Tag: public water

Public Trust and the Story of Water

byzantine-empire-public-land.-trusts

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.


The Nutcracker & The Public Trust


My children and I recently celebrated the season by watching a wonderful Nutcracker ballet production at the Interlochen Arts Academy. Reading the back of the playbill, I was amazed to learn that this extraordinary music and ballet – now an American classic – was conceived one hundred and twenty-five years ago in the winter of 1892. The premiere of the Nutcracker Ballet performed in St. Petersburg, Russia, however, was not an instant success.

In fact, it was not until the late 1960s that the Nutcracker was embraced as a beloved American classic performed by countless ballet companies, primarily during the Christmas season. The melodies of Tchaikovsky resonated so deeply in me, drawing me into Clara’s enchanted world. And I remember thinking how few things are as powerful and evocative as music.

So what does Tchaikovsky’s ballet have to do with public trust law in America? Good question. It may seem like an odd connection but it’s not, because 125 years ago marks the seminal Supreme Court decision – Illinois Central Railroad v. Illinois – that established U.S. states as trustees over public trust waters and bottomlands for the benefit of citizens in perpetuity. One hundred and twenty-five years ago, the public trust doctrine became the law of the land. After nearly thirty years of controversy, the Supreme Court affirmatively nullified the deed the Illinois legislature had granted the Illinois Central Railroad. As a result, the public gained back a quarter-square mile of the downtown waterfront of Chicago and understood that they could hold their state governments accountable for protecting the paramount interests of the public waters.

The importance of this legal decision cannot be underscored. If the Supreme Court had not ruled in favor of the public and asserted the inalienable nature of public trust waters and bottomlands, Chicago’s downtown waterfront would have been privately owned, and there would be no Millennium Park.

Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director

One hundred and twenty-five years is a long time. And yet, I reflect on how timeless and powerful Tchaikovsky’s music and ballet remains. What if the public’s understanding of public trust law had been similarly embraced? What if states like Michigan upheld their public trust duties and enforced easements in public trust waters to prevent a private oil company from threatening our public waters? What if more citizens knew that their state leaders – governors, attorney generals, and agencies – were required by law to protect the paramount interests of navigable waters and tributaries? And what if more citizens demanded public trust protections of our greatest natural resource – water? Just imagine how powerful a stewardship tool we would have today. Let’s remember the gift the Supreme Court gave us 125 years ago and bring it back to life for the sake of the Lakes and our children’s future.


Great Lakes groups band together to challenge Nestlé and water crises in Flint and beyond

“My grandson that’s not here tonight, that’s twelve years old, he was to be an academic ambassador to go to Washington in the year 2014 and 2015. Well he was an A-B student but by the time the lead began to corrode his brain, he was no longer an A-B student. He was a D-E-F student,” said Bishop Bernadel Jefferson of her grandson, one of the thousands of children affected by the lead poisoning of Flint’s drinking water. Bishop Jefferson, who is with the Flint group CAUTION, was one of the speakers on the Friday night panel of the Water is Life: Strengthening our Great Lakes Commons this past weekend.

Bishop Jefferson has been a pastor for 27 years and an activist for 25 years. She is married with ten children and ten grandchildren. She was one of the first signers of the emergency manager lawsuitagainst Michigan Governor Rick Snyder in 2013. Her passionate talk brought tears to many eyes of the 200 people gathered at Woodside Church for the summit. At the same time her talk energized the audience. Her message of doing this work for all children and the importance of coming together reverberated among the crowd. Bishop Jefferson said of the gathering, “Tonight we make history. We did something they didn’t want us to do and that was to come together.”

Water justice for Great Lakes communities

Maude Barlow gave an important keynote speech on Friday night on water justice struggles around the world and her work with other water warriors to have the UN recognize the human rights to water and sanitation. Jim Olson from FLOW gave an impassioned talk about Nestle in Michigan and the importance of the public trust. Indigenous lawyer Holly Bird talked about her work with the legal team for Standing Rock, water law from an Indigenous perspective, that governments need to honor the relationships that Indigenous people have with the water and how that can be done without someone controlling or owning water.


(Photo above by Story of Stuff: Maude Barlow from the Council of Canadians)

Lila Cabbil from the Detroit People’s Water Board, who many affectionately call Mama Lila, talked about how the water fights are racialized in Michigan. “The fight we have in Michigan is very much racialized. We need to understand that truth and we need to speak that truth. Because what is happening even as we speak in terms of how Flint and Detroit is being treated would not happen if it was a white community.” She pointed out how the crises are being condoned by the silence of white people. She took a moment to remember late activist Charity Hicks who was a leader in the fight against the shutoffs and who encouraged people to “wage love”.

(Photo right: Lila Cabbil from the Detroit People’s Water Board)

In Canada, the lack of clean water is also often racialized. There are routinely more than 100 drinking water advisories in First Nations, some of which have been in place for nearly two decades. At the start of her talk on Saturday, Sylvia Plain from Aamjiwnaang First Nation taught the audience how to say “aanii” which is “hello” in Anishinaabe. The Great Lakes region is predominantly Anishinaabe (Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatami). She talked about how Aamjiwnaang First Nation has had methylmercury in the sediments in their river for a couple of decades. Plain also talked about how the Anishinaabe have cared for the waters and land for thousands of years.

Wearing a Flint Lives Matter t-shirt, Saturday’s keynote speaker (starts at 23:00) Claire McClinton from Flint Democracy Defense League, further described the water crisis in Flint. She pointed out, “In Flint Michigan, you can buy a gallon of lead free gas, or a gallon of lead free paint, but you can’t get a gallon of lead free water from your own tap.”


(Photo above by Story of Stuff: Claire McClinton of Flint Democracy Defense League)

Marian Kramer of Highland Park Human Rights Coalition and Michigan Welfare Rights Organizationtold Saturday’s audience about her work to fight the shutoffs in Highland Park, a city within Metro Detroit where at one point half of the homes had their water shut off.

Nestle’s bottled water takings

Rob Case from Wellington Water Watchers of Ontario and Peggy Case of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation both talked about their grassroots organizations and the local resistance to Nestle’s bottling operations. Peggy Case pointed to the larger issue of the privatization and the commodification of water. “The dots have to be connected. We can’t just look at bottled water. The right to water is being challenged everywhere. The privatization of water is a key piece of what’s going on in Flint,” she explained. The state of Michigan is suing the city of FLint for refusing to sign a 30-year agreement that requires the city to pay for a private pipeline to Detroit that will not be used by residents. 

In Evart, Michigan, two hours northwest from Flint, Nestlé pumps more than 130 million gallons (492 million litres) of water a year from the town to bottle and sell to consumers across the state and country. Last year, the corporation applied to increase its pumping by 60 percent. Nestlé’s current pumping and proposed expansion threatens surrounding wetlands and wildlife in the region, which at the same time violates an 181-year-old treaty that requires Michigan state to protect the habitat for the Grand Traverse Band and Saginaw Chippewa tribal use.

Nestlé continues pumping up to 4.7 million litres (1.2 million gallons) a day in southern Ontario despite the fact that both of its permits have expired – one permit expired in August and the other expired more than a year ago. The Ontario government is required to consult with communities on Nestlé’s bottled water applications but still has not done so. The Ontario government recently made some changes to the bottled water permitting system including a two-year moratorium on bottled water takings and increased bottled water taking fees (from $3.71 to 503.71 per million litres) but local groups and residents want more. They are calling for a phase out of bottled water takings to protect drinking water. The Council of Canadians is calling Nestle’s and other bottled water takings to be an election issue in next year’s Ontario election.

Summit speakers and participants were outraged that governments allow Nestlé and other water companies to take, control and sell water for a profit while failing to secure clean water for residents in Flint, Detroit, and many Indigenous nations.

Days before the summit, the Guardian reported that Nestle only pays an administrative fee of $200 in Michigan while Detroit resident Nicole Hill, a mother of three, has her water shut off every few months and has to pay “more than $200 a month” for water.

During the summit, participants took a pledge to boycott Nestle and single-use bottles of water. Immediately after the summit, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation announced the organization was joining the boycott. To join the boycott, click here.

NAFTA and the commodification of water

Trade agreements like NAFTA perpetuate and entrench the commodification and privatization of water. Water is defined as a “tradeable good,” “service” and “investment” in NAFTA. Water must be removed as a tradeable good, service or investment in any renegotiated NAFTA deal.

As a tradeable good, NAFTA dramatically limits a government’s ability to stop provinces and states from selling water and renders government powerless to turn off the tap. Removing water as a “service” would help protect water as an essential public service. When services are provided by private corporations, NAFTA provisions limit the involvement of the public sector. Removing water as an “investment” and excluding NAFTA’s Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions would make it much harder for foreign corporations to use trade treaties to sue governments for laws or policies that protect water. Canada has already been sued for millions of dollars for laws protecting water.

A vow to end to Nestlé water takings

Over the weekend, participants of the summit listened to these moving and inspiring presentations and participated in workshops on Blue Communities, challenging the corporate control of water, the colonial enclosure of water and more. The gathering included local and Great Lakes residents as well as water justice, Great Lakes and grassroots organizations including our Guelph and Centre-Wellington Chapters of the Council of Canadians.

One thing was clear at the end of the summit: participants were ready to take action to end to Nestlé’s bottled water takings in Great Lakes, work to have the human right to water implemented and bring water justice to all who live around the lakes.
 
To watch the videos from the summit, visit FLOW’s Facebook page.

Emma Lui's picture
Emma Lui is a FLOW board member and Water Campaigner for the Council of Canadians. To learn more about her and her work, please visit the Council of Canadians website.
 
 

FLOW Response to Hurricane Harvey NEWS

Bottled water

Stop All Disaster-Schemers from Ripping Off Our Public Water for Selfish Profits

Jim Olson

Here’s the ugly future of water if we don’t protect it as something public and held in public trust for the benefit of citizens. Water is a commons, meant to be used by landowners, homeowners, and citizens who have a right to access for drinking water. Water can be priced based on cost as a nonprofit cost-based public or municipal operation, but not as a private commodity.

We must resist all efforts to privatize water, or we will lose liberty, property, democracy, and life itself. Water is becoming scarcer, or wildly out of control, causing flooding like hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, and mudslides killing thousands around the world with increasing frequency during the past decade.

The faces and devastation of people in Houston, Texas, and Louisiana will be the faces of all of us everywhere. We saw it in Detroit during massive shut-offs of water to those who cannot afford it. We saw it in Flint from shut-offs of taps because of lead and other toxins in the water supply. We must protect and insist that water throughout the water cycle – water vapor or streams in the air, precipitation, run off, percolating groundwater, wetlands, springs, streams, lakes, big rivers, oceans, evaporation – is first and foremost public and subject to a duty to protect it from abuse, waste, and private gain by those who want to confiscate it for themselves to profit off the backs of all of us: individuals, communities, and the earth itself.


Hurricane Harvey Rainfall Compared to Great Lakes Water Levels

Nayt Boyt

Hurricane Harvey, which has resided in Texas for an entire week, has provided the region with record-breaking amounts of rain. Houston has received more rain from this storm alone than from their total annual allotment.

To put that amount of rain in context, consider this MLive article written by Mark Torregrossa, comparing the amounts to our massive Great Lakes. Current estimates of rainfall from Hurricane Harvey hover around 19 trillion gallons, which is enough water to raise the entire Great Lakes nearly a full foot. The Great Lakes holds 20% of the world’s fresh surface water, and raising the water levels even one inch takes substantial amounts of rainfall.

The balance of water is crucial for everyone. As the devastation continues, our hearts reach out to all of those affected by Hurricane Harvey.