By Allison Voglesong
The vast Great Lakes contain 20 percent of the whole world’s fresh surface water, but they are not infinite. That’s one reason why James Olson helped found FLOW, a Traverse City-based nonprofit. FLOW’s acronym means “For Love of Water,” and FLOW’s policy and education programs protect the Great Lakes.
It started when veteran attorney Olson represented a community group battling a Nestle water bottling plant lowering a nearby stream. Since the beginning, FLOW has worked to protect this limited fresh water supply.
How did FLOW go from protecting one stream in Michigan to protecting 90 percent of the nation’s freshwater supply? “The water cycle connects it all,” explains Olson, “whether it’s your backyard creek or rain watering your garden. And it needs to be protected at every point in this water cycle.”
The water cycle doesn’t just connect the Great Lakes to the pond at the park; it connects the people who use it. Fresh water for drinking and sanitation is a human right, and Executive Director Liz Kirkwood points out that FLOW’s programs safeguarding certain public protected uses that rely on clean and abundant Great Lakes water, like fishing, swimming, boating, navigation, and commerce.
“These protected uses are all special for health, for happiness, for our jobs and economy. And because water is a common resource that is shared, we have to make sure that what we do with the water protects it for everyone,” says Kirkwood.
That’s a lot to think about when watching the sun’s opalescent reflection across the lake horizon. It’s also a tough pill to swallow realizing that your neighbor’s loud motorboat has the same right to use the waters as the quietude of your fly rod.
Above all, Olson and Kirkwood hope that the idea of protecting our common waters empowers citizens who live, play, and visit in the Great Lakes. “Once you realize these uses are legally protected, you’ve got a starting point for taking action,” says Kirkwood. That’s why FLOW’s offer legal strategies for people to address the issues that hit close to home. Between climate change, invasive species, algal blooms, pollution, and thirsty communities looking to tap our water, there has never been a better time to act than now.
As the tourist season in the Grand Traverse area simmers through spring and summer boils it to a fever pitch, we might forget that we should want to share our common waters when all we really want is a place to unfurl our beach towel, undisturbed. Yet our capacity and willingness to share our beautiful waters is what defines the culture of Grand Traverse just as much as the contour of the bay shores defines our remarkable landscape. The mission of FLOW’s Great Lakes Society citizen contingency captures this trait in four words: “Common waters, common purpose.”
For more about FLOW’s programs, the Great Lakes Society, and to follow their updates, please visit www.flowforwater.org.