Tag: Public Trust Tuesday

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.


Public Trust Tuesday: Private Fish Farms in Public Waters

byzantine-empire-public-land.-trusts

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.


Lawmakers in Michigan should learn from the experience in Washington state, where the legislature just voted to ban Atlantic salmon fish farming in Puget Sound, and expressly prohibit factory fish farms in the Great Lakes and its tributaries before corporate proposals to privatize and farm Michigan-controlled waters take root.

As FLOW has outlined in its recent Great Lakes fish farming issue brief, the lessons from across the nation and globe are clear:

  • Non-native fish in floating cages or net-pens occupying public waters inevitably escape and compete with wild fish for food, spread disease, and threaten genetic diversity.
  • Private fish farms in public waterways undermine public access, recreation, drinking water supplies, sport fishing, and jobs.
  • Factory fish farming concentrates and releases untreated waste, excess nutrients, and antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals, spurring outbreaks of disease and algae growth.

The bottom line is that it’s the government’s perpetual duty under public trust common law to protect the Great Lakes and its tributaries for the public’s current and future benefit, including for drinking, boating, fishing, swimming, sustenance, and navigation for the enjoyment of current and future generations. Ongoing efforts by the state of Michigan, aided by Michigan State University Extension, to justify and minimize – rather than prohibit – private farming of fish in public waters are completely misguided.

It’s time for Michigan lawmakers to follow the lead of Senator Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, and Rep. Gary Howell, R-North Branch, who have introduced legislation to ban open-water fish farms in Michigan’s Great Lakes waters to protect “our clean water, our water-based economy, and our outdoor way of life.”

Click here to learn more about FLOW’s program to challenge aquaculture in the Great Lakes.


Once More: Line 5 and the Public Trust

byzantine-empire-public-land.-trusts

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.


Perhaps if they hear it often enough, they’ll act.

Michigan’s Pipeline Safety Advisory Board, established by Governor Snyder in September 2015, heard Monday from FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood about the state’s public trust responsibilities.

It was FLOW that identified these responsibilities as the debate over unsafe Enbridge Line 5 at the Straits of Mackinac intensified several years ago.  Simply put, the public owns the lakebed under the Straits that Line 5 crosses – and state government, as the trustee, has the authority and the obligation to assure that any party granted an easement to use the public’s lakebed is not compromising the public uses protected by the trust.  The Legislature passed a law in 1953 granting Enbridge an easement across the Straits – subject to the public trust.

Enbridge has clearly fallen short of that standard with shoddy maintenance, concealment of damaging information and a track record of failure, culminating in the mammoth spill into the Kalamazoo River watershed in 2010. 

FLOW’s message Monday – Enbridge can comply with public trust interests and state law only if the state compels it to submit an application for the entire massive overhaul of Line 5 it seeks to undertake, and only with simultaneous consideration of feasible and prudent alternatives – including using other means to deliver the petroleum currently served up by Line 5.

Here are a few of Liz’s comments from Monday: 

“We are approaching the hour of decision on the fate of Line 5.  This process has been an epic example of how not to protect a world-class resource.  Transparency, corporate integrity and the rule of law have all been casualties. But there is one last chance to make it right.

“Enbridge has never applied for and DEQ has never comprehensively reviewed, considered, or authorized the new design with 128 screw anchors elevating the Line 5 pipelines off the lakebed.  This new design was not contemplated in 1953.  Moreover, the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act does not authorize ‘activity’ permits that actually constitute a new design, permanent structures, and improvements on bottomlands or suspended in water areas above the bottomlands; rather, a new application is required in conformance with the public trust.

“The Great Lakes are held in trust by the State of Michigan as public trustee for the benefit of its citizens. The 1953 easement with Enbridge was issued fully subject to the public trust, and the U.S. Supreme Court has held states have the power to resume the trust whenever the State judges best.  The state owes Enbridge nothing.  Enbridge owes the people of Michigan the respect they deserve by ending its efforts to skirt statutes and the public trust.”


Public Trust Tuesday:  A Big Win for the Public Trust

byzantine-empire-public-land.-trusts

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.


Public Trust Tuesday: Shutting Down Line 5

byzantine-empire-public-land.-trusts

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.


The public trust doctrine is at the heart of FLOW’s efforts to shut down the antiquated Line 5 oil and gas pipelines that span the lakebed at the Straits of Mackinac.  Enbridge, the pipeline owner and operator, has access to the lakebed only because the State of Michigan provided an easement to the company’s predecessor in 1953, subject to the requirements of the public trust doctrine.

Under the terms of that easement, the State, acting as a trustee of the public interest in the Great Lakes, cannot allow impairment of public uses of the affected Great Lakes waters and submerged land.  Further, the State authorized the easement subject to Enbridge exercising “the due care of a reasonably prudent person for the safety and welfare of all persons and of all public and private property.”  Multiple disclosures by Enbridge of shoddy stewardship of Line 5 have demonstrated the lack of due care.

Last week, FLOW submitted to the State six pages of comments and additional exhibits making the case that Enbridge’s patchwork approach to maintaining Line 5 has fallen well short of that standard.  Further, FLOW argued that the major changes in structural support for the pipeline contemplated by Enbridge constitute a new project for the purposes of review by the state.  This requires the State to insist that Enbridge demonstrate the absence of feasible and prudent alternatives to the proposed pipeline support changes – including alternate routes for the transport of oil and gas.

FLOW concluded, “the burden rests with Enbridge – not the State of Michigan or its citizens – to establish that there are no unacceptable risks or likely effects to waters, fishing, navigation, commerce, and public and private uses, and that no feasible and prudent alternatives to Line 5 based on existing or feasible capacity of overall pipeline system in the Great Lakes; the required scope of this showing of no alternatives includes determination of whether existing or improved pipeline infrastructure within the Enbridge system into and out of Michigan are a feasible and prudent alternative.”

You can read the full comment letter here.


A Holistic View of the Public Trust Doctrine

byzantine-empire-public-land.-trusts

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. Today’s thoughts are from FLOW’s founder, Jim Olson.


This winter marks the fourth year of the water policy course at our Water Studies Institute, a two, four, and post-graduate degree program at Northwestern Michigan College. Each year is a cycle, with fresh information, insights and ideas. The approach to this new course is to explore and view water and the risks to water – locally or globally – holistically; that is, to see human behavior and risks in the context of the earth’s water cycle.  The water cycle consists of several arcs that make up the whole– precipitation, runoff, and percolation into and through soil to groundwater, groundwater flow to seeps, wetlands, springs, creeks, streams, lakes, rivers, oceans, evaporation, hydrosphere, condensation, and full cycle to precipitation. If we understand the relationship between human and natural effects and impacts on our hydrological cycle – our water – we can begin to find solutions to the threats to life, earth, people, and communities.

Water runs through every part of our life on this earth. What we do through impact on or use of water affects every arc of the water cycle. If pollutants discharge to groundwater, the groundwater transports the pollutants, like nitrates from fertilizers or pesticides, to streams or lakes, and evaporation lifts some toxic chemicals from pesticides into the atmosphere, then they fall back to earth and to our lakes, streams, and percolate into groundwater somewhere else. Several decades ago, a carcinogen known as toxaphene used on cotton crops in the southeastern U.S. was found on Isle Royale in Lake Superior. PCBs used by the electrical utility industry as a heat retardant in transformers hundreds of miles from where they were used. These chemicals show up in fish, other wildlife, and humans.

As previous public trust articles in this column have artfully noted, our navigable lakes and streams, including our inland seas like the Great Lakes, are owned by each state in a public trust for the benefit of citizens to protect our public rights in these public trust waters for navigation, fishing, swimming, boating, drinking water, and essential sustenance. Under the principles of this public trust doctrine, no one, including our government as trustee has a right to measurably impair or subordinate these preferred public trust uses; nor can government allow another person to privatize these public rights and uses for private gain. If a member of the public wants to fish or canoe in a public trust stream, private landowners along the stream enjoy their shore rights as private landowners, but they cannot interfere with these public uses; nor could a landowner pollute these public waters to the point it impairs these public uses or public health.

In the 1980s, a Wisconsin Supreme Court decision in Just v Marinette County held that wetlands could not be filled or dredged if the activity impaired public trust uses and aquatic resources in an adjacent stream. It was understood that wetlands and lakes or streams were arcs of a whole that were inextricably connected. Not long after, the California Supreme Court decided in what is known as the Mono Lake case that Los Angeles couldn’t divert water for its city water supply from a non-navigable tributary upgradient from the lake, because it impaired the wildlife, aquatic life, and public use and enjoyment of the public trust lake. In other words, an activity upstream that impairs the downstream public trust body of water violates the public trust doctrine as much as if you discharged pollutants or diverted water from a pipe directly from the downstream water.

If human activity including industry, farming, land developments on land or near water harms or impairs downstream public trust waters, is that upstream? And if it violates the public trust, is it a reasonable or lawful use of land?

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, courts in Hawaii, Wisconsin, California, and Vermont have extended the protection of public trust waters to groundwater. The Hawaiian courts viewed groundwater and lakes and streams as inseparable in the same way as the earlier Mono Lake and Just decisions, and declared them to be subject to the duties and rights of protection under the public trust doctrine. Hawaiian farming and development interests could not rob groundwater and lower the levels of streams where it degraded or impaired public trust rights and uses of the stream. In Wisconsin, the state could not permit a town’s groundwater withdrawal without considering and limiting impairment to the public trust uses of an adjacent lake. In Vermont, a landfill could not leach chemicals to groundwater where it is determined it impairs public trust wildlife, fish, or uses.

In the last few years, courts now recognize that there is little difference from a land use that discharges pollutants to or removes water directly from a stream, and a land use that discharges or leaves pollutants on the land, or alters the land through construction that robs water that would otherwise flow to the stream. Hawaiian courts have nullified zoning permits issued to land developers where local governments have failed to consider the effect of the change in land use on adjacent or hydrologically connected public trust streams. Just recently, a court granted citizens the right to intervene in a land use permit proceeding to protect their public trust interests in nearby public trust waters. Last month, here in Michigan, a trial judge in Otsego County recognized that anglers had standing to contest privatization by a private fish farm of the public waters of the Au Sable River.

To come full circle around the water cycle, last fall a federal district court in Oregon in a case called Juliana v United States ruled that children of families whose use and enjoyment of public trust in streams and rivers were or would be impaired from increasingly frequent and more intense storm events or droughts could bring a court action against the federal government for failing to take stronger actions to protect their public trust rights attributable to the U.S. portion of human induced greenhouse gases.

When what we humans do to land, the hydrosphere, groundwater or our lakes and streams impairs our fundamental rights in public trust waters for sustenance, survival, health, safety, fishing, boating, or drinking water, now and for future generations, we are subject to the paramount rights of all citizens and communities protected by the public trust doctrine.

Think about it. Private landowners and their uses of water sit side-by-side with these public uses protected by the public trust doctrine. Both private landowners and the public depend on the common water that runs through and defines their watersheds, livelihood, health, and quality of life. What value does land have if the use of land or water destroys the common waters that sustains the private and public or community uses in a community?

Jim Olson

So what does this mean for us in a city or rural village in the Great Lakes region? It means that collectively we can use the existing framework for local planning and zoning, water and health ordinances, and redesign local or watershed local regulations and infrastructure like water services, roads, development, stromwater and erosion controls. It means that the focal point of this redesign is water centered on a single backstop principle— the public trust in our water commons that calls for protection of water quality and quantity from impairment in each community. If we do this, we will make good decisions in our communities and the world at large about health, food, energy, land use, infrastructure and quality of life for current and future generations.


The Public Trust Doctrine in Action

byzantine-empire-public-land.-trusts

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. Today’s thoughts are from FLOW’s board chair, Skip Pruss.


“We must connect the dots between climate change, water scarcity, energy shortages, global health, food security and women’s empowerment. Solutions to one problem must be solutions for all.”                                                                                                                            Ban Ki-moon

It’s time that we better manage our natural resources by broadly applying the Public Trust Doctrine. 

Our water, air, and other public resources are facing multiple threats and unprecedented challenges. The threats to our environment are complex and systemic, and current government efforts are inadequate and ineffective.  The public trust doctrine provides government with a framework to identify, comprehend, and address environmental threats at their root cause. 

Last week at World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, political and business leaders, social activists, and philanthropy came together to assess the current state of the world and prioritize problems and solutions.   

To inform the discussions of the attending global elite and set the agenda, a series of reports issued including Harnessing the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Life on Land and The Global Risk Report 2018.  The former indicates that a survey of earth systems science finds that stresses on the planet’s environmental systems have worsened considerably in the last 25 years.  The Global Risk Report – which has measured and categorized global risk annually for the last 13 years – found that environmental challenges from water scarcity, climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution of air, soil and water now pose the greatest global dangers in terms of both potential catastrophic impacts and imminent threats.

The WEF warns that governments thus far are ill-equipped to respond to complex interactions and systemic threats that can quickly cascade into calamitous and costly events. 

In the Great Lakes Region, the WEF’s warnings are validated by new emerging science:

A broader approach to address these growing systemic threats is needed; one that focuses on the public interest and on protecting human health and the environment as a fundamental guiding principle.

The public trust doctrine starts with the proposition that the natural resources on which we all depend – our water, air, forests and wildlife – are essential to our wellbeing and must be protected from impairment and degradation.

Our nation’s highest courts have long embraced the public trust doctrine as an overarching legal principle.  In a landmark case involving Lake Michigan, the United States Supreme Court spoke unequivocally to government’s fundamental duty to protect public trust resources:

“The State can no more abdicate its trust over property in which the whole people are interested like navigable waters and the soils beneath them…than it can abdicate its police powers in the administration of justice and the preservation of peace.”

The Michigan Supreme Court has found that the doctrine establishes a “high, solemn and perpetual duty” of proactive environmental stewardship.  The protections afforded by the public trust doctrine are recognized by Michigan’s Constitution, which states: “The conservation and development of the natural resources of the state are hereby declared to be of paramount public concern in the interest of the health, safety and general welfare of the people.”  Wisconsin’s highest court has found that the public trust doctrine requires the law-making body to act in all cases where action is necessary, not only to preserve the trust but to promote it,” and has applied the doctrine to protect public rights in sailing, rowing, canoeing, bathing, fishing, hunting, skating, and “scenic beauty.”  California’s highest court has found that the doctrine demands that the best science must inform government’s responsibility to protect public trust resources and that prior governmental decisions must even be reexamined in light of new scientific knowledge if such information indicates public trust interests are affected.

The Public Trust Doctrine at Work

Our nation’s courts have been clear and unambiguous, stating repeatedly that the public trust doctrine creates an affirmative legal duty to protect public resources from degradation and impairment.  So how might government apply the public trust doctrine to address complex and challenging environmental threats?

The doctrine operates as a shield to prevent activities that impair the public’s interest in public trust resources or conveys public rights in public trust resources to private parties.  But beyond that, the public trust doctrine also empowers local, state and national governments to proactively manage and supervise activities that threaten public resources. 

It provides, for instance, government with legal authority to require septic systems to be inspected and repaired if they are failing.  If fish or aquatic resources are threatened by harmful wastes or chemicals, government is empowered to stop the pollution at its source.  When it was found in the 1980’s that the operation of the Ludington Pump Storage Facility killed large numbers of fish in Lake Michigan, the then attorney general asked the courts to require measures that abated the fish mortality.  The Michigan Court of Appeals stated,Because the fish resources destroyed by the plant are held in trust by the state for the people, the state is empowered to bring a civil action to protect those resources.”

Similarly, Attorney General Bill Schuette could bring and action to close Line 5, the 65-year-old oil pipeline crossing the Straights of Mackinaw, because it presents a known catastrophic risk to public trust resources and waters of the Great Lakes.

The public trust doctrine could be used to address climate change by requiring utilities to transition to available, low-cost, zero-carbon energy resources.  Because clean energy is now widely acknowledged to be the energy source of the future, there is no good reason to allow the continued loading of acid gases, heavy metals, and carbon pollution into our Great Lakes, rivers and streams.

Skip Pruss

The public trust doctrine will become increasingly important as issues of water availability, water quality, and water scarcity become more frequent and more contentious.  The doctrine could provide a means of directly countering the present actions of the federal government to dismantle environmental laws and regulations.  The doctrine can also enable communities to maintain high standards for the protection of natural resources and environmental values while being proactive in preventing problems before they arise. 

The public trust doctrine is uniquely compelling as a means to address large-scale complex problems.  With so much at stake, a broad application of the public trust doctrine is needed now.


Public Trust Tuesday: A Spreading Stain

byzantine-empire-public-land.-trusts

FLOW’s organizing principle is the public trust doctrine.  What sounds like an exotic concept is quite simple.  This 1500-year-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.


New York’s Love Canal was once an instantly recognizable label to most Americans.  In 1980, after toxic waste from an old chemical dump began to ooze up in the yards of a housing development built atop the dump, authorities evacuated the neighborhood.  Love Canal became a national symbol of chemical mismanagement, and the impetus for the Superfund cleanup program.

Michigan officials looking for toxic waste dumps and spill sites affecting groundwater found them everywhere.  That, coupled with public concern about everything from health effects to depressed property values, prompted the Legislature and voters to kick in more than $1 billion in state funds for groundwater cleanup.

And then something happened.

In 1995, state policy changed.  Instead of striving to remove all contamination, Michigan went to a risk-based approach – meaning contamination could remain in the ground if means could be put to work to limit the exposure of human beings to these poisons.  These means could be everything from a concrete cap atop contaminated soil to a local ordinance prohibiting the drilling of new wells into contaminated groundwater. 

That saved businesses legally responsible for the contamination considerable money, but it also fostered the spread of contaminants in groundwater in many locations – often groundwater once used for drinking water.

Some areas with spreading contamination have recently attracted media attention, including sites associated with Wurtsmith Air Force Base, Wolverine Worldwide and Mancelona.

The Michigan DEQ estimates that contaminated groundwater is coming out of the ground and discharging to lakes, streams or wetlands at approximately 1,000 locations in Michigan.  It’s as if 1,000 new (and sloppy) chemical plants were sited in Michigan and were allowed to have lax or no controls on the pollution they are sending into our common waters.

The public trust doctrine holds that certain natural resources like navigable waters are preserved in perpetuity for public use and enjoyment, and that government has a duty to safeguard these uses as a trustee on behalf of the public.  By allowing contaminated groundwater to spread and pollute surface water, the State of Michigan has failed to fulfill its public trust obligations.  It’s not only a breach of the public trust in water, it’s a potentially grave threat to the health of our citizens.


Public Trust and the Story of Water

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At the core of its plain meaning, public trust means that future generations depend on us – trust us – to protect the water, air, and land upon which their wellbeing will depend. Public trust principles are enshrined in law. The people who serve in positions of leadership and authority are legally responsible to all of us and to our children for protecting the vital natural resources that we all own in common. It’s really not that hard to understand. If only being able to grasp the principles of the public trust doctrine was the end of the story.

Here’s a big-picture story that, for me, underlines the value and importance of public trust principles and public trust law to help protect the natural, social, and cultural resources upon which healthy and prosperous human communities depend:

The global population is booming. The global climate is changing, becoming warmer. Demands for fresh water are increasing and fresh water is becoming increasingly scarce. Water is becoming increasingly commodified, monetized, privatized, and politicized. Not every influential leader and organization believes that water is a human right, so there is a real and growing struggle for simple access to water. Even if people believe that access to fresh water is a human right, we don’t have in place shared protocols that will protect the water commons from tragic misuse.

We read this story locally in the affronts to public health, social justice, and responsible leadership that the water debacles in Flint and Detroit have tragically revealed. We read it in proposals to operate concentrated fish feeding operations – fish factories – in our lakes and rivers. We read it in actions by Nestle and other water-raiders that come back again and again to capture and carry off Great Lakes water. We read it in the protection of land-use practices that contaminate groundwater and feed toxic algae blooms in the Great Lakes. And we read it very clearly in the lethargic leadership that seems more willing to protect corporate interests in using Great Lakes water as a host for oil pipelines than to protect Michigan’s public interests in the ecological and economic value of water itself.

It is clear that many of the most important chapters in the story of water are being written right here in the Great Lakes basin. The Great Lakes encompass 20% of the fresh surface water on the planet. The waters of the Great Lakes directly service 40 million residents of the U.S. and Canada. Risks to the integrity and viability of the Great Lakes as a hydrological system are increasing. Those of us who live in the Great Lakes basin today have an affirmative duty to protect water, and the risks to that water are global and systemic. Public trust doctrine and law are tools for the execution of that duty.

The public trust doctrine tells us and empowers us to act as stewards of the unique and irreplaceable repository of fresh surface water. The Great Lakes watershed, in a very real sense, is a proving ground on which human leaders and communities are testing the proposition that it is either possible or not possible to create water-smart blue communities and vibrant blue economies. The proof of the proposition and the story of water that we leave to our children rests on our ability to empower ourselves and our fellow citizens to become water-literate lovers of waters, to educate and support water-responsible leaders, and to demand that decision-makers in the public and private sectors exercise their duties as trustees to protect the natural resources and public beauties that future generations will inherit.

What do you think?


Mike Vickery serves as vice-chair of FLOW’s board and as an advisor on strategic environmental communication, community engagement, and organizational capacity-building.  He is an Emeritus Professor of Communication, Public Affairs, and Environmental Studies at Alma College where he was founding chair of the Department of Communication and served as Co-Director of the Center for Responsible Leadership.

Mike holds a PhD in Communication.  His graduate work focused on public discourse and controversies related to technical and social value-conflicts.   He has taught graduate and undergraduate courses at the University of Texas-Austin, the University of Arizona, Texas A&M University, and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.  His areas of teaching, consulting, and applied scholarship include environmental rhetoric, risk communication, public health communication, and organizational communication.


Restoring Respect for the Public Trust

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FLOW’s organizing principle is the public trust doctrine.  What sounds like an exotic concept is quite simple.  This 1500-year 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 – like the Great Lakes — belongs to the public.  And governments, like the State of Michigan, have a responsibility to protect public uses of these resources.

In the coming year, we will explicitly address public trust concerns on what we’re calling Public Trust Tuesday.  Today, we begin with a roundup of critical public trust issues in Michigan in 2018.

Let’s look on the bright side, rather than dwelling on past failures. In the coming year, state officials and legislators have several opportunities to full their responsibilities as trustees of public trust resources:


Line 5:  The twin pipelines crossing the Straits of Mackinac underwater are there only because, in 1954, the state granted the company now called Enbridge the privilege.  State government never relinquished its ownership, on behalf of the public, of these waters and submerged lands. 

In 2017, a stream of disclosures about negligence, poor pipeline stewardship, and concealment of critical information by Enbridge dramatized the risk to the public interest posed by Line 5.  The Attorney General and Governor have the opportunity to eliminate this risk by revoking the Enbridge easement and phasing out or shutting down Line 5.


Nestle: The multinational corporate giant in 2016 asked the state DEQ for an increase in its already excessive pumping of groundwater for bottling and sale.  This despite evidence that Nestle’s existing withdrawal is lowering the water levels of streams fed by this groundwater, and harming fish and fishing.  The DEQ has an opportunity to protect the public trust by denying Nestle’s permit request.


Aquaculture:  Proponents are seeking a state law authorizing the installation of factory fish farms in Great Lakes waters.  These operations, which generate large amount of fish feces and could undermine the genetics of public fisheries, do not belong in public waters.  Further, the private occupancy of public waters by fish farms and other structures is wholly inconsistent with the public trust doctrine. The Legislature has the opportunity to protect the public trust by rejecting the legislation.


These are only some of the public trust concerns at stake in Michigan and the Great Lakes this year.  FLOW will work to restore awareness of and respect for the public trust doctrine among Michigan officials, and help the public bring pressure on them to fulfill their responsibilities.