The Public Trust Doctrine Percolates into State Courts, Legislators, and Commissions to Protect Groundwater, Streams, Lakes, Economies and Quality of Life

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“Water Justice Flows Like Water.”[1]

 

Law professor Sprout D. Kapua’ala, borrowing from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I’ve Been to the Mountaintop speech in 1968 (“justice rolling down like waters”), captures decades of conflict over the streams and waters of Hawai’i, siphoned and dried from a century of withdrawals and diversion ditches cut across the landscape for corporate massive production of sugar and fruit exports. This unbridled exploitation of Hawai’i water has distressed stream and wetland ecosystems and overwhelmed native and public water uses, including the native rights to small-scale Kalo cultivation, gathering, and citizen rights to fishing, swimming, drinking water, and recreation protected by the public trust doctrine. 

For the past two decades, the Hawai’i Supreme Court has faced head on the collision between the near total loss of the Makapipi and East Maui rivers because of numerous ditches across the land to transport water for corporate sugar. In 2000, the Court ruled that state water board decisions that allowed water diversions for large corporate farming were subject to the public trust doctrine under the Hawai’i constitution and common law.[2] The court ruled that under the public trust doctrine, basic stream flows had to be maintained to protect public trust uses, such as small-scale native farming, fishing, and drinking water. Scientists and citizens recognized that small-scale cultivation of Kalo requires steady flows of groundwater and streams, and in turn the native production and uses of water sustain culture and communities. Since the Court’s Waihole I decision in 2000, the public trust doctrine has been applied to the state water board and even the land use and zoning boards of municipalities to protect drinking water and other public trust uses from land and water intensive development. [3]

As a result, the legislature passed laws requiring designation of groundwater aquifers or streams for special protection of flows and levels to support public trust protected uses. Native, environmental, and community organizations joined together to petition a state water board to declare groundwater and streams subject to special public trust protection through maintaining stream flows or groundwater migration and levels. Large corporate farming and other interests contested these designations. The Court continued to respond by recognizing and upholding at least minimum flows and levels of freshwater sources, balancing public uses against large volume water diversion and use for farming and development.[4]

Our mission at FLOW, as most of you may know, is to seek adoption of the public trust doctrine principles in every state and beyond. The primary principles under the public trust doctrine are: promotion of a public purpose, such as a public drinking water supply, fish restoration, or public beach access, and non-impairment of water, ecosystems, and public trust uses, such as those mentioned above. A universal understanding and application of public trust principles offers a way out of the world water crisis, which is worsening every day as a result of global warming, pollution, waste and abuse of water resources, increased population and demand for food and clean, safe water. Irrigation and water diversions for agriculture account for 70 percent of human use of fresh groundwater, lakes, and streams, industrial and steam-generated electricity another 20 percent, and municipal and residential use the remaining 10 percent. Massive diversions of water across continents have become too expensive and disruptive to sustain any longer.

Future survival, economies, and quality of life will require sustainable practices with a primary goal of assuring the integrity of flows and levels within each watershed and region of a country. Public trust principles impose limits on exploitation of flows and levels, or private subordination of protected public trust uses. If we understand that water is a commons owned or held by each state as sovereign for the benefit of people and the overarching public interest, and apply these principles, we will make very good decisions about human survival, environment, economy, jobs, and quality of life.

 

Recent Developments

In the last two weeks, the realization and importance of the public trust doctrine has come home to ordinary citizens in Hawaii. The relationship of public trust to groundwater and public water uses has been percolating in the legislatures and courts of Vermont, Arizona, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Rhode Island, as well as South Africa, Pakistan, and India. Massive groundwater withdrawals or land use practices and water diversions like the Colorado River, Chicago diversion from Lake Michigan, the loss of the Aral Sea in Russia, or Yangtze in China, that impair public trust waters and drinking water, fishing, swimming, or other important uses are subject to public trust principles that prevent privatization and impairment.  The public trust does not prohibit industrial or agricultural withdrawals, or the privatization, diversion and sale of water, but it subjects these uses to an overarching backstop framework[5] that assures and sustains the flows, levels, and underlying uses of water, both human, environmental, and businesses, within watersheds and communities.

On June 20, 2018, in a historic decision, the Hawai’i Commission on Water Resources Management ruled that stream flows must be restored in the Makapipi and East Maui rivers, which will require the closing of several irrigation diversion ditches and significant limitations on others. [6]The corporate holding company, Alexander and Baldwin, of Hawaiian Commercial Sugar, argued for diversified agriculture and planning for water use for its land holdings. The Water Commission came down on the side of local, public trust uses by restoring stream flows diverted for more than a century.  Going forward, Hawaii companies, municipalities, and land developers must look at limiting water uses to sustain the basic water uses assured all people under the constitution and public trust doctrine.

What does this mean for the waters of the Great Lakes basin, the waters of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin (and two Canadian provinces)?  We have significant protection of waters of the basin from diversion under the Great Lakes Compact diversion ban. Recent large-volume diversions of Lake Michigan to Waukesha and now approved for the Foxconn complex outside the basin show there are gaps or loopholes. The MDEQ in Michigan approved diversion of another 210 million gallons a year from the headwaters of two cold water trout streams for Nestlé’s bottled water export operations; this, too, was under a “bottled water” exception in the Compact and Michigan law.  The same MDEQ just permitted the loss of 600 million gallons of water near a wetlands, creek and lake to mine potash, even though it is widely available elsewhere. The Michigan legislature just passed a law signed by Governor Snyder to circumvent water standards and public permit proceedings that would safeguard streams, lakes, and groundwater from excessive withdrawals and water loss for large corporate farms growing corn and crops for biofuels and other industries.  To put things in a global perspective, Saudi Arabia, China, India and other water-scarce, industrial, high-population countries are buying millions of acres of land in water and soil rich countries, like Brazil and the United States, to use large volumes of water here to export food to their people at home, because they don’t have the water or want to use the water they do have for continued development and industrial growth. How will these competing, high demands for water play out in watersheds, streams, rivers, lakes, wetlands or domestic farming, drinking water, and protection of fishing, local land uses and development?

The Hawaiian experience is fertile well-watered ground for those of us in Michigan, the Great Lakes, or elsewhere, to understand the importance of water, stream flows, levels, and watersheds to our own environment, heritage, economy, and culture. The place to start is fashioning a well-crafted, clear, concise statement for protection of the public trust in our waters where we live and survive. The sooner we do this, the sooner we will be prepared to withstand the coming global, regional, and local conflicts over water. If we fail to do this, citizens, cities and towns, farming, and tourism or recreation like fishing, swimming, boating, and even golfing will be subordinated to unpredictable, thirsty, large private and international interests.

Jim Olson, President and Founder

Putting public trust principles at work now, by simple, articulate laws or constitutional provisions will provide the protection we need. We will not lock up our water, but we will assure its sustainability in our rural, urban, and regional Great Lakes watersheds and communities. Our life and livelihoods here in Michigan and the Great Lakes depend on the integrity of flow and levels of our groundwater and streams.


[1] Sproat, D Kapua’ala, Water Justice Flows Like Water: The Moon Court’s Role in Illuminating Hawai’i Water Law, 33 Univ. Hawai’i L. Rev 537.

[2] In Re Water Use Applications (Waihole I), 94 Hawai’i 97 (2000).

[3]  Waihole II, 105 Haw. 1 (2004); In re Kukui (Molaka’i), 116 Haw. 481 (2007).

[4]  Id.

[5] Protection of the Great Lakes: 15-Year Review (International Joint Commission, Jan. 2016).

[6] Petition to Amend Interim Instream Flow Standards for Honopou et al., State of Hawaii, Commission on Water Resource Management, Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, & Decision and Order, Case No. CCH-MA13-01, June 20, 2018 (300 pps.).

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