A Holistic View of the Public Trust Doctrine

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What We Do to the Land, We Do to Our Public Water, the Earth and Livelihood

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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. Today’s thoughts are from FLOW’s founder, Jim Olson.


This winter marks the fourth year of the water policy course at our Water Studies Institute, a two, four, and post-graduate degree program at Northwestern Michigan College. Each year is a cycle, with fresh information, insights and ideas. The approach to this new course is to explore and view water and the risks to water – locally or globally – holistically; that is, to see human behavior and risks in the context of the earth’s water cycle.  The water cycle consists of several arcs that make up the whole– precipitation, runoff, and percolation into and through soil to groundwater, groundwater flow to seeps, wetlands, springs, creeks, streams, lakes, rivers, oceans, evaporation, hydrosphere, condensation, and full cycle to precipitation. If we understand the relationship between human and natural effects and impacts on our hydrological cycle – our water – we can begin to find solutions to the threats to life, earth, people, and communities.

Water runs through every part of our life on this earth. What we do through impact on or use of water affects every arc of the water cycle. If pollutants discharge to groundwater, the groundwater transports the pollutants, like nitrates from fertilizers or pesticides, to streams or lakes, and evaporation lifts some toxic chemicals from pesticides into the atmosphere, then they fall back to earth and to our lakes, streams, and percolate into groundwater somewhere else. Several decades ago, a carcinogen known as toxaphene used on cotton crops in the southeastern U.S. was found on Isle Royale in Lake Superior. PCBs used by the electrical utility industry as a heat retardant in transformers hundreds of miles from where they were used. These chemicals show up in fish, other wildlife, and humans.

As previous public trust articles in this column have artfully noted, our navigable lakes and streams, including our inland seas like the Great Lakes, are owned by each state in a public trust for the benefit of citizens to protect our public rights in these public trust waters for navigation, fishing, swimming, boating, drinking water, and essential sustenance. Under the principles of this public trust doctrine, no one, including our government as trustee has a right to measurably impair or subordinate these preferred public trust uses; nor can government allow another person to privatize these public rights and uses for private gain. If a member of the public wants to fish or canoe in a public trust stream, private landowners along the stream enjoy their shore rights as private landowners, but they cannot interfere with these public uses; nor could a landowner pollute these public waters to the point it impairs these public uses or public health.

In the 1980s, a Wisconsin Supreme Court decision in Just v Marinette County held that wetlands could not be filled or dredged if the activity impaired public trust uses and aquatic resources in an adjacent stream. It was understood that wetlands and lakes or streams were arcs of a whole that were inextricably connected. Not long after, the California Supreme Court decided in what is known as the Mono Lake case that Los Angeles couldn’t divert water for its city water supply from a non-navigable tributary upgradient from the lake, because it impaired the wildlife, aquatic life, and public use and enjoyment of the public trust lake. In other words, an activity upstream that impairs the downstream public trust body of water violates the public trust doctrine as much as if you discharged pollutants or diverted water from a pipe directly from the downstream water.

If human activity including industry, farming, land developments on land or near water harms or impairs downstream public trust waters, is that upstream? And if it violates the public trust, is it a reasonable or lawful use of land?

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, courts in Hawaii, Wisconsin, California, and Vermont have extended the protection of public trust waters to groundwater. The Hawaiian courts viewed groundwater and lakes and streams as inseparable in the same way as the earlier Mono Lake and Just decisions, and declared them to be subject to the duties and rights of protection under the public trust doctrine. Hawaiian farming and development interests could not rob groundwater and lower the levels of streams where it degraded or impaired public trust rights and uses of the stream. In Wisconsin, the state could not permit a town’s groundwater withdrawal without considering and limiting impairment to the public trust uses of an adjacent lake. In Vermont, a landfill could not leach chemicals to groundwater where it is determined it impairs public trust wildlife, fish, or uses.

In the last few years, courts now recognize that there is little difference from a land use that discharges pollutants to or removes water directly from a stream, and a land use that discharges or leaves pollutants on the land, or alters the land through construction that robs water that would otherwise flow to the stream. Hawaiian courts have nullified zoning permits issued to land developers where local governments have failed to consider the effect of the change in land use on adjacent or hydrologically connected public trust streams. Just recently, a court granted citizens the right to intervene in a land use permit proceeding to protect their public trust interests in nearby public trust waters. Last month, here in Michigan, a trial judge in Otsego County recognized that anglers had standing to contest privatization by a private fish farm of the public waters of the Au Sable River.

To come full circle around the water cycle, last fall a federal district court in Oregon in a case called Juliana v United States ruled that children of families whose use and enjoyment of public trust in streams and rivers were or would be impaired from increasingly frequent and more intense storm events or droughts could bring a court action against the federal government for failing to take stronger actions to protect their public trust rights attributable to the U.S. portion of human induced greenhouse gases.

When what we humans do to land, the hydrosphere, groundwater or our lakes and streams impairs our fundamental rights in public trust waters for sustenance, survival, health, safety, fishing, boating, or drinking water, now and for future generations, we are subject to the paramount rights of all citizens and communities protected by the public trust doctrine.

Think about it. Private landowners and their uses of water sit side-by-side with these public uses protected by the public trust doctrine. Both private landowners and the public depend on the common water that runs through and defines their watersheds, livelihood, health, and quality of life. What value does land have if the use of land or water destroys the common waters that sustains the private and public or community uses in a community?

Jim Olson

So what does this mean for us in a city or rural village in the Great Lakes region? It means that collectively we can use the existing framework for local planning and zoning, water and health ordinances, and redesign local or watershed local regulations and infrastructure like water services, roads, development, stromwater and erosion controls. It means that the focal point of this redesign is water centered on a single backstop principle— the public trust in our water commons that calls for protection of water quality and quantity from impairment in each community. If we do this, we will make good decisions in our communities and the world at large about health, food, energy, land use, infrastructure and quality of life for current and future generations.


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What We Do to the Land, We Do to Our Public Water, the Earth and Livelihood