FLOW’s Pioneering Work on Right to Water, Commons and Public Trust Join the Mainstream

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The launch of FLOW’s new website comes at the same time FLOW’s work (beginning back in 2009 when Terry Swier, President of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, my brother Eric Olson, Ted Curran, and a few others, saw the need to educate leaders and the public on the overarching  principle known as the public trust doctrine)  has been recognized by the most highly regarded body in the Great Lakes Basin—the International Joint Commission.  As part of a 15-year review of its efforts to protect the waters of the Great Lakes Basin, in January of this year, the IJC issued a landmark recommendation that the states, provinces, and countries implement the public trust framework as a “backdrop principle” to safeguard the integrity of the Great Lakes in the 21st century.   The launch also comes at the end of the second year of teaching the new water and sustainability course at Northwestern Michigan College’s Water Studies Institute.   This past week, the students heard a wrap-up lecture on the unifying principle of the course and water policy in the future—the framework for problem solving under the commons and public trust doctrine in water.[1]

What does this mean?  It means that FLOW’s vision, work,  and our supporters are at the forefront of efforts to educate and help leaders, citizens, businesses, and our communities address the systemic threats that face the Great Lakes region – and beyond—including climate change and water levels, invasive species, algal blooms, diversions and excessive and wasteful losses of water, exports, intensive aquaculture farming on the surface of public trust waters, and crude oil transport in, over, or near the Great Lakes. As highlighted by the IJC in a recent public opinion poll, fully eighty-five percent of citizens in the Basin put their concern for the Great Lakes at the top of their list – that’s 34 million out of the 40 million people who live in the Basin.  But the problem is we need to understand what we can do about the systemic threats to the Basin, and what principles will lead us there.  At FLOW we think the most fundamental principle is the public trust doctrine.

What is the public trust doctrine?

The public trust doctrine (as recounted by Traverse Magazine’s editor Jeff Smith in an article on FLOW’s pioneering work when he created the by-line name for this BLOG – H2Olson) is a background principle connected to the Great Lakes and other bodies of water.  It holds that these waters are held by the state as trustee and must be managed and protected for the benefit of the legal beneficiaries of this public trust – the 40 million citizens in the Great Lakes Basin.  It imposes a legally enforceable duty on government and leaders to affirmatively and perpetually take action to prevent harm or impairment to these waters, their ecosystem and public uses that depend on them – navigation, fishing, boating, swimming, drinking water, and sustenance.  It prohibits any person or entity – public or private – to enclose or transfer these waters for a primarily private purpose – these waters are held for the public. It means no public or private person can measurably impair the integrity of the quality and quantity of these waters from one generation to the next.  It means all of us share, collectively and individually, a right to water as beneficiaries of this trust.

Why public trust principles?

Before the victorious court decision curtailing Nestlé’s bottled water exports from Michigan, the common law prohibited diversions or exports that diminished the flow or level of a lake or stream.—this means the very heart or integrity of a stream or lake cannot be impaired.   After the decision, this “non-diminishment” standard was weakened in favor of a “substantial harm” test that arguably would allow water exports, diversions and losses from the waters of the Great Lakes.  In effect, the court left the door open for foreign and domestic interests outside the Basin to claim the right to divert or use large quantities of water, and if challenged, potentially seek damages or other relief in private tribunals under the auspices of NAFTA or other trade agreements – possibly even the recent TPP.  Moreover, the Great Lakes Compact diversion ban left the door open for water prospectors to package raw water in any sized container (not just bottles) and ship water out of the Basin as a “product.”  The Compact also exempted diversions for public water supplies in communities that straddle the Basin, like the ongoing controversy over Waukesha, Wisconsin’s request for water  that looks more like a plan to grow communities outside the basin that meet current public need for water.   These and other events have sounded the horn for caution and action.

FLOW’s public trust vision converges with the human shift toward saving and promoting the “common good.”

In 2011, FLOW convened a conference to address systemic threats to the Great Lakes that fall outside water laws from the 20th century.  In 2012, FLOW with the Council of Canadians presented an in-depth study to the International Joint Commission, a binational body charged under a 1909 treaty to protect the Great Lakes.  The study urged the IJC to adopt a new overarching principle based on the ancient pubic trust doctrine:  This doctrine charges government, as trustee for citizen-beneficiaries, with a perpetual duty to prevent impairment or private control of water, as a commons, from one generation to the next.

From 2013 through 2015, FLOW submitted additional reports with the IJC and other governments to demonstrate how this this game-changing principle would address threats to water as a commons and human right. FLOW launched public presentations, a new water policy course with Northwestern Michigan College, and recommended solutions to address algal blooms, extreme water levels, climate change, invasive species, and recent scientific and policy reports that called for removal of oil in a pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac.

Since 2011, we’ve witnessed massive algal blooms shut down Toledo and Monroe’s water supplies and destroy fishing in Lake Huron.  We’ve seen law and high swings in water levels exacerbated by climate change effects.  We’ve seen the shut-offs of water  that services thousands of  Detroit residents and families, the Flint water crisis and exposure of thousands of innocent children and people to lead poisoning.   We see continuing in action on the time-bomb of shipping crude oil in or near the Straits or other waters of the Basin.  We see efforts to legalize private occupancy of acres of public waters and bottomlands of the Great Lakes to operate concentrated fish farms, when farming belongs on land and the surface of the Great Lakes belongs to the public.

In summer 2015, FLOW submitted a report on the IJC’s 15-year review of protecting the Great Lakes.  FLOW demonstrated how public trust principles would act as a backstop against known and unknown threats to the Great Lakes.  In January, 2016, FLOW’s work took a giant step forward.  As noted at the outset, the IJC issued a landmark recommendation that the states, provinces, and countries implement the public trust framework as a “backdrop principle” to safeguard the integrity of the Great Lakes!

Recently, in his encyclical letter on climate and our earth’s predicament, Pope Francis captured the awareness and reality of a world faced with massive loss of water, soil, and social and economic injustice.  He pointed out two ethical principles: Protect the common good and do so from one generation to the next.   All other endeavor, including economic, must honor and respect these principles.

What we are excited about at FLOW is, we find ourselves lockstep with the solutions to crises and threats to water here and elsewhere because the public trust doctrine in water brings legal principle to ethical principles to  promote the common good.

[1] For those readers who want to gain a general understanding of FLOW’s work and the commons and public trust framework,  watch the wrap-up lecture and discussion at the NMC’s WSI 230 water and sustainability class. https://ensemble.nmc.edu/Watch/Xa45Sfy9

 

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