Tag: Public Trust

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.


Public Trust Tuesday: Shutting Down Line 5

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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, 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.


Considering Productivity on World Wetland Day

Today, February 2, is World Wetland Day.

A 2012 UN Report says from 1900 to 2012, the world lost 50% of its wetlands.

As humans, we value our productivity. We want to gut the unnecessary and utilize every minute and every inch to its full potential. However, when we aim for 100% productivity, our first instinct will often lead to less productivity.

The worker who works 24 hours each day will not last long. Productivity, if not the worker, will die quickly. It is crucial to eat, to sleep, and to exercise to reach any desirable level.

Our land is similar. If we use every acre of land in a manner that at first seems the most productive, it will result in a mess of roads, farmland, and buildings that is likewise unsustainable.

Wetlands are considered to beamong the most productive ecosystems in the world.” The benefits are many. The wetlands of the Great Lakes region support over $50 billion of recreational activities each year. A surprising number of species are dependent on wetlands specifically for survival. They protect against storms and flooding. Wetlands also function as a natural filter to keep our Great Lakes water clean, which is now more important than ever. Our lakes are great, and the resulting wetlands are spectacular and quite beneficial.

In Michigan, half of these wetlands have been drained and filled in the past couple of centuries. For newcomers at that time, this land was seen as unproductive, in the context that it could not be cultivated. The solution was to replace the wetlands with land that could be cultivated. Today, more wetlands are lost to development – parking lots, stores, roads, and more.

Nayt Boyt

Whether you see Michigan’s wetland areas as now being half full or half empty, the dangers remain. Today, many efforts are being made to create wetlands – to return land back to wetlands – which can be difficult to do. Despite these efforts, the overall amount of wetlands in Michigan is still declining. It would seem that the most productive method is not to remove them in the first place.


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

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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 – 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.


Lake Erie and the Public Trust Doctrine

Last week, the U.S. EPA acknowledged the serious algae problem sickening western Lake Erie.  It withdrew its approval of the State of Ohio’s decision not to declare the western Erie basin to be impaired.

Does that mean the lake will be cleaned up soon?  Hardly.

EPA’s determination bounces the ball back to Ohio for reconsideration.  If the Ohio EPA changes its mind, western Lake Erie will join the impaired list (where reality has already placed it), and a process to identify all relevant phosphorus sources and decide who must reduce by how much will begin.  Years may pass before meaningful reductions are achieved.

This is a shame for one of the world’s largest and most biologically productive lakes.  Toxic algae cut off the public water supply of the Toledo area for a weekend in 2014, and large green blobs have plagued the western lake for a dozen years.  It shouldn’t take years and years merely to launch a cleanup effort.

There is a better way to get action – the public trust doctrine.

In 2014, the International Joint Commission, which monitors the boundary waters shared by the U.S. and Canada, called for a 46 percent cut in the average annual phosphorus load in Lake Erie’s central and western basins to reduce the hypoxic dead zone, and a 39 percent cut in the average annual phosphorus contributed by the Maumee River to reduce harmful algal blooms.

At the urging of FLOW, the Commission recommended achieving those reductions by applying Public Trust Doctrine legal principles to write and enforce restrictions unattainable using conventional regulation.  The Public Trust Doctrine, based on ancient governing and legal principles, establishes the Great Lakes as a “commons,” community assets to be collectively protected and shared.

The Commission called the doctrine a vital tool to update federal and state water pollution statutes, which essentially give cities, industries, and farmers the authority to pour specific amounts of contamination into the lakes.  By acknowledging the Great Lakes as a commons, the doctrine could give governments fresh authority to protect waters from any source that would cause harm.

Functionally, the public trust guarantees each person as a member of the public the right to fish, boat, swim, and recreate in Lake Erie, and to enjoy the protection of the water quality and quantity of these waters, free of impairment.  The effects of harmful algal blooms – from “dead zones” that suffocate aquatic species, to toxic secretions that close beaches and pose health hazards to boaters, fishers, and swimmers – are clear violations of the public trust.  Thus, as sworn guardians of the Great Lakes waters under the public trust, the states have a duty to take reasonable measures to restore the water quality and ensure that the public can fully enjoy their protected water uses.

There are two choices – a seemingly unending process of study and delay using conventional approaches, or strong action by the states, compelled by their citizens, to fulfil their obligations as trustees of Lake Erie.  The fate of the lake hangs in the balance.


The Dunes and the Water

“It is said in the desert that possession of water in great amount can inflict a man with fatal carelessness.” 
― Frank HerbertDune

As a youngster, my favorite novel was Frank Herbert’s Dune, which takes place on a fictional desert planet. Unsurprisingly, this planet houses plenty of sand but precious little water.

Climbing the sand dunes of Sleeping Bear, I would pretend to be walking alongside the protagonist, Paul, struggling across the barren and dry land. I would climb as high as I could and feign shock when I caught my first glimpse of Lake Michigan, pure water as far as the eye could see.

I would turn to Paul and say, “All of our fears were for naught.” He would say nothing, being wiser than me, knowing that a large supply of water came with its own problems of carelessness, greed, and ignorance. Around this time, my parents would reach the top of the dune and worry about me as I stood and talked to myself.

“A man’s flesh is his own; the water belongs to the tribe.” 
― Frank HerbertDune

In Paul’s world, water is sacred. People use full body suits to recycle as much water as possible simply to stay alive. Everyone actively shares the water, as it is vital to the survival of all.

“All the water that will ever be is, right now.”
National Geographic

Nayt Boyt

In our own fictional worlds each day, we turn a lever that produces water. “Produce” is the verb we use, but it is not an accurate one. Water is not being assembled or created, simply transferred from one location to another. It is the same water whether in Lake Michigan, our body, or in the ground – whether solid, liquid, or gas. Water is not produced. It already exists.

The Great Lakes and the Earth face powerful threats to their water in the near future. Like Paul, we have a limited amount of our shared water. We must protect it fiercely.


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.


Considering Knowledge of the Great Lakes and Plastic Bottles

Raised on Schoolhouse Rock!, I learned from a very young age that “knowledge is power.” While at first just a witticism I repeated in the show’s quirky inflection, the saying soon became real. This was one of the first bits of power I acquired, and I ran with it.

I learned to read at a young age, and I soaked up anecdotes and information as best I could. Though nowadays I enjoy spending my naptimes actually napping, I spent them as a youth reading rather than snoozing, and I quickly gained the wisdom of the Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown. I memorized my favorite poems, by the great Shel Silverstein.

When I did not become the most powerful of all from this process, I realized that there are other forms of power as well. Unfortunately, not all of these other forms of power are as gentle or as honest as knowledge. Nonetheless, I always found the power of knowledge to be a worthy adversary, the one that wins out in the end, and I have stuck with it.

As an individual, the greatest way to impact the world I have found is through spreading that knowledge. It is the power that expands and grows as it is shared.

In my everyday life, I learn what I can. What is happening to the waters in our Great Lakes? Who is responsible for the decisions that impact the Lakes? Even simply: where does my drinking water come from? I do my best to distribute this power to friends, family, and even strangers. Though I do run into opposition, this is often excellent for the sake of knowledge. A debate often only leads to more knowledge gained on both ends.

If I see a friend of mine planning to purchase a plastic bottle full of water to accompany his sandwich for lunch, I will interrupt to offer my knowledge as well as several alternative solutions. Perhaps he could sip from the drinking fountain in plain sight. Or he could go grab the reusable water bottle in his nearby car. Or he could ask for tap water in a glass instead of bottled water.

These alternatives not only support the wallet, they support the health of the Great Lakes, and the right for safe, clean, and accessible water for everyone. Water is public. Water is a human right, and we should not be paying to allow a private company to profit from our water.

Nayt Boyt

We must share this knowledge, that the Great Lakes and their waters must be protected for our uses. That the ancient but relevant Public Trust Doctrine reinforces the fact that our leaders must protect those waters for our uses. We must first acknowledge any threats to these waters, and then eliminate them, so that this treasure will be here for our use and enjoyment, for our livelihood.

I expand my power of knowledge to you today, and by extension, to the people you interact with. The next time you plan to grab a bottle of water, or see another who does, consider the alternatives. Make sure the actions in your life support a thriving future for the Great Lakes, and for all of us.