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.