Tag: jim olson

Court Charts Path Forward for Generational Commitment to Save Humanity and Earth from Rising Devastating Effects of Climate Change


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.

Between 2010 and 2016, several groups of young people filed lawsuits in different regions of the United States, claiming the states and federal government had failed to fulfil their higher duties under their authorized powers to do something about CO2 and greenhouse gases (GHGs) that have fired warming of the planet, extreme weather events—climate change—causing devastating harm to their lives, homes, families, waters, fishing, and communities.  

Federal and state governments stonewalled their efforts, claiming that they could not be compelled to take action because the children did not have a liberty or property interest protected by the Constitution, and that they had no right or interest – standing— to bring a lawsuit.[1]  At first, the government succeeded, and then one or two courts recognized that these children’s lives and interests were threatened, and that climate change was a clear danger if not the cause of serious injuries and damage, and opened the door for litigation. But none of these efforts resulted in a clear recognition that these children, or other people threatened or harmed by climate change induced extreme weather, had a constitutional interest in “liberty” or “property,” or an interest as beneficiaries of a public trust imposed on government to protect vital interests—like drinking water, property and home, and fishing, boating, or farming.


A Watershed Moment

Nothing much happened, that is, until Kelsey Cascadia Rose Juliana and other children, through their legal guardian, climate scientist James Hansen, filed suit in the federal court in Portland, Oregon in early 2015.[2] The child plaintiffs charged that the federal government had violated their constitutional and public trust rights – a generational right to non-impairment of their beneficial rights in water and use of water for essential needs based on the public trust doctrine.[3] The children charged that the government and EPA had failed to take sufficient action to stem the harm and dangers of climate change, that the window for action to prevent increasing catastrophe was short, and requested an order from the court to compel the government to develop and implement a comprehensive plan to reduce CO2 and effects of climate change.

Once more, the federal government, joined by intervening industry organizations, moved the court to toss the suit because there was no legal precedent for these claims, and even if they existed, the children lacked standing or any real interest to protect, and that the students were interfering with the exercise of political discretion left to the government. In sum, the government argued the claims even if real were not the students’ business or the stuff that courts should decide.

But this time, the federal government lost. The magistrate ruled that the children had stated facts, endangerment, and harms sufficient for the early phases of the suit to proceed.[4] But government and industry, now threatened by the suit, filed motions before the federal district judge assigned to the trial of the case. In an enlightened opinion in late 2016, Judge Aikens rejected government and industry contentions, adopted the magistrate’s earlier decision, and ruled that the children plaintiffs had the right to bring the suit. He also ruled that the children had properly stated the critical dangers of climate change, the deliberate indifference on the part of the government, and properly claimed a violation of “liberty” under the constitution and the government’s high duty under the public trust doctrine to protect the children’s present and future from threats of rising oceans and impairment of the nation’s waters.[5] 

Judge Aikens considered the threat to the children was real, had already caused serious damage, and posed imminent danger to them and humanity in the near future. Exercising what he considered the traditional role of the courts, because the judiciary can’t ignore a “wholesale failure” that unchecked would result in a “collapse” of humanity. Judge Aikens ordered the parties to prepare for a trial that would determine the basis of climate science, the children’s claims, and apply the law and Constitution.


Hurricanes Harvey and Maria

More recently, Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and Hurricane Harvey, and the raging fires in California, have jolted us into the realization that global warming and extreme and increasingly chronic effects have caused and are causing devastating and chronic harms and interference with communities, property, and water. To list a few, rising sea levels wreaking havoc in coastal cities, flooding, drought and heat and fires, endangered public health, shut off of public services and water systems, landslides and other damage to property and lives.

Closer to home, in the Great Lakes region, including Michigan, we’ve seen climate change effects exacerbate and foster algal blooms that have shut down Toledo’s drinking water for 400,000 people, and more in Monroe, Michigan. We’ve seen extreme rainfall events overwhelming stormwater controls and drains, resulting in sewage overflows and serious flooding.

In the last century, some courts still held fast to the idea that the air was the atmosphere, lakes and streams were surface waters, and the water beneath our feet—groundwater—was simply “out of sight, out of mind.” In the last 30 years, hydrogeological and weather scientists have made one thing clear: We live in a water cycle, the hydrosphere, where every arc of the water cycle is connected to the others. The arc of precipitation falls to the earth; the arc of runoff flows over the land surface to drains, gullies, and into creeks, streams, rivers, and lakes. The water percolates into the earth and forms aquifers—water sources—and groundwater, another arc, which then discharges through seeps, springs to form creeks, streams, rivers, and lakes. Then, these surface waters flow to the ocean. From the arc of evaporation—from the surfaces of vegetation and water bodies, transfers water into the atmosphere. In the atmosphere, water is diverted into the arc of the air or our hydrosphere, in the form of concentrated “rivers” and “lakes” of moisture and water. 

Climate change is not just an air pollution question, it is also a water question– hydrosphere—climate change directly affects the hydrology and movement of water in every arc of the water cycle, and interferes with and impairs water, land, homes, community, and people everywhere. The effect of climate change on water and earth and life dispel any doubt that we and everything else are inextricably connected by the flow and movement of every arc of the water cycle.

Yet despite efforts to do something about climate and water and to become more resilient to live as best we can with the coming changes and impacts from climate change, the federal government continued to drag its feet.  The federal government was forced and prodded by the federal courts to treat CO2 as a “pollutant” under the Clean Air Act, but our current President has thumbed his nose at climate change rules and denounced the Paris Climate agreement. It is not unreasonable to conclude there has been a deliberate indifference on the part of governments and industries to reduce the rising dangers and imminent threat to millions of people, water and the hydrosphere.


Constitutional Rights and the Public Trust in Water

In 2011, For Love of Water (FLOW) and the Council of Canadians (Canadians) filed a formal report and request with the International Joint Commission (IJC) to recognize the legal interest of citizens and the duties of both countries and state governments to protect water quality, flows, levels, and its protected uses that citizens rely on for their lives, sustenance, and livelihood based on the public trust doctrine. The public trust is a well-established ancient principle that protects navigable waters and the rights of fishing, navigation, drinking water, swimming, bathing, and sustenance. Because current laws and the governments’ ability to address increasing systemic threats to the Great Lakes and all tributary waters–like algal blooms, Asian Carp, rises and drops in water levels from extreme weather, toxic chemicals, and algal blooms from nutrients and climate– FLOW and the Canadians asked the IJC to recognize the public trust doctrine, and urge governments to fulfill their duties as trustees of these waters and public trust natural resources. After supplemental reports and considerations, the IJC issued a report in 2016 that recommended the public trust as a “backstop” to fill the gaps and limitations of existing laws and efforts.

At about the same time, Michael Blum at Northwest Law School in Portland and Mary Christina Woods at University of Oregon pioneered claims that the public trust doctrine should be applied to the atmosphere in order to force governments to drastically reduce CO2 and GHGs.[6] 

Even without extending the public trust doctrine to protect the atmosphere, FLOW argued that because the arcs of the water cycle formed a single hydrological system—hydrosphere– the traditional application of the public trust doctrine to navigable waters could be used as a basis to reduce CO2 and GHGs, because the effects on the hydrosphere had a direct effect on streams, lakes, and the oceans, and impaired if not destroyed fishing, drinking water, and other life-sustaining public trust uses.[7]  Judge Aikens followed similar reasoning in accepting the children’s public trust claim in the Juliana suit.[8]


Trump Administration Climate Change-Deniers Try to Torpedo the Children’s Trust Lawsuit

In a last-ditch effort to avoid a trial over the children’s climate change suit, newly appointed federal officials and their lawyers looked for a way to deep-six the Juliana lawsuit before federal district court Judge Aikens. Justice Department lawyers filed an unorthodox request with a federal court of appeals to take over control of Judge Aikens’ handling of the lawsuit, and peremptorily dismiss the case. But the Seattle federal appeals court slapped down the federal government’s bid, ruling that their attempted appeal was a “drastic remedy” on the claims brought by the children because the issues would “be better addressed through the ordinary course of litigation.”[9]

Commentators everywhere exclaimed that the appeals court ruling affirmed the federal district court that the children could proceed and signaled a landmark ruling on the science and causation of greenhouse gases and climate change. In a classic traditional role, the courts– our third branch of government—have stepped in to interpret what the law is to remedy the unjust deliberate indifference of government and climate deniers. Since Juliana and twenty-one other children filed their suit in 2015, the cities of New York and San Francisco filed suits against Chevron, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips and Royal Dutch Shell to pay for the damage and infrastructure needed to combat climate caused by the sale and burning of fossil fuels. Like in the lawsuits against the tobacco industry, the fossil fuel industry has known fossil fuels have heated the climate beyond acceptable levels and endangered cities, water, and the planet. And like the tobacco industry, they’ve done what they can to foster denial and obstruction to the required shift to renewable energy and rapid reduction of CO2 and greenhouse gases.

Jim Olson, President and Founder

In a way, climate change denial by government and industry is reminiscent of the Scope’s trial, fictionalized by Spencer Tracy as Darrow and Frederick March as Bryant in the 1960s movie Inherit the Wind. But the passion of Bryant was based on a genuine belief in the deeper role the Genesis story in defining the human’s place in a world created by God. The coming climate change trials are not so much a denial of science or genuine passion of belief, but a corporate defense of a fossil-fuel grip on the economy, to protect a financial empire that is causing damage and a growing danger of the collapse of humanity with a shorter and shorter period to do anything about it.


Congratulations to lead attorney in Juliana v U.S., Julia Olson (no relation), and Professors Michael Blum (Northwest School of Law, Lewis and Clark, Portland) and Christina Woods (University of Oregon, Eugene), and so many others. Is there any question that the effects of intense storms on the people of Puerto Rico and Houston or the raging fires in California are attributable to climate change? The Children, their lawyers, scientists, and so many organizations and people are bringing justice to those injured by breach of government affirmative duties to protect water, atmosphere, life, and the public trust.  We are grateful. The public trust in water and our hydrosphere are the heart of our mission and work. www.flowforwater.org. Join us, read up on background articles, and share. The time for mitigating climate change effects is short.

[1] E.g. Alec L. v. Jackson, 853 F Supp. 2d 11 (D.D.C. 2012).

[2] Juliana et al. v. United States, 2016 WL 183903 (Magistrate., Ore. D. Ct., Order, Jan. 14, 2016).

[3] The public trust doctrine imposes a “solemn” duty on governments, as trustees, to protect certain waters—oceans or inland lakes and streams of the state, or their tributaries, from impairment or from interference with boating, fishing, swimming, bathing, drinking, navigation and other public uses of these waters. See Illinois Central R Rd. v Illinois, 146 U.S. 387 (1892); Joseph Sax, The Public Trust Doctrine in Natural Resources Law: Effective Judicial Intervention, 68 Mich L. Rev. 471 (1970); James Olson, All Aboard: Navigating a Course for Universal Adoption of the Public Trust Doctrine; 15 Vermont J. Env. L. 135 (2014); see generally, Flow for Love of Water, a Great Lakes law and policy center dedicated to the preservation of citizens public trust in water and nature. www.flowforwater.org.

[4] Juliana v U.S., supra, 2016 WL 183903.

[5] Juliana v. U.S., 217 F Supp. 3d 1224 (2016).

[6] See Mary Christina Woods, Nature’s Trust (Cambridge Univ. Press 2013).

[7] James Olson and Elizabeth Kirkwood, FLOW Report to International Joint Commission on “Draft International Joint Commission 10-Year Review on Protection of the Waters of the Great Lakes Basin,” (June 30, 2015).

[8] Juliana, supra, 217 F Supp. at 1275.

[9] United States v U.S. Dist. Court, 2018 U.S. App. Lexis 5770 (9th Cir., Mar. 7,  2018); “We’ll See You in Court: Kids Climate Moves Forward After Judge Denies Trump,” www.ecowatch.com/kids-climate-lasuit-trial-2544414443.html. Mar. 11, 2018.

Why Public-Private Partnerships that Own or Control Our Cities and Towns’ Water and Infrastructure Are Not the Answer

In this space two weeks ago I demonstrated that plans by President Trump and Governor Snyder to rebuild our deteriorating public Infrastructure will force shrinking or financially strapped cities and towns to turn to private water companies and investors.  The Trump plan would cut the historical federal 75 percent share of grants or low interest 2 percent loans to 25 percent, and then fund only 20 percent of the $800 billion that’s needed to fix our country’s water infrastructure.  Snyder’s Michigan plan would provide state funding of approximately $110 million a year, or only 10 percent of the $1 billion a year that’s needed to maintain and restore Michigan’s infrastructure. It looks like “trickle-down” financing for our cities and towns, with residents facing greater financial burdens and higher risks to health or even loss of water from their taps.

In short, local governments and their residents will be left little choice but to turn to Wall Street investors or large private water firms like American Water Works, Aqua America, and American States Water Company. A number of international water corporations want to seize an even larger control of water supplies, infrastructure, and the revenues from ratepayers. These include Suez, RWE or Thames, Vivendi, and Veolia. Large equity firms are also looking for attractive investments that take advantage of attractive municipal water revenue streams. The reality is that the life expectancy of a large portion of our country’s geriatric public water infrastructure is short, and the move to remove legal or perhaps constitutional barriers to the comingling or outright ownership by private corporations and investors poses a major challenge in the years ahead

Most of our Municipal Water Systems Are Public

About eighty-five percent of municipal water systems in this country are publicly owned and controlled and accountable to residents under constitutional and public governance.  Private water corporations own or control the other 15 percent. In the last few years, the experience or prospect of private ownership of public water—Detroit water shutoffs and Flint lead and health crisis– has fomented public opposition if not outrage.  Cites like Indianapolis, Pittsburg, and Missoula are taking back their pumps, pipes and taps because of inefficiencies, lack of governance or accountability, high water rates, or broken promises to repair broken infrastructure. Missoula went so far as to exercise condemnation to reclaim its water and water system from the Carlyle Group.

On the other hand, the private sector has increased investment or ownership in public water utilities five-fold in the past 10 years through claims of efficiency, productivity and service, and stable water rates for residents and customers. Private firms argue that private markets bring about efficiency and lower water use; more recently, the private sector claims that because governments are not willing to raise taxes and monies to finance public infrastructure, private equity firms offer a pathway to amassing the vast sums of money necessary to rebuild and repair our infrastructure.

In order to make this pathway more attractive, some states like Pennsylvania and Illinois have passed laws to remove traditional barriers to private investment.  For example, municipal water system revenues are protected from raids by the local government council to transfer monies into the general fund.  In addition, valuation of municipal water systems is often based on a cost-based accounting discounted for the remaining life of assets. As a result, to make privatization more enticing, Pennsylvania passed a “fair value” law that increases the fair or market value of the water system assets to generate more revenues from a sale for cities faced with financial failure or shortfalls; this included a relaxation on transfer of money from a sale of the system to the general fund.

Privatization or Public-Private Partnerships

The jargon coming from big water companies, private investment firms, the World Water Forum, World Bank, and governments influenced by a “privatize-everything” ideology is called “PPPs” or “P3s”—Public Private Partnerships. What are they?

PPPs or P3s were invented to mute the negative connotation of privatization of water or other public commons and services.  They include any form of private ownership or equity investment, leasing, control, or share in revenues in public infrastructure that achieves an acceptable income stream or rate of return for a private corporations, investors, and shareholders. Private equity ownership or investment is just that—private. And if private, there is less government control and accountability. Residents must take their concerns, problems, and complaints to a private concern.

As noted by the Center for Progress in a 2016 report on P3s, PPPs involve a form of privately held investment (although the private corporation may be on public stock exchanges) and require a rate of return on investment  of 8 to 14 percent, In part because the income is subject to federal income tax. By comparison, municipal or public infrastructure bonds do not affect public ownership and control of water and infrastructure for residents and customers, and the borrowing cost for municipal bonds currently is around 2.5 percent, and is not subject to federal income tax. 

The point is this.  PPPs are simply another idiom for privatization based on monopolistic control and private control of the money generated off the backs of residents and customers of water systems in our cities and towns.  Because of this, it is important to understand a few things about PPPs or privatization of infrastructure.

PPPs or Public Water and Infrastructure

The real question remains, should public water and infrastructure be privatized? And if a municipality chooses to privatize to raise the cash needed to fix and repair infrastructure, what are the basic principles that should apply? Whether through private or public investment and control, the upgrading, repair and maintenance of this infrastructure will require close to $1 trillion over the coming decade.

Those supporting PPPs claim privatization benefits cash-short communities by offering the money needed to upgrade and repair, promote efficiency and conservation because of the private profit motive. If the Trump administration and states like Michigan squeeze communities by slicing available funds or loans to cover only 25 or less percent of the investment needed to restore our water systems and operations, there may be no choice at all.

So, what are municipalities and their residents in for? Most reports and commentators give privatization and P3s a bad grade. As pointed out by Padraig Colman in the “State of the Nation” series on privatization, The Financial Times called privatization of water “an organized rip-off,” because British companies had sluffed off sewage, polluted waters, and even charged ratepayers to pay for private debt. While less bombastic, here are some of the pitfalls of PPPs or privatization of public water infrastructure and services:

  • Efficiency from privatization and pricing according to markets or through entrepreneurship is less likely to occur, because the privatization does not create a market, it creates a monopoly.
  • Moreover, experience in general does not support the claim of improved efficiency.
  • Because private investors and companies have a legal duty to return money to shareholders, and because income is taxed, there is a constant pressure to raise prices to cover large capital upgrades and repairs and continued satisfactory dividends and share values. Generally, private systems charge more.
  • Some private acquisition contracts include financing, design, construction, and then maintenance, repairs and maintenance, and can include higher profits built into costs, higher costs of financing, and again higher rates.
  • Cost-cutting measures sometimes result in poor service and short-change the condition of the systems and risk public health.
  • Data and information about the operations are private or harder to obtain, so there is less transparency and accountability.
  • PPPs result in the removal of governance based on fundamental public trust in governments promoting the public interest or the constitutional rights and duties that protect the water, infrastructure, and citizens or residents from inequality, unfairness, and health and environmental risks.

What should residents, officials, public water professionals, and citizens draw from over a hundred years of public water services systems and all of this current debate between public and private ownership and control of our water?  In a word, “Beware!”  Beware of the dangers and pitfalls of privatization and PPPs or 3 Ps. Beware that one size does not fit all, that there are many variables, local conditions, financial and health exigencies, and the long-term public interest that come into play. Beware that if any form of privatization of public water infrastructure, water sources, or services is proposed, to insist on the following declarations or principles, whether the water system and services are public, quasi-public, or private:

  1. Declare all water public; just because our natural public water commons enter an intake pipe does not mean this water loses its public common and sovereign status. Government at all times must manage and provide water as sovereign for the benefit of people.
  2. Impose public oversight with a duty to protect the public service, public interest, public health, and public trust in water and the infrastructure the water passes through;
  3. Establish rights and Impose duties of accountability, notice, participation, equal access to safe, adequate, clean, affordable public water;
  4. Guarantee principles of due process, equal protection of law, and right to basic water service;
  5. Guarantee affordability and equity in access and use of water by all residents and customers;
  6. Implement fair and innovative pricing, subject to public oversight, a public utility or water board, with a statement of rights, duties, enforcement, and government process to assure safe, clean, affordable public water.

Jim Olson, President and Founder

The next article that will appear in this space on public water infrastructure will explain why water is public, why water in a public or private system must remain public, why the infrastructure itself that carries and delivers public water is subject to a public oversight and legal accountability. It will then describe some innovative approaches taken by public and other water services systems to come to address the challenges they and all of us face in the 21st century. Water, water infrastructure, and services are not just physical things or “assets.” They are a sovereign commons inseparable from the people, life, and quality of life they support.


Our Public Water, Infrastructure and Health:  Here Come the Profiteers!

Our public water systems are in crisis.

Every person and business in every city and town in the U.S. will face increasing competition for water, more and more repairs, improvements, and replacement of crumbling infrastructure or preventing illness or pollution. They will also face the wild card of increased frequency and intensity of rainfall and flooding, like Houston and Puerto Rico, or at the opposite extreme drought, high temperatures and winds like those that fueled have fueled the fires and destruction across California this past year. There’s simply no way out, and the stakes, threats, and costs are rising faster than the waters along our coastlines from melting glaciers on Greenland. For years, professionals, towns and cities, policy and science organizations, neighborhoods, citizens, and businesses have pleaded for a new federal plan to redesign, rebuild, and improve America’s public water infrastructure, one that continues to provide safe, clean, affordable water for all in this Country.  Except for a few wealthier states and areas of the country, the federal and state governments have not been able to agree on laws that will address this now close to insurmountable crisis.

On February 12, 2018, President Trump unveiled his water infrastructure plan to make “America great again.” The Trump plan pegs the cost of rebuilding the country’s water infrastructure at $600 billion. To pay for this, he wants to reduce the federal government’s share from 75 to 80 percent level to 20 percent; this will quadruple the state and local share from 20 percent up to 80 percent. This means state and local governments will have to compete for a share of the $120 billion a loan application process that appears to reward those states and cities who demonstrate innovative funding partnerships with private investors. 

The plan would leave it to each state and local government to figure out how to pay for their remaining 75 to 80 percent share of the costs of a project. Without the larger federal grant or even loan share, states and local governments will have to find ways to finance the $600 billion for water infrastructure. Historically, this has meant tax-based bonds or revenue bonds tied to increased fees by users.  Most users are already maxed out with what they can afford. Stagnant cities and rural areas struggling for population will become prey to private investors who promise to fix the system in exchange for a purchase or long-term lease of infrastructure.  In short, President Trump’s plan will convert our public water infrastructure systems into private water infrastructure systems. His vision to make America “great again” is to encourage and speed up the private ownership and control of our public water commons, so fundamental and essential to the health, well-being, and liberty of every American.

Two weeks earlier, Michigan’s Governor Snyder announced his roll out of a water infrastructure plan for rebuilding the pipes, and pumps, and facilities for water supplies, delivery, and treatment of wastes. Governor Snyder puts the tab at $13 billion. But he proposes only $110 million annually from the state, paid for out of a fee to all users of water systems in Michigan. According to the Governor’s 21st Century Infrastructure Council, the real cost to upgrade and fix Michigan’s pipes and systems is closer to $1 billion a year. The plan does not explain where the additional 90 percent will come from, but the answer is obvious: local governments. So not only will there be a state user fee, local governments will be forced to seek revenue bonds to make up the difference, all of which will come out of the fees of their users. In effect, costs will rise even more steeply, and small towns and our cities will not be able to afford the plan. Instead, there will be increased risks of safety, pollution, disease and health threats, and continuing rises in patches and repairs, that will at some point in time result in another Flint or Detroit with illness, health risks, and water shutoffs because people will not be able to pay what will be disproportionately high-water fees. 

The combined effect of the Trump and Snyder plans is to remove obstacles and encourage private funding and investment and markets to rebuild, control, and operate public water and infrastructure. Private firms are already vying to rebuild the federal highway system in exchange for private control and profit. Privatizing prisons has been a disaster. Governor Snyder recently ended a privatization of food service in schools. The track record of privatized municipal water systems has been somewhere between checkered and a failure. The most tragic was the transfer of Cochabamba, Bolivia’s water system to Bechtel through strings imposed on the financing by the World Bank. When Bechtel took over and placed meters on peasants’ wells, a massive protest forced Bechtel to leave the country. 

Here in the U.S. on a less dramatic but equally compelling scale, privatization has not worked. Promised upgrades are not made or fall short, leaks and failures continue, and the price of water for residents and businesses rise. In 2012, Pittsburg entered into an agreement that promised the French water giant Veolia one-half the money saved by conservation measures as an incentive to fix the system. Water prices soared, some inflated by as much as 600 percent, and thousands of billing errors resulted in turmoil with little access to correct them except protest. Worse lead in pipes and water increased, and by 2016 Pittsburg terminated Veolia’s contract and sued for abuse and breach of trust, gross mismanagement, and maximizing profits over the interests of the city and its citizens. From Bayonne, New Jersey, to Atlanta, Georgia, Missoula, Montana, the story has been the same. In Missoula, after great promises and public support of the city’s sale of its water system to Carlyle Group, the City had to file a condemnation lawsuit to get its water system back before the corporation unloaded its water infrastructure asset for a cool $327 million. The court ruled in favor of the city, transferring the water system back into public hands and oversight.

There is a bitter irony in all of this: Water is public, held by each state as sovereign in public trust to assure health and access to safe water for each person. While a homeowner, farmer, or business does not own the water, each has a right shared in common with others to reasonable use of water from a stream or lake bordering or the groundwater moving beneath the land. In order to protect public health and pay for these new water utilities and their infrastructure, state law prohibits homeowners or occupants from using or installing private water wells or septic systems in areas served by public systems. People will pay even higher and higher costs for the public water they are already entitled to use under our laws and federal and state constitution.

But there’s another twist to this irony. Governor Snyder’s plan for Michigan sets aside the first $110 million to inspect and put a value on our water infrastructure as “assets.” Assets generally refer to property on a balance sheet. If our water is public.  If our water is public and sovereign, and our water infrastructure is public and sovereign, backed by users and taxpayers under full faith and credit of our state, how can it be treated by Governor Snyder merely as an “asset?” One clue is the push to create what are called 3Ps—Public Private Partnerships—which denote any combination of ways to provide for private investment and profits or a rate of return from water systems’ customers.  In order to attract investors and maximize value and gains, water infrastructure must be inventoried and appraised as an “asset.” When the words “3Ps” pop up, proceed with caution.

Water and our public infrastructure has always been public. Citizens, businesses, cities and towns should take a serious pause before jumping on the privatization train.  It is not all gravy, if at all.  The link between our public water and public infrastructure to our health, life, and enjoyment of our homes and communities is to close, too tied to public accountability and transparency, for us to hand over to innocuous acronyms like 3Ps, a nicely spun phrase intended to turn your tap over to private profiteers.

Jim Olson, President and Founder

No matter how we as states and local governments or neighbors solve our public water crisis, one thing is constant: We must vigilantly protect and maintain our water and infrastructure public. There are some things that are common and public by nature, which leads to a question:  President Trump and Governor Snyder, where are the interests of the “people” and “public” and “public sovereign water” in your water infrastructure plans?

Public Trust Tuesday:  A Big Win for the Public Trust


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.

Score a big win for the public trust doctrine.

In what can be termed literally a landmark decision, the Indiana Supreme Court on February 14 ruled that the state’s public trust rights to the Lake Michigan shore extend to the ordinary high-water mark.

FLOW founder Jim Olson called the decision “exciting” and said it was an even bigger affirmation of the public trust doctrine than a 2005 Michigan Supreme Court ruling because it carefully explained the basis of sovereign public trust ownership by the state.

The ruling came in a case brought by landowners who sued the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, seeking exclusive access to all land up to the water’s edge. Public trust advocates argued that Indiana received land below the ordinary high-water mark at statehood under the public trust doctrine, and that an act of the legislature is required to deed such land to a private party.

But Olson said the Court should also have articulated a list of traditional and incidental public trust uses, like swimming, bathing, and staging, sitting or other uses that are incidental and necessary to those traditional uses that are protected by the public trust doctrine. “In finding ‘at a minimum’ walking the beach below the ordinary high-water mark is protected, the Court exercised restraint and left the scope of public trust uses unclear until enumerated by the legislature,” he said.

“The public trust is a dynamic and flexible doctrine, dependent on changing public needs and uses of public trust lands or waters,” Olson said. “Certainly, walking and fishing were predominant in earlier centuries, but the use of our public shores and beaches below the ordinary high-water mark for access and their public use and enjoyment has encompassed swimming, canoeing, kayaking, surfing, kite boarding, and similar uses. These uses for safety and convenience necessarily include staging, sitting, and even sunbathing incident to those traditionally protected uses.

The “public trust doctrine is a court-made doctrine common law doctrine, so the Court was well within its traditional judicial powers to enumerate those uses rather than defer to the legislature,” he added.

Nestlé Must Still Prove to State It Can Divert Water from Headwater Creeks

Bottled water

A Circuit Court ruling reversing Osceola Township’s denial of a zoning permit for a booster station five days before Christmas does not clear the way for Nestlé’s push for a massive increase in pumping from 150 gpm to 400 gpm (210 million gallons a year) from two headwater creeks. Nestlé must still obtain a permit from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality under two laws that prevent Nestlé from degrading water levels, fish, wildlife, habitat, and wetlands.

In June 2017, the DEQ refused to issue a permit because Nestlé failed to submit sufficient proof that its more-than-doubled removal of water would not harm the waters and the state’s paramount public interest in its natural resources. In November, 2017, a Nestlé consulting firm submitted additional information based on an addendum to its computer model. FLOW, a Great Lakes Policy Center, and other organizations, including Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation and Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, have submitted comments contesting the adequacy of Nestle’s model and supporting information. Their comments have demonstrated the model is not reliable to determine effects to headwater creeks, streams, and wetlands, and that some of the data has demonstrated adverse effects at even 150 gallons per minute.

In a related matter, Circuit Judge Susan Sniegowski released a decision on December 20, 2017 that reversed an Osecola Township zoning denial of a booster station located along a water pipeline more than a mile from the wellhead. The booster pump would increase pressure in the line to handle the large expansion. The Court ruled that Nestlé’s booster station could be located in the township’s agricultural zoning district because it qualified as an “essential public service.”

“The Court ruling is a narrow one,” said Jim Olson, noted water and land use lawyer and advisor to FLOW. “The Court ruled only that Nestlé did not have to show ‘public convenience and necessity’ in order to qualify for the ‘essential public service’ exception for its booster station in the farming district. It does not affect the continued lack of proofs needed for the state permit.”

             Jim Olson                     

Nestlé must still overcome the demands from the State, FLOW, MCWC, the Tribes, and thousands of public comments to show that the massive increase will not adversely affect and harm water and natural resources.

Nestlé lost a 9-year battle in Mecosta County when the circuit and appellate courts found that the removal of 400 gpm from a similar headwater stream system was unlawful. “Based on the experience in Mecosta, it is unreasonable for Nestlé to expect, let alone for the State to approve, an increase above 150 gpm, if at all,” Olson said. “So the booster station is largely superfluous.”

Failed Leadership and Line 5

Our State’s leadership in the handling of Enbridge’s Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac has gone from bad to worse. In light of disclosures by Enbridge of a failed pipeline design and the refusal on the part of our State leaders to take action to prevent devastating harm to the Great Lakes, it is time for leaders to either step up or step aside and let the voters or courts decide.

Enbridge has revealed previously withheld documentation showing bending of pipelines from extreme currents, delaminating protective cover, and numerous sections of bared steel open to corrosion. What Enbridge doesn’t understand is this: The State is trustee for citizens who are legally recognized beneficiaries of the public trust in the Great Lakes. The State trustee has a duty to prevent unacceptable harm or risks to the Great Lakes and the boating, fishing, swimming, and drinking water that depend on them. The decision does not belong to Enbridge but to our State’s leaders as trustees of these public paramount waters. Risk is a function of magnitude of harm; the higher the harm, the greater the risk. So it doesn’t matter what Enbridge executives think or say, or what their studies say after consultants have admitted conflicts of interest and withheld critical information on the failed condition of the lines.

Our State’s leaders must put an end to this now. Statements by Governor Snyder, DEQ Director Grether, and Attorney General Schuette about “serious concern” or “disappointment” do not go far enough. The proper response to the serious risk of unthinkable harm to the Straits and Great Lakes is not mere feeling; it is leadership and action. Governor Snyder’s recent agreement has belied even his disappointment. He expressly short circuited the his own advisory board and a citizen process established by his own Executive Order. The agreement expressly narrows a comprehensive alternative study to find a way to avoid crude oil pipelines in the Great Lakes, by expressly agreeing to a replacement of Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac and the St. Clair River. So much for disappointment, he’s handing Enbridge a large Christmas present.

The Governor and DEQ should have required Enbridge to prove that there is no alternative to crossing under the Great Lakes for pipeline transport to Canada. It is unlikely Enbridge could prove that a non-Great Lakes pipeline alternative does not exist, given the fact that Enbridge recently doubled its design capacity in Line 6b across southern Michigan to Sarnia from 400,000 to 800,000 barrels. To win approval from the Public Service Commission to double its capacity across southern Michigan after the Kalamazoo disaster, Enbridge repeatedly testified if approved the doubled capacity would fulfill the company’s current and future needs, as well as those of Canada and the smaller needs of Michigan.

Our leaders must suspend the transport of crude oil through Line 5, and order Enbridge to start over by revoking the easement the state granted in 1953 and making the company comply with the laws and public trust that protect the Great Lakes. A bank trustee would have been replaced a year ago for such inaction as our state’s. If our leaders, the sworn trustees of our Great Lakes, don’t take action, they, too, should be replaced. Hopefully, it won’t come to that. If it does, then our third branch of government—the courts—should step in as they would in a receivership where management has failed.

It will not have to come to this if our leaders put a stake in the ground and suspend transport of oil. It will finally after three years of “cat and mouse” place the burden where it belongs: on Enbridge. Enbridge must be forced under rule of law to prove no catastrophic harm or acceptable risk and that it has no alternative to a pipeline in the Great Lakes. The truth is Line 5 under the Straits violates “reasonably prudent person” standard in the Easement, a common sense covenant that the company agreed to when it was granted the 1953 easement. It is no longer prudent to risk the Great Lakes with a crude oil spill of tar balls, dead fish, and oily wildlife and beaches.

The message and course of action for our Great Lakes State leaders is clear: Step up or step aside. If not, the courts or voters will do it for you.

It Is Time to Remove the Grinch from Flint, Detroit, and the Future of Michigan’s Great Lakes Water

The City of Flint, through its city council, just approved a deal to return to and stay on Detroit water, now managed and sold by the suburban Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA).  This decision must be viewed as the next step, not the final outcome.  Even though the city and residents will get the benefit of federal dollars, they lost their autonomy in this process and were under the coercion of a court order and the “carrot” of essential federal funding. 

But the city will be hit twice with water bills. Flint not only will buy water from the GLWA (formerly Detroit Board), but is also required to fulfill its $340 million obligation to the new KWA authority in Genesee County.

Flint bought water from what is now the GLWA for decades before the fast, hurried switch to Flint River water for short-term gain poisoned and endangered Flint residents, and the state and federal EPA dragged their feet to recognize or do anything about it for what looks like more than a year.  Led by an emergency manager appointed by the governor, the city was under pressure to get off of Detroit water back in 2014, and to pick up and connect to the KWA for Flint water as soon as a massive pipeline from Lake Huron was completed.

Under the court order and Flint’s council vote approving purchase contract for GLWA (Detroit water), the residents of Flint now have to pay rates that pay for the $340 million obligation to KWA and for water from the GLWA!  They can’t afford one obligation, let alone pay twice, but that’s basically what has happened.  And what about their health, independent and continuous testing, monitoring, lead line replacement and abatement, medical services, and reparations to what residents suffered?  This must be part of federal aid, but it is also the responsibility of the State and all of those who are responsible for this tragic fiasco of narrow self-interests gone awry. 

But this doesn’t do it either.  We have a huge disparity, inequity, and lack of public oversight and protection of water and health when it comes to Michigan’s water and Great Lakes and our water services to residents.  It is time for Michigan to establish a comprehensive “Public Water, Public Infrastructure and Water Justice Act” for all our cities and rural communities and residents. This is what Christmas and Thanksgiving and New Year should be about.

Let’s remove the Grinch-like selfishness we have seen from government leaders over the past four years from our public water.  It all comes from the single hydrological system of water in the Great Lakes basin.  This water is held in public trust, that is the government, and everyone has a stewardship obligation to assure integrity of water and health for all of the people of Michigan, especially those least able to afford it.

Public Trust Watch: Courts Weigh Public Access to the Shore

What rights does the public have to access the shore?  By deciding not to hear an appeal brought by a right-wing foundation on behalf of a coastal property owner, the U.S. Supreme Court has provided an answer, for now.

The Court of Appeals decision whose challenge the Supreme Court refused to hear upheld a local ordinance in North Carolina.  The ordinance restricts a beach landowner’s rights to leave or place fixtures or equipment which have the effect of excluding the public along the public access/public trust beach area, below the ordinary mean high-water mark on the beach. Pacific Legal Foundation took up the landowner’s claim that the ordinance constituted a taking of their use of riparian beachfront.  

The Court of Appeals noted that custom and law in North Carolina is that ocean beaches below vegetation and other evidence of the high mean water mark are open to the public under the public trust doctrine, and that public access needs to be kept open, especially for emergency vehicles that are necessary for the safety of the public’s use and enjoyment.

Pacific Legal petitioned the Supreme Court to hear an appeal.  The Court’s rejection of the request signals that public trust and riparian landowner fights involve the property and public trust law of the states, and that a local ordinance protecting the public’s use of the foreshore of ocean beach within the public trust foreshow does not interfere with or take any property rights of those owning riparian land above the ordinary mean high-water mark.

So, now those of us in the Great Lakes region will wait for the Indiana Supreme Court to decide the fate of long-standing public trust uses below the ordinary high-water mark of Lake Michigan along Indiana’s nearly 50 miles of shoreline.  Last week waterfront lot owners in the town of Long Beach, Indiana argued their claim to control and ownership down to the water’s edge in oral arguments to the Indiana Supreme Court.  They claim a more than 100-year-old deed to the “low water mark” gives them the right to block public access and walking up and down the foreshore of Lake Michigan.

The attorney representing the residents of Long Beach who have used the beach almost as long argued that the original owner could not deed what he didn’t have.  The attorney also argued that the riparian title to land ends at the ordinary high-water mark, and the riparian right to use the land below that goes to the water’s edge or low water mark, but is subject to the state’s and citizens’ access rights under the public trust below the ordinary high-water mark.

The Indiana Attorney General made similar arguments on behalf of the state DNR and public, and Jeff Hyman, the executive director of the Conservation Law Clinic at the University of Indiana Law School, argued that the state received when it joined the U.S., like all states, sovereign title to the waters and land of the Great Lakes below the ordinary high-water mark. All that waterfront lot owners have is a right to use, not own, and that right has always been subordinate to the rights of the state and the public in these sovereign lands under the public trust doctrine.

One can only hope the Indiana Supreme Court sees that centuries of law and tradition protect the public’s right to access the shore.

Whose waterfront is it anyway?

Whose waterfront is it anyway?

An important court case in Wisconsin will offer one answer to that question – – and it could have important implications for public access and open space in the redevelopment of Michigan’s and Great Lakes’ shorelines. 

The case, which is on appeal from a trial court that sided with the public’s interests, involves a developer’s proposal to build a hotel on the shores of Sturgeon Bay, on land that was formerly submerged and belonging to the state and citizens before being unlawfully filled in during the last century.

Some community officials back the development as economic development that benefits the city. But a group of concerned citizens and public trust defenders, called Friends of Sturgeon Bay, has sued the city to block the developers’ attempt to lock up shoreline. They pose the question: why would rare public filled land be privately developed, when private land can be acquired for the development on adjacent private lands, and the open space can be preserved? Wisconsin citizens asked FLOW’s founder, Jim Olson, to file an amicus brief on their side. We posed questions to Jim about the case and why FLOW has chosen to get involved.

How did your brief come to be?

An attorney from Madison, Wisconsin, contacted me by phone in early June to ask me if I would be willing to write an amicus brief for FLOW to submit to the Court of Appeals in Wisconsin. Because of FLOW’s mission to protect citizens’ rights in our lands and waters protected by the 150-year-old public trust in the Great Lakes basin, she asked us to support the trial court decision blocking the City of Sturgeon Bay’s sale of historically filled bottomlands of Lake Michigan. It’s in the middle of the waterfront in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, which is a popular tourist destination on the Door Peninsula.

What is the fundamental public trust issue at stake in the Sturgeon Bay litigation?

The fundamental issue for the citizens of Sturgeon Bay is the loss of a state-owned bottomlands parcel on the city’s waterfront. The city picked the parcel up from a foreclosure sale, packaged it with a redevelopment project, and entered into an agreement to sell it to a private developer. The rub? There is no legislative grant or disposition from the state to the city or any of the previous owners, as required by public trust common law.

Under the common law, states on behalf of citizens are the sovereign owner of the bottomlands and waters of the Great Lakes. Under this principle, state sovereign bottomlands cannot be transferred for purely private purposes. This is because there are certain commons like the Great Lakes that are not property. Government can’t sell off Great Lakes bottomlands for private gain, because it violates the limitations conferred by people on government under our state constitutions. Just because owners of adjacent private land fill up the Great Lakes over decades doesn’t change the constitutional and public trust limitation.

The City claims it had been filled for so long when it acquired the property, it took the title of the previous owner who the city claims acquired title by adverse possession (known colloquially as “squatter’s rights”) as the result of a fill and use that went on for more than 50 years. Under public trust law, filled or unfilled bottomlands below the Ordinary High Water Mark of the Great Lakes cannot be conveyed by the state or anyone for a private purpose or development. All a state can convey is occupancy to use, subject to reservation of state title, public trust and control, and revocation in the future. Private “squatters” can’t claim ownership over public trust bottomlands that the state can’t convey in the first place.

The fundamental legal question is whether a private person or the city can acquire filled bottomlands based on the legal doctrine of adverse possession. Can someone squat, in this case fill, state sovereign land for several decades, and claim ownership while no one was looking? This is the question I was asked to brief under public trust law, because if the state can’t convey public trust bottomlands, filled or otherwise, to a private or even public corporation, how can a title be acquired by adverse possession?

The answer is: “it can’t.” A landowner might drive over his neighbor’s side yard to get to the back forty for several decades in full view while the neighbor sits on his or her hands, and claim adverse possession, because state laws authorizes a court to grant relief as a result of the open trespass and inaction on the part of the neighbor. In effect, the legislature has declared that the neighbor has consented to a conveyance of the driveway because of the inaction. But when it comes to state public trust bottomlands of the Great Lakes, it can’t be done. Why? Because if the legislature doesn’t have the power to convey these public trust lands outright, it can’t pass a law that would authorize someone to own public trust land by walking through the back-door over a period of years.

What are the implications outside of Sturgeon Bay – in Michigan, for example?

The question is critical for citizens in states with hundreds of towns and cities, like Sturgeon Bay, on lakeshores and harbors of the Great Lakes. There are around 175 such communities in Michigan alone. If historically filled bottomlands can be taken by adverse possession, hundreds if not thousands of parcels owned by the states for the benefit of citizens could be up for grabs, at a time when public access, recreation, boating, navigation, open space, are more critical than ever for communities recovering from the taint of the rust-belt era. This is an opportunity for rust-belt communities to embrace their best public asset and become water-belt communities.

Why does it merit FLOW’s participation?

FLOW must participate to make sure the public trust doctrine is not distorted to justify loss of state public trust bottomlands to private control and ownership. One of our areas of concern has been to help cities and towns on the Great Lakes preserve public access, open space, and recreation and parkland along their waterfronts. With our expertise on public trust law, we determined that in most states, there is no adverse possession of public trust bottomlands, because it circumvents– end-runs –the rule that only a legislature can transfer within a very narrow range bottomlands to private or public entities, like a city, and it must be for a public trust use, like navigation, open space, recreation, boating, fishing; but the legislature has no power to convey its sovereign state title for purely private purpose development. We must make sure cities and developers don’t take public trust lands in which the whole people have a legal right of public access, use, and enjoyment by adverse possession.

I noticed in the brief you cite a recent Michigan court decision regarding Mackinac Island, a case in which you were involved. How does it relate to this case?

It’s directly relevant, because a private corporation bought a commercial docking operation, partly on top of historical fill dating back into the 1800s, and claimed it owned the filled land and dock on state public trust bottomlands based on adverse possession. The Court of Appeals, sitting as court of claims, granted summary disposition to the state, and tossed the private corporation’s claim out of court. The Court in effect declared, “These filled bottomlands cannot be owned privately by any one, because they rightly still belong to the state as trustees for the benefit of current and future generations.” States and citizens must vigilantly maintain and protect these public sovereign trust lands and waters, because they support the values important to all, including long-term quality of life and economic prosperity. There is a private market for private property, and that is for private development, not the Great Lakes.


Water is Life: Strengthening the Great Lakes Commons

On September 29-30, 2017, concerned residents from across Michigan, USA and Ontario, Canada, along with Indigenous peoples will gather in Flint, Michigan to discuss Great Lakes threats, human rights and water sovereignty.

We invite you to participate in this community-based summit of Michigan, Ontario and Indigenous residents opposing commodification and privatization of water, and strengthening the Great Lakes commons and indigenous sovereignty. Featured keynotes, plenaries and workshops will address how bottled water turns commons into commodities and how Great Lakes peoples can shift water ownership into guardianship and a human right.

Register TODAY and indicate your workshop preferences, spaces limited.