Tag: meaning

Common Water, Public Health, and the Common Good: Just What Does the Term “Public Trust” Mean Anyway?

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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, 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.


The words “public trust” appear in many news and social media articles these days, and the meanings of the phrase often overlap as they should.

First, for those who follow FLOW’s mission and work or the news about the world water crisis, there is the public trust in our bodies of water, like our lakes and streams, or the groundwater that replenishes them. This is known as the public trust doctrine, an ancient principle in our common law that imposes an affirmative duty on government officials to protect the paramount rights of citizens concerning fishing, aquatic wildlife and habitat, boating, swimming, and access to safe and affordable drinking water. A breach of this public trust duty is legally enforceable when government fails to act or acts in a way that interferes with these rights or impairs these waters and uses. Government cannot sell off the bottomlands and waters of the Great Lakes, for instance, for a purely private purpose or gain. Government can’t authorize a landowner to fill in the bottomlands of a lake for a permanent private deck, because it would exclude the right of the public to the use of the surface of the lake for these protected public trust rights and uses. A private cabin owner can’t fence a stream and block fly fishers from wading and casting for fish. Cities can’t divert a tributary stream that impairs a downstream navigable lake. A federal judge in Oregon recently ruled that the public trust in bodies of water can force the government from dragging its feet to implement the reduction of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, which contributes to global warming, and extreme weather that interferes with or harms citizens’ right to drinking water, fishing, swimming, and boating.

Second, public trust refers to a public official’s conflict of interest or self-dealing, or breach of governmental office. This most often means an official in her or his official capacity uses that capacity to help approve a business contract for a partner or family member. Or, it might mean an official takes a bribe to vote for a lobbyist’s pet project or to influence an agency to grant a permit for a land development, mall, or perhaps a new urban water infrastructure deal that forces local governments to go along with privatizing the water services system, because the city can’t raise the taxes or collect enough user fees to fix a broken system or find a new water source.

Third, there have been charges of breach of public trust over state and federal agencies’ callous inaction or deliberate indifference toward the health and well-being of citizens– that is, the failure of government to fulfill its duty to promote the common good and public health, safety, and welfare. This could well encompass what happened in the Flint water tragedy, where officials rushing to transfer Flint’s water supply from the established Detroit system to a local water plant that withdrew water from a seriously polluted river. Or, perhaps, it would cover the Detroit water shutoff of tens of thousands of poor home occupants who cannot afford a $200 a month water bill.

All of these charges of breach of public trust have one common denominator: the breach of a legally enforceable duty or ethical expectation and duty to protect the common good in public land, water, health, and the general welfare. Regrettably, with increasing frequency, these breaches of public trust overlap. The water in Detroit is withdrawn from the Detroit River and Lake Huron, both public trust bodies of water. The State forced Detroit to suspend and transfer its power to an emergency manager appointed by the governor to fix the city’s bankruptcy. The emergency manager began getting rid of deadbeat customers by cutting them off from the water services, because they didn’t pay. Within a year, the once highly regarded Detroit regional water system ended up in the hands of a government created Great Lakes Water Authority, controlled by the suburbs, so Detroit could exit bankruptcy. In Flint, inaction or deliberate indifference by state and federal officials failed to prevent continued exposure to lead in the drinking water when another emergency manager, appointed to take charge of the city, hurried the switch to the Flint River. The same inaction has led to the continuing massive algal blooms that have ravaged western Lake Erie. Here, the breach of the traditional public trust duty toward protecting the destruction of fishing, boating, swimming, and recreation in Lake Erie soon led to the exposure of more than 400,000 residents served by Toledo’s public water system, a deliberate refusal to take action against influential corporate farming interests to reduce phosphorus loading from fertilizer runoff exacerbated by extreme weather caused by climate change.

All three of these meanings of public trust point to one thing: more and more, governmental officials are fixated on protecting and promoting profit, gain, and private interests over the common good of the public– whether breach of public trust in our common waters, a breach of a duty and charge to protect the health of citizens or peddling and using influence to ignore doing the right thing in favor of a personal favor. 

Jim Olson, President and Founder

Perhaps, upholding the public trust in our water, health, ethics, and the common good is the litmus test for the coming decade for anyone elected or appointed for public office. Ultimately, it is up to citizens to see, claim, and enforce the public trust for the good of all.  It might even make for better business, jobs, economy, and quality of life that will be more lasting.