Tag: Public Trust

Wisconsin Water Diversion Proposal Flouts 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, 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.

A proposal by the City of Racine, Wisconsin to divert 7 million gallons a day of Lake Michigan water to support an industrial development risks a dangerous precedent that could undermine the Great Lakes Compact, and is inconsistent with the public trust.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is accepting comments until tomorrow on the City’s application.  The City, and Wisconsin state officials, have made no secret of the fact that the water is largely going to supply a new business development, Foxconn, outside the Great Lakes watershed.

The Compact, however, is clear that any water exempted from its general ban on diversions “shall be used solely for Public Water Supply Purposes.” State and local government officials have explicitly stated that the water will be used primarily to facilitate a single industrial use. The Compact’s definition of Public Water Supply Purposes is “a group of largely residential customers that may also serve industrial, commercial, and other institutional operators (emphasis added).” This clearly means that any industrial or commercial uses must be incidental, not the primary purpose.

From FLOW’s perspective, an equal or greater concern is that the proposed use is inconsistent with the public trust doctrine.  The waters of the Great Lakes and navigable waters of Wisconsin are subject to the doctrine, which requires any diversion of this kind to promote a primarily public, not private purpose, under U.S. Supreme Court, Wisconsin, and Michigan Supreme Court law. The doctrine also requires the Wisconsin DNR to consider the effects of the diversion or transfer out of the basin on the Great Lakes and all navigable waters and the uses dependent on those waters that are potentially affected by the transfer, use, or return and/or net loss.

Under the rules of the Compact, review by the other seven Great Lakes states for this diversion is not required.  That’s largely because the jurisdiction in which Foxconn will be sited is the Village of Mount Pleasant, a so-called “straddling community” that sits partly inside and partly outside the Great Lakes watershed.  If the Village were entirely outside the watershed, all eight Great Lakes states would formally participate in the decision.

The Wisconsin DNR is obligated to consider comments from the public on this proposal. You can make your thoughts known by email to DNRRacineDiversionComments@wisconsin.gov.

Racing to the Top: A Reason for Hope by Liz Kirkwood

There’s no question that this is a tough time to be an environmental lawyer.  Just Google “roll back of environmental regulations” and you’ll get hits like “67 Environmental Rules on the Way Out Under Trump” or “A Running List of How Trump is Changing the Environment.”  And that’s just a tiny snapshot of what’s happening at the federal level.  Here in Michigan, in the heart of the Great Lakes, we also are witnessing a wholesale attack on groundwater laws for big ag, rulemaking authority for environmental agencies, and even the Great Lakes Compact.  

But I’m also a historian of sorts where I voraciously hunt for glimmers of hope.  I look for those stories that demonstrate human innovation, collaboration, and desire to take risks, do good for the planet, and imagine the impossible.

Lo and behold, I found one of these gems the other day.  It was a news story about five water utilities in the Great Lakes competing with one another to reduce their energy consumption and air emissions. These select water utilities are using technology to track and then shift to lower polluting power sources that reduce lead, mercury, carbon-dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrous oxide emissions from the atmosphere.  Using new technology called Locational Emissions Estimation Methodology (LEEM) designed at Wayne State University, these water utilities opt to pump water when the lower polluting electric power sources are online.  As a result, a Wisconsin utility has reduced its mercury emissions by 25 percent by pumping water at off-peak hours and alternative times in a day.      

Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director

Imagine if we saw this kind of competition across all sectors in health, energy, agriculture, industry, food, and water.  Imagine that we all saw ourselves in a race to the top, bringing everyone up together.  Let’s keep thinking big, and in the meantime, let’s give three cheers to these communities that are leading the way: Bayfield; Detroit; Ann Arbor; North Syracuse, New York; Highland Park, Illinois.

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.

Public Trust Tuesday: Private Fish Farms in Public Waters


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.

Help Stop an Attack on Michigan’s Water

Should Michigan law make it easier for special interests to grab large amounts of water without public oversight?

Most citizens would say no, but the Michigan Legislature is considering a “yes.”  The State House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday, February 28 at 9 a.m. on a bill, HB 5638, giving automatic approval to proposals for major water extraction projects by agribusiness – shifting the burden to the state DEQ to prove such proposals will be harmful.

Even worse, the data justifying the extraction would be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. The public would be denied the critical information used to decide new large quantity water withdrawals, the impact they are causing, or how they were approved.

As FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood said of this and other recent legislation, “I think what these new bills represent is a new strategy to just wholesale remove the state of Michigan’s oversight of its public water resources.”

You can help protect Michigan’s water by:

Our water wealth supports and sustains multiple water-dependent sectors of Michigan economy – industry, tourism, recreation, commerce, and agriculture.  The Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool (WWAT) is a vital tool in ensuring that water remains plentiful and available to fulfill future needs. 

HB 5638 circumvents the WWAT by allowing a company to secure a water permit based on a presumption of no harm backed by its own hydrogeological reports and information.  This information would be exempt from FOIA; in effect this is a license to steel water from our creeks, watersheds, wetlands, a license to cause harm.

In MCWC v. Nestle, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that under our common law any water use or withdrawal must maintain adequate water in the stream to sustain the ecology of the stream and to sustain the other uses made of the water by others.  HB 5638 violates this rule of law.

Moreover, Art 4, Sec. 52 of our State Constitution mandates that the legislature “shall provide by law for the protection of water and other natural resources from impairment or destruction.”  HB 5638 will result in impairment and destruction of water resources of state, and therefore violates the Michigan Constitution.

Availability of data to state and federal agencies and local governments is essential so that government can administer our water laws sustainably and provide proper oversight and stewardship.  We now have the data and analytical tools and capabilities to exercise extraordinary foresight in ensuring that water is used sustainably and is always available for our future needs and future generations.

HB 5638 undermines the legacy of good governance to which you have aspired.  The bill is a step backward – instead of supporting a more robust understanding of water availability, it reduces the amount of data and information available, interfering with our ability to make informed decisions.

Once More: Line 5 and 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.

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.”

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.

Trump Administration: Importance of Great Lakes Cleanup Equal to Hosting a Military Parade

The Trump Administration on February 14 revealed that President Donald Trump’s proposed military parade, inspired by his attendance at the Bastille Day celebration last July in Paris, would cost taxpayers as much as $30 million.

While there’s been broad criticism of the appropriateness of such a display by the world’s sole military superpower, particularly in the context of federal budget deficits, it was the $30 million figure that stuck with me.

That’s because just two days earlier, the administration released its proposed $4.4 trillion fiscal year 2019 budget, which would severely cut core Great Lakes programs as well as funding for the federal agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, charged with implementing them.

Of key concern to FLOW and other Great Lakes policy groups is the proposed 90% cut from fiscal year 2017 budget levels to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), which helps communities clean up toxic pollution, reduce polluted runoff, fight invasive species such as Asian carp, and restore fish and wildlife habitat. Funding for the GLRI would be slashed from $300 million down to just… $30 million.

Thus, in the course of two days, the administration had equated the importance of restoring and protecting the world’s largest surface freshwater system with hosting a one-time military display.

Thankfully, proposed cuts have drawn bipartisan scorn from Michigan’s congressional delegation, which successfully protected the GLRI from elimination in last year’s budget. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, released a statement saying, “Michigan deserves better than this. The health of our Great Lakes must be a higher priority.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, who co-authored the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in 2010, pointed to the critical role that clean water plays in our economy, with more than 700,000 Michigan jobs – fully 1-in-5 jobs in the state – tied to water resources. Michigan projects have received more than $600 million in funding from the initiative since its start.

It’s the same success story across the watershed, where the Great Lakes generate more than 1.5 million jobs and $60 billion in wages annually, support a $7 billion fishing economy, and provide drinking water to more than 40 million people.

Kelly Thayer

Communities across the Great Lakes region are benefiting from economic recovery and re-investment thanks to the GLRI. Full implementation of the initiative is projected to generate $50 billion in long-term economic benefits for the region and a 2:1 return on investment, according to the Great Lakes Commission.

Visionary leaders are calling for a continued Midwest transformation from Rust Belt to Water Belt. Getting there requires steady, long-term investment and oversight – just the opposite of short-term grandstanding at a parade.

What a Difference 100 Years Makes

What a difference 100 years makes.

In 1918, a US-Canadian commission reported on the condition of the boundary waters between the two countries with an emphasis on the connecting waters of the Great Lakes. In the words of the International Joint Commission, the situation was a disgrace.

It was also fatal to thousands. At the time, many communities drew their drinking water from rivers into which upstream communities dumped their typically untreated sewage. Predictably, disease resulted. Typhoid and cholera outbreaks were not rare. 

Among the boundary waters studied were the St. Clair and Detroit Rivers. The Commission also compiled health statistics from communities relying on the two waterways for drinking water, including Port Huron, St. Clair, Marine City, Algonac, Detroit, River Rouge, Ecorse, Wyandotte and Trenton. The results were striking: typhoid fever death rates were highest in cities whose community water supplies were drawn from the foulest water.

The St. Clair River was too polluted for drinking without extensive treatment for 34 miles south of Port Huron. Even worse was the Detroit River. “From Fighting Island to the mouth of the river the water is grossly polluted and totally unfit as a source of water supply…Unfortunately, Wyandotte, Trenton and Amherstburg are taking their water supplies from this part of the river,” the Commission said. 

Those on land weren’t the only victims. In 1907, a steamer traveling the Great Lakes pulled drinking water from the Detroit River, resulting in 77 cases of typhoid fever. In 1913, on three Great Lakes vessels carrying 750 people, there were 300 cases of diarrhea, 52 cases of typhoid and seven deaths.

The report helped spur governments along the border, including Detroit and downstream communities, to chlorinate drinking water supplies and save lives.

We look back on such practices as primitive. But 100 years from now, which of our practices will seem primitive to our descendants?

Have we really come so far in a century, or are we creating a new generation of problems with the same shortsightedness as our ancestors? The public trust doctrine, with its intergenerational concerns and duties, can help us prevent and resolve the mistreatment of our waters.