claims to stop the impairment of Lake Erie, based on their respective and enforceable “non-impairment” standards. Once there is “impairment,” the public trust doctrine has been violated, and citizens have the legal right to bring actions to stop the runoff—against government and those who are causing the algal blooms. Up the coast, in Michigan, citizens who have had enough can bring citizen suits under the MEPA. Now that people have articulated their relationship with the rights of Lake Erie, they can turn to those rights they already have to protect Lake Erie and the nature they know, care about, and depend on.

A Flag to Rally Around

In short, the rights in nature or Lake Erie are a flag to rally around, a symbol of our relationship and respect for natural features and the links to those features and our own health and well-being. The public trust doctrine already provides the standing, claim, and remedy. This means citizens can take action now based on established legal claims and principles, rather than wait for the uncertain and somewhat difficult prospect of turning an important cultural recognition and inspiration by the citizens in and near Ohio on the shores of Lake Erie into action that actually restores and revitalizes Lake Erie.

Jim Olson, President and Founder

It seems that people everywhere are coming to the realization that nature—lakes, rivers, wetlands, trees, prairies, and mountains have a beingness, which means we are moving from perceiving nature as an “object” or “resources” toward seeing them as a relationship or public trust – one in which there is not only a right to protect, but a perpetual duty to do so, meaning we are entering a new era of enforcing rights and duties, and demanding respect for the dignity of nature, community, and ourselves. This is no longer an environmental rights movement. It is the recognition that seeing and saving nature, on which all life depends, is a necessity for all of us.


The Public Trust Doctrine and the Implications of the Walker Lake Litigation

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, this 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.


An upcoming decision by the Supreme Court of Nevada may have major implications on the public trust doctrine’s ability to protect the public’s water resources.

The Walker River Basin is over 4,000 square miles and stretches from the Sierra Nevada Mountains to its terminus, Walker Lake.[1] Walker Lake is located in Mineral County, Nevada and is roughly thirteen miles long and over five miles wide.[2] The lake is primarily fed by the Walker River, which flows sixty-two miles from California to its mouth on Walker Lake. Unfortunately, Walker Lake has seen a massive decrease in water levels since the state of Nevada started allocating water rights from the Walker River to farmers and ranchers upstream. These water diversions have been so impactful that they have caused the Walker River to run dry before reaching the lake for an almost continuous ten-year period.[3] Reminiscent of Russia’s massive draining of the Aral Sea, since irrigation began on the Walker River, the lake has lost approximately 171 vertical feet of water and is now one third the size it once was.[4]

Not surprisingly, the dramatic decrease in water levels to Walker Lake has also led to significant water quality issues. The lake’s impaired water quality threatens native fish species as well as several bird species that use the lake as a resting stop along their migratory journeys.[5] The diminished water quality of the lake has also affected recreation activities such as boating, swimming, and of course fishing. To help restore Walker Lake, Mineral County has intervened in on-going litigation to challenge previous allocated water rights of farmers and ranchers from the Walker River.

This litigation revolves around a prior appropriation battle that has been on-going since 1924. A previous 1909 court case created the “Rickey decree,” which allocated water rights from the Walker River to over 150 different users.[6] In 1924, the Walker River Paiute Tribe and the United States sued the Walker River Irrigation District (“WRID”) to win recognition of the Tribe’s right to additional water rights from the Walker River.[7] Mineral County has now intervened to win recognition of the rights of its citizens under a legal theory known as the public trust doctrine.  

The public trust doctrine is a common law doctrine that dates back to Roman law. The public trust doctrine provides that sovereign states hold “all of [their] navigable waterways and the lands lying beneath them ‘as trustee of a public trust for the benefit of the people.’ ”[8] This principle has been affirmed by the Supreme Court of the United States for over a century, and has been applied not only to navigable waters, but also to tributaries and ground water aquifers that feed navigable waters.[9]

Even though the public trust doctrine has been firmly established in the United States, how the public trust doctrine interacts with the Western United States prior appropriation system of water rights is still being navigated. Under the prior appropriation system, which is commonly found in the arid Western United States, water rights are generally allocated based on a “first come, first serve” system. In neighboring California which also recognizes prior appropriation and riparian law, the Supreme Court of California held in the seminal 1983 Mono Lake case that the public trust doctrine creates an affirmative duty for the state to take the public trust into account when planning or allocating water resources, and to protect public trust uses (such as swimming, boating, and fishing) whenever feasible.”[10] The Supreme Court of California further went on to hold that the prior allocated water rights out of Mono Lake are still subject to the public trust doctrine, and as such must comply with the public trust duties of the state.

The question of how the public trust interacts with previously appropriated water rights is still unanswered by the courts in Nevada. Nonetheless, the public trust in water resources is generally recognized as paramount to private use of water. A linchpin of the Supreme Court of California’s decision to protect Mono Lake from excessive upstream water diversions was the irrevocable nature of the public trust doctrine and the duties of the state as trustee of Mono Lake. The discovered harm to public trust waters and dependent water resources and uses substantiated the Court’s authority to limit previously appropriated water rights to protect the public trust. Mineral County’s challenge to previously allocated water rights from the Walker River is therefore dependent whether the Supreme Court of Nevada’s will follow the Supreme Court of California and rule that the public trust doctrine is paramount to prior allocated water rights in Nevada. 

If the Supreme Court of Nevada does indeed follow its neighbor to the west, the state of Nevada must fulfill a duty to continually supervise the taking and use of appropriated water rights. Nevada would not be confined to prior allocated water rights, but rather would evaluate these previously allocated water rights to ensure that such rights do not negatively affect the public’s interest in the water resources of Nevada. It is a hard task to balance the needs of farmers and ranchers with the public’s interest in restoring Walker Lake. However, Nevada must resolve this complex question of how to best manage these perpetual competing interests in its freshwater resources for future water security.

To ensure the long-term sustainability and future of Nevada’s finite fresh water resources, the Supreme Court of Nevada should conclude that the state has an affirmative duty to consider the impacts on public trust resources for both future allocations and maintenance of previously allocated water rights. This conclusion would allow Nevada to restore Walker Lake and more importantly guarantee that the state could effectively manage other public trust resources, so that all citizens of Nevada may always enjoy them. Additionally, a decision from the Supreme Court of Nevada that establishes the public trust doctrine as paramount over prior allocated water rights would likely affect how other courts view future challenges to the public trust doctrine across the West and throughout the United States.

In conclusion, even though the litigation surrounding the devastated Walker Lake is binding only in the state of Nevada, the decisions made in this case surrounding the public trust doctrine have the potential to ripple across the nation. The public trust doctrine allows citizens to hold governments accountable for their decisions concerning our public resources. It is a paramount right that is inalienable and perpetual in nature. The Supreme Court of Nevada must now come to a just conclusion and strengthen our ability as citizens to protect the water and natural resource we so deeply depend on and care about.


[1] United States v. Walker River Irrigation District, No. 3:73-cv-00128-RCJ-WGC, 2015 WL 3439122, *1-10, *1 (9th Cir. May 28, 2015).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Walker Lake Crusaders,  http://www.walkerlakecrusaders.com/ (last visited Jun. 11, 2018)

[5] Staci Emm and Kellie Zuniga, Walker Lake: A snapshot of Water Flow and Water Quality, (2008), https://www.unce.unr.edu/publications/files/nr/2008/fs0808.pdf

[6] Daniel Rothberg, 9th Circuit Ruling on Walker Lake Puts Far-Reaching Water Rights Issue Before Nevada Supreme Court, The Nevada Independent (May 27, 2018).

[7] United States v. Walker River Irrigation District, No. 15-16478, 2018 WL 2306279, at *1-10, 1 (9th Cir. May 22, 2018)

[8]  National Audubon Society v. The Superior Court of Alpine County, 658 P.2d 709, 718 (Cal. 1983)(quoting Colberg, Inc v. Sate of California ex rel. Dept. Pub Works, 432 P.2d 3 (Cal. 1967))

[9] James Olson, All Aboard: Navigating the Course for Universal Adoption of the Public Trust Doctrine, 15 Vt. J. Envtl. L. 361, 401 (2014).

[10] National Audubon Society v. The Superior Court of Alpine County, 658 P.2d at 712.