Tag: public water

Michigan’s Latest Emergency Drinking Water Crisis: PFAS, Another History Lesson Ignored Again

In 1962, with the release of her seminal work, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson sounded a warning to the American public about the perils of persistent pesticide chemicals like DDT to silence the very ecosystems they attempt to tame. Carson’s story underscored the interconnectedness of all living things and systems and the need to understand the full life cycle of biocides and other chemicals in order to truly protect human health and the environment.

Despite Carson’s work and subsequent congressional toxic chemical legislation, every year, chemical manufacturers release some 10,000 untested chemicals into the environment in the United States.[1] How can this be?

Several weeks ago, I met a professor of environmental toxicology and spoke with him at length about Michigan’s latest emergency drinking water crisis involving a different chemical of concern: per- and polyflouroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS are an emerging contaminant of concern because of their widespread use and persistence in the environment, having been commonly used in firefighting foam, water resistant fabrics, nonstick surfaces, stain guards and other commercial and industrial applications. According to recent reporting, there are an estimated 11,000 sites with PFAS contamination affecting a potential 1.5 million citizens in Michigan.[2]

This professor boiled down the problem right back to Rachel Carson’s work, explaining that DDT was in the chlorine family. Once the public and policymakers raised the alarm bells about this chemical family in the 1960s, the chemists simply moved over to the next element – fluorine – and started developing a host of water repellent compounds for commercial and residential use without understanding the public health and environmental impacts once again.

Michiganders now are demanding answers again from their state government that has failed to warn and protect its citizens. Now that the public is clamoring for action, state and federal agencies are finding PFAS in many places. The public water supply of the City of Parchment was found to be contaminated at unacceptable levels, and customers were warned not to use it temporarily. Private well owners near a Wolverine Worldwide shoe manufacturing facility in Kent County have had to seek alternate water supplies. PFAS have also shown up in some school drinking water supplies and in surface waters near Wurtsmith Air Force base.

As early as 2012, DEQ scientists warned administrators about PFAS and their persistence in the environment, and yet, the department failed to take any action putting people and the environment first.

Sadly, this is not Michigan’s first chemical rodeo show. Yet, our state leaders and agencies continue to follow the same playbook: identify the toxic chemical, tell people not to drink the water, scrape up some funding to clean up some contamination sites, and then finally fund the science to determine what a “safe” level is. The State of Michigan needs to do all these things for PFAS, but we need to do a lot, lot more.

First, the PFAS fiasco is a failure of state government to heed the constitutional mandate to protect public health — the executive and legislative branches both. As in the case of Flint’s lead poisoning, experts warned state officials of a threat, and the officials dismissed it. Moreover, over 20 years ago in 1995, the legislature exposed the public to persistent PFAS threats by weakening liability and increasing the allowable cancer risk.

Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director

Second, the PFAS fiasco is a canary in the policy coal mine. It’s a warning and a reminder that our economy and environment are engulfed in a bath of chemicals, many of whose risks are unknown. The public trust doctrine forbids the impairment of water-related uses, but as long as our chemical policy is founded in ignorance, we are breaching the doctrine hundreds of times over. It’s time to right the wrong and protect the public trust — and health.


 [1] See 84,000 Chemicals on the Market, Only 1% Have Been Tested for Safety, Ecowatch, July 5, 2015 https://www.ecowatch.com/84-000-chemicals-on-the-market-only-1-have-been-tested-for-safety-1882062458.html; Mark Scialla, “It could take centuries for EPA to test all the unregulated chemicals under a new landmark bill,” PBS hour, June 22, 2016 https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/it-could-take-centuries-for-epa-to-test-all-the-unregulated-chemicals-under-a-new-landmark-bill

[2] See Keith Matheny, “DEQ: Harmful PFAs might contaminate more than 11,000 sites statewide,” Detroit Free Press, July 30, 2018, https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/2018/07/30/deq-pfas-chemical-contamination-pollution-michigan/851152002/; Garret Ellison, “PFAS found in drinking water for 1.5M in Michigan,” MLive, August 23, 2018, https://www.mlive.com/news/index.ssf/2018/08/pfas_michigan_public_water.html.


U.S. Senate Hearing Sets the Stage for Turning Off Dangerous Enbridge Line 5 in Great Lakes

Line 5 Pipeline

Michigan Senator Gary Peters, ranking member of a Senate committee overseeing hazardous pipelines, held a public hearing in Traverse City, Michigan Monday, ground zero in a race to turn off Enbridge’s 65-year old Line 5 before it spills millions of gallons into the Straits of Mackinac and blackens the water, life, and economy of the Upper Great Lakes. Senator Peters called the hearing to open an investigation and find solutions to reform a patchwork of ineffective federal regulations that lack authority and power to shut down pipelines that threaten the health and safety of residents, businesses, schools, and communities across the country. What better place to start than Line 5 in the heart of the Straits and Great Lakes?

Senator Peters convened two panels: one made up of an Enbridge upper-level executive and federal officials from the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the Coast Guard emergency response team, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); the other filled with representative leaders from conservation, labor, and business across the region. After their testimony and questioning from a well-prepared, sometimes passionate Senator Peters, and applause from a sympathetic audience, the message was clear—we need legal reforms, and we need them now, to fix the holes and fragmentation in current regulations.

Monday’s public hearing may well be the tipping point to turn off the rush of 23 million gallons a day through a pipeline that is outdated and failing the dictates of its original design. It may also be the year of reckoning for the Snyder Administration’s and Attorney General Schuette’s game of footsie with Enbridge that has, in my opinion, imprudently gambled the soul of our state’s water, life and economy by helping Enbridge keep Line 5 open for gushing crude oil from Alberta to Sarnia far too long. Here’s why.

After four years of state task forces, boards, studies and exercises to clean up a mock spill, nothing has happened except permission to Enbridge to keep Line 5 going at full tilt. During this same time, National Wildlife Federation, FLOW, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, and other tribes and organizations have filed compelling scientific, technical, and legal analyses and reports that have more than documented what is now obvious: Crude oil in Line 5 in the Straits and over or near tributaries that flow to Lake Michigan and Lake Huron constitutes what is known in the hazardous risk industry as a “Tier 1″ risk. It must be avoided, and reasonable alternatives exist– that is, Line 5 in the Straits or waters of the Great Lakes is not essential for Canada, Enbridge, or Michigan and its residents.

A “Tier 1″ risk means that the magnitude of harm is so devastating or grave, that principles of risk management require those responsible to implement both a temporary and a long-term solution that removes and avoids the risk entirely. In plain terms, this means that if there is an alternative to a pipeline that is unacceptable under any circumstances, the alternative must be implemented, as long as it reasonably achieves the overall purpose of avoiding the risk and allowing a means through some other route to continue transporting crude oil.

In the last four years, it has become clear, as reinforced by Senator Peters at the start of the hearing, that the Straits is “the worst place for an oil pipeline in the Great Lakes,” and that we must find a way to take hold of this unacceptable risk and end it. For example, strong currents have continuously scoured the rocks and soil under the heavy pipeline designed to lay on the bottom of the lakebed; in an attempt to patch a failing design, Enbridge, with the help of Michigan’s DEQ, has been able to install anchor supports to elevate the line above the lakebed since 2001 as a “repair,” with little to no notice to the public. There are now 150 supports holding up the line, and an application to the DEQ for 48 more. That means nearly three miles or one-third of the original design has been totally changed, and the stage is set for more and more “repairs” without any application, determination, and legal authorization as required for altered and new pipeline designs or structures on the bottomlands of the Great Lakes under our Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act. If our leaders forced Enbridge to apply for new authorization of this serious, never-before-reviewed change, Enbridge would have to show no “Tier 1″ risk and no alternative– finally, the substance and risk and fate of the Straits and Great Lakes and citizens would be under the rule of law.

Also, in the last four years, strategic organizing from Oil and Water Don’t Mix, a consortium of organizations like Groundwork Center, Michigan Environmental Council, Sierra Club, the tribes, Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, and many others have fostered tens of thousands of letters, public comments, all urging state leaders to end this catastrophic risk that puts oil above the state’s and its citizens’ paramount interest and public trust in water and the Great Lakes.

Nearly 70 communities have passed resolutions calling for decommissioning or ending the flow of oil in Line 5, as have approximately 15 tribes and tribal organizations. This has led to a Pipeline Advisory Board questioning the lack of action by the state, conflicts of interest in a risk study, and questioning whether Line 5 should be allowed to continue in light of reasonable adjustments and alternatives elsewhere within Enbridge’s larger system.

Then, last fall, Governor Snyder announced he’d signed an agreement with Enbridge that allows Enbridge to pick an option to replace Line 5 with a new line in the Straits. In other words, Enbridge was given the green light to replace Line 5, continue Line 5 in the Straits until the replacement was operational in seven years, and avoid the rule of law.

No wonder Senator Peters held the hearing to launch a process to find out why the federal regulatory framework hasn’t done more. As urged by the Senator and agreed to by other panelists at the hearing, the Straits and Great Lakes demand a far more responsive legal framework than PHMSA safety code inspections and wrist slapping or Coast Guard after-the-fact response and cleanup actions. And it’s not just the Great Lakes. There are thousands of miles of crude oil pipelines and thousands of communities, lakes, streams, groundwater, drinking water and other sensitive environments that have been damaged or are threatened.

We need go no farther than the 2010 Enbridge Kalamazoo River rupture and disaster or the Deep Horizon debacle in and along the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico.

Based on the testimony of the panelists and careful questioning of Senator Peters, here is what the record looks like and what we might expect to address Line 5 and many other oil pipeline risks across the United States and, hopefully, beyond our borders.

First, after accidents like the anchor strike that broke the utility line, released pollutants into the Straits and was reported by Enbridge to have dented Line 5, inspections by PHMSA review the company’s evaluation and self-reporting, and the Coast Guard completes assessments of conditions and response actions only after a spill of pollutants. As it turned out, PHMSA did not independently inspect the dents. The Coast Guard has no jurisdiction except to respond to the spill of the pollutant from the utility line. Fortunately, an assessment and inspection performed 2.5 weeks later revealed a “gouge,” not just a dent.  

Second, while PHMSA has legal authority to force shutdown of a pipeline, it has never ordered one decommissioned and removed. The state, through its public trust authorities, has the power to do so, but so far, it seems, has done everything possible not to shut down Line 5.

Third, Enbridge and others maintain that the Great Lakes and Line 5 are not “offshore” hazardous or crude oil pipelines, and are not regulated as strictly as offshore lines and oil wells. The U.S and Michigan supreme courts have consistently ruled that the Great Lakes are seas, like the oceans, and subject a high-degree of protection under the public trust doctrine.

Fourth, PHMSA has not certified the Great Lakes as a critical “environmentally sensitive” area that would impose, at least, stronger safety measures, inspections, or assessments.

Fifth, inspections and assessments are not “hands-on” and are often delayed or too late to quickly determine the gravity of the condition of a pipeline.

Sixth, there is no legal process under federal law or regulations that comprehensively regulates, assesses, and determines whether to shut down high risk pipelines– those that have failed or those in sensitive areas like the Great Lakes. So, while most states, like Michigan, have the authority to locate or terminate high risk pipelines, particularly where they are old, failing, and alternatives exist, the federal government has no framework to do much at all.

Senator Peters has done a great service, and his Senate Commerce Committee needs to carry the day by continuing, as directed by the senator, to record and investigate. The goal should be to establish a framework for the Senate, with the help of experts and citizens, to find a way to overhaul these laws and rules that are supposed to protect the public. For starters, here are some suggestions:

  1. Amend federal laws, such as the Clean Water Act or the PHMSA authorizing law, to establish an authority for the certification of oil and other hazardous liquid or materials pipelines.
  • New pipelines would have to go through an application, hearing, full transparent information and disclosure, evaluation and study process to determine the risk, potential impacts and damage based on a true “worst case scenario,” and the full range of feasible and prudent alternatives.
  • Old pipelines, say older than 40 years, or less if beyond their “useful safe lifeline” would have to apply for certification, showing that they do not involve high risks or catastrophic harm or serious impacts based on a worst case scenario, and if the risk is high, they must be shut down if there exists a feasible and prudent alternative or the operation if continued could result in a high-magnitude of harm to the public health, safety, and welfare.
  • New pipelines proposed for the Great Lakes or equivalent paramount public trust waters or natural resources are prohibited.
  • Owners and operators of old pipelines in, over, or under the Great Lakes or equivalent public trust waters and natural resources must apply for certification and a determination that there is no feasible and prudent alternative with reasonable adjustments to other routes, design capacities, and locations within the overall crude oil pipeline system and logistics; if there is no feasible and prudent alternative, there would be a determination of remaining “useful life” and that the risks are less than a “Tier 1″ based on a competent credible worst case scenario.
  1. All applications, and supporting materials would be public records and made available, all applications would be subject to public hearings, comments, and testimony by all interested persons and members of the public, and there would be direct citizen suit enforcement similar to that in the Clean Water Act.
  1. All applications would be subject to the National Environmental Policy Act environmental impact statement process.
  1. Federal agencies involved would cooperate with state agencies, including shared jurisdictional and information agreements, and the federal process would not preempt or supplant the state process. State proceedings involving use or potential impact to their sovereign water and other natural resources, or public trust interests in those resources, would not be preempted and could impose more stringent standards or otherwise reserve the state’s property power and public trust in its waters and natural resources to prohibit any existing or proposed new pipeline (which is the law in Michigan and other states today).

Jim Olson, President and Founder

In short, thank you, Senator Peters and the Senate Commerce committee, and those panelists who participated in the hearing Monday: It is far better to remove these regulatory holes with a comprehensive approach to prevent unacceptable risks entirely than to face the catastrophe of a gaping hole in Line 5 in the Great Lakes or other high-risk lines across the country.


Make More Michigan Underwater Parks

Michigan’s state park system is considered one of the finest in the nation.  Dating back to 1917, the system includes 103 parks and recreation areas that sustain more than 25 million annual visits.

But there’s another, smaller park system, and it’s underwater.

The underwater preserve system is also on public land – the nearly 40,000 square miles of Great Lakes bottomland, all of which is held in trust for the people of Michigan by state government.  The system now includes 13 preserves encompassing 7,200 square miles of lakebed.

Our bottomland preserve law was essentially enacted to protect shipwrecks and promote sport diving, and it has been a success in meeting those objectives.  But the system could be broader in scope.  The state law authorizing these preserves says they can be established wherever a bottomland contains “a single watercraft of significant historical value, includes 2 or more abandoned watercraft, or contains other features of archaeological, historical, recreational, geological, or environmental significance.”  Designation then leads to protection.

There is plenty to protect on Michigan’s lakebed, including ancient forests, unusual geology and biology, fish habitat, and perhaps even archaeological evidence of aboriginal communities.

Federal law provides for marine sanctuaries.  Michigan is the only Great Lakes state containing one, the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, although there have been proposals for sanctuaries in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and New York state waters.  The current administration in Washington does not support new sanctuaries.  Thus, it makes even more sense for Michigan to identify, and fund protection of, its underwater resources.


Protecting Traverse City’s Tap Water

Anyone who visits Traverse City can easily see how important freshwater is to this region. The iconic Grand Traverse Bay, numerous inland lakes and the Boardman River winding through downtown make freshwater an essential part of Traverse City’s landscape and culture. Our unique freshwater resources provide remarkable recreational opportunities that bring thousands of visitors to the shores of Traverse City every summer. One of the major benefits from our freshwater that often goes unnoticed, is its use as tap water in our everyday lives.

Even as a longtime resident who is very passionate about water, I had to ask myself, do I know where the water from my tap comes from? Well, if you live in the city limits of Traverse City, the answer is the Grand Traverse East Bay (“East Bay”). Traverse City pumps an average of 5.19 million gallons a day from East Bay to supply the growing demand for freshwater.[1] This freshwater is taken out of East Bay through a steel and wood crib that sits about 40 feet below the water surface off the Old Mission Peninsula.[2] The water is pumped to the City’s water treatment plant, then distributed through roughly 120 miles of pipes to serve an ever-growing customer base of approximately 40,000 people.[3]

Planning the Future

Given East Bay’s significant role as the source of Traverse City’s tap water, it is important for us as a community to become engaged in planning for the future of East Bay and the surrounding Grand Traverse watershed.

This is no small task. The Grand Traverse watershed is approximately 976 square miles, covering portions of Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Antrim, and Kalkaska counties, including 132 miles of shoreline.[4] However, as vast as those numbers might seem, it is imperative that we understand and manage our freshwater at the watershed level to properly care for East Bay and the source of our tap water. A Watershed is defined as an area of land that drains all the streams and rainfall into a common outlet.[5]Watershed protection is critical to the long-term health of East Bay because the majority of East Bay’s water comes from tributaries throughout the watershed, including 180 billion gallons of water per year from the Elk Rapids Chain of Lakes.[6]

Fortunately, The Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay and other organizations in the Northern Michigan area implemented a Grand Traverse Bay Watershed Protection plan in 2003.[7] The Protection Plan sets six broad goals that range from protecting the integrity of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems within the watershed to improving the quality of water resources within Grand Traverse Bay and its watershed.[8] In addition, the 2003 Watershed Protection Plan has resulted in more than $7 million worth of watershed management projects, and has “prevented more than 16,230 tons of sediment, 9300 lbs. of phosphorous and 14,940 lbs. of nitrogen from entering the Grand Traverse Bay and its watershed.”[9]

What Can You Do?

This community-driven Watershed Protection Plan plays a crucial role in our management of East Bay, helping protect against issues such as invasive species, storm water run-off, and wetland protection. The Watershed Protection Plan from 2003 is currently being updated with citizen input by the Watershed Center. Although the Watershed Center’s community meetings regarding the new protection plan have already occurred, the Watershed Center is still accepting public input until July 31st through a public survey.

Julius Moss, Legal Intern

I encourage everyone to take a few minutes this weekend, reflect on the importance of water in our area, and share your ideas and concerns with the Watershed Center. We are fortunate to have an abundance of freshwater around us, we must continue to protect our valuable resource and together as a community prepare for the future of East Bay, the Grand Traverse Watershed, and our tap water.


[1] See http://www.traversecitymi.gov/watertreatmentpl.asp

[2] See http://www.traversecitymi.gov/watersource.asp

[3] Id.

[4] See https://www.gtbay.org/about-us/watershed/

[5] See https://water.usgs.gov/edu/watershed.html

[6] Id.

[7]  The Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay, Grand Traverse Bay Watershed Protection Plan, Dec. 2003, https://www.gtbay.org/resources/watershed-protection-plan/.

[8] Id.

[9] See https://www.gtbay.org/about-us/achievements/

The Public Trust Doctrine Percolates into State Courts, Legislators, and Commissions to Protect Groundwater, Streams, Lakes, Economies and Quality of Life


“Water Justice Flows Like Water.”[1]

 

Law professor Sprout D. Kapua’ala, borrowing from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I’ve Been to the Mountaintop speech in 1968 (“justice rolling down like waters”), captures decades of conflict over the streams and waters of Hawai’i, siphoned and dried from a century of withdrawals and diversion ditches cut across the landscape for corporate massive production of sugar and fruit exports. This unbridled exploitation of Hawai’i water has distressed stream and wetland ecosystems and overwhelmed native and public water uses, including the native rights to small-scale Kalo cultivation, gathering, and citizen rights to fishing, swimming, drinking water, and recreation protected by the public trust doctrine. 

For the past two decades, the Hawai’i Supreme Court has faced head on the collision between the near total loss of the Makapipi and East Maui rivers because of numerous ditches across the land to transport water for corporate sugar. In 2000, the Court ruled that state water board decisions that allowed water diversions for large corporate farming were subject to the public trust doctrine under the Hawai’i constitution and common law.[2] The court ruled that under the public trust doctrine, basic stream flows had to be maintained to protect public trust uses, such as small-scale native farming, fishing, and drinking water. Scientists and citizens recognized that small-scale cultivation of Kalo requires steady flows of groundwater and streams, and in turn the native production and uses of water sustain culture and communities. Since the Court’s Waihole I decision in 2000, the public trust doctrine has been applied to the state water board and even the land use and zoning boards of municipalities to protect drinking water and other public trust uses from land and water intensive development. [3]

As a result, the legislature passed laws requiring designation of groundwater aquifers or streams for special protection of flows and levels to support public trust protected uses. Native, environmental, and community organizations joined together to petition a state water board to declare groundwater and streams subject to special public trust protection through maintaining stream flows or groundwater migration and levels. Large corporate farming and other interests contested these designations. The Court continued to respond by recognizing and upholding at least minimum flows and levels of freshwater sources, balancing public uses against large volume water diversion and use for farming and development.[4]

Our mission at FLOW, as most of you may know, is to seek adoption of the public trust doctrine principles in every state and beyond. The primary principles under the public trust doctrine are: promotion of a public purpose, such as a public drinking water supply, fish restoration, or public beach access, and non-impairment of water, ecosystems, and public trust uses, such as those mentioned above. A universal understanding and application of public trust principles offers a way out of the world water crisis, which is worsening every day as a result of global warming, pollution, waste and abuse of water resources, increased population and demand for food and clean, safe water. Irrigation and water diversions for agriculture account for 70 percent of human use of fresh groundwater, lakes, and streams, industrial and steam-generated electricity another 20 percent, and municipal and residential use the remaining 10 percent. Massive diversions of water across continents have become too expensive and disruptive to sustain any longer.

Future survival, economies, and quality of life will require sustainable practices with a primary goal of assuring the integrity of flows and levels within each watershed and region of a country. Public trust principles impose limits on exploitation of flows and levels, or private subordination of protected public trust uses. If we understand that water is a commons owned or held by each state as sovereign for the benefit of people and the overarching public interest, and apply these principles, we will make very good decisions about human survival, environment, economy, jobs, and quality of life.

 

Recent Developments

In the last two weeks, the realization and importance of the public trust doctrine has come home to ordinary citizens in Hawaii. The relationship of public trust to groundwater and public water uses has been percolating in the legislatures and courts of Vermont, Arizona, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Rhode Island, as well as South Africa, Pakistan, and India. Massive groundwater withdrawals or land use practices and water diversions like the Colorado River, Chicago diversion from Lake Michigan, the loss of the Aral Sea in Russia, or Yangtze in China, that impair public trust waters and drinking water, fishing, swimming, or other important uses are subject to public trust principles that prevent privatization and impairment.  The public trust does not prohibit industrial or agricultural withdrawals, or the privatization, diversion and sale of water, but it subjects these uses to an overarching backstop framework[5] that assures and sustains the flows, levels, and underlying uses of water, both human, environmental, and businesses, within watersheds and communities.

On June 20, 2018, in a historic decision, the Hawai’i Commission on Water Resources Management ruled that stream flows must be restored in the Makapipi and East Maui rivers, which will require the closing of several irrigation diversion ditches and significant limitations on others. [6]The corporate holding company, Alexander and Baldwin, of Hawaiian Commercial Sugar, argued for diversified agriculture and planning for water use for its land holdings. The Water Commission came down on the side of local, public trust uses by restoring stream flows diverted for more than a century.  Going forward, Hawaii companies, municipalities, and land developers must look at limiting water uses to sustain the basic water uses assured all people under the constitution and public trust doctrine.

What does this mean for the waters of the Great Lakes basin, the waters of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin (and two Canadian provinces)?  We have significant protection of waters of the basin from diversion under the Great Lakes Compact diversion ban. Recent large-volume diversions of Lake Michigan to Waukesha and now approved for the Foxconn complex outside the basin show there are gaps or loopholes. The MDEQ in Michigan approved diversion of another 210 million gallons a year from the headwaters of two cold water trout streams for Nestlé’s bottled water export operations; this, too, was under a “bottled water” exception in the Compact and Michigan law.  The same MDEQ just permitted the loss of 600 million gallons of water near a wetlands, creek and lake to mine potash, even though it is widely available elsewhere. The Michigan legislature just passed a law signed by Governor Snyder to circumvent water standards and public permit proceedings that would safeguard streams, lakes, and groundwater from excessive withdrawals and water loss for large corporate farms growing corn and crops for biofuels and other industries.  To put things in a global perspective, Saudi Arabia, China, India and other water-scarce, industrial, high-population countries are buying millions of acres of land in water and soil rich countries, like Brazil and the United States, to use large volumes of water here to export food to their people at home, because they don’t have the water or want to use the water they do have for continued development and industrial growth. How will these competing, high demands for water play out in watersheds, streams, rivers, lakes, wetlands or domestic farming, drinking water, and protection of fishing, local land uses and development?

The Hawaiian experience is fertile well-watered ground for those of us in Michigan, the Great Lakes, or elsewhere, to understand the importance of water, stream flows, levels, and watersheds to our own environment, heritage, economy, and culture. The place to start is fashioning a well-crafted, clear, concise statement for protection of the public trust in our waters where we live and survive. The sooner we do this, the sooner we will be prepared to withstand the coming global, regional, and local conflicts over water. If we fail to do this, citizens, cities and towns, farming, and tourism or recreation like fishing, swimming, boating, and even golfing will be subordinated to unpredictable, thirsty, large private and international interests.

Jim Olson, President and Founder

Putting public trust principles at work now, by simple, articulate laws or constitutional provisions will provide the protection we need. We will not lock up our water, but we will assure its sustainability in our rural, urban, and regional Great Lakes watersheds and communities. Our life and livelihoods here in Michigan and the Great Lakes depend on the integrity of flow and levels of our groundwater and streams.


[1] Sproat, D Kapua’ala, Water Justice Flows Like Water: The Moon Court’s Role in Illuminating Hawai’i Water Law, 33 Univ. Hawai’i L. Rev 537.

[2] In Re Water Use Applications (Waihole I), 94 Hawai’i 97 (2000).

[3]  Waihole II, 105 Haw. 1 (2004); In re Kukui (Molaka’i), 116 Haw. 481 (2007).

[4]  Id.

[5] Protection of the Great Lakes: 15-Year Review (International Joint Commission, Jan. 2016).

[6] Petition to Amend Interim Instream Flow Standards for Honopou et al., State of Hawaii, Commission on Water Resource Management, Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, & Decision and Order, Case No. CCH-MA13-01, June 20, 2018 (300 pps.).

Attorney General Bill Schuette has Ample Legal Authority to Pursue a Shutdown of Line 5

Line 5 Pipeline

By: FLOW Chair, Skip Pruss

Taking Legal Action

Recently, John Sellek, Attorney General Bill Schuette’s campaign spokesperson, pushed back on the charge that the Attorney General could have taken legal action to shut down the Enbridge Line 5 petroleum pipelines at the Straits of Mackinac, stating “If this claim about the easement [filing a lawsuit] was so simple, then I am sure you would agree that Attorney General Jennifer Granholm and Attorney General Frank Kelley would have done it long ago.”

The problem with Sellek’s statement is the threat posed by Line 5 didn’t hit the public’s radar until 2010, when concerns were triggered by the expansion of other pipelines and after Enbridge’s Kalamazoo River spill became the largest inland pipeline spill, measured by area affected, in U.S. history.

But Sellek’s comment obscures the more important issue:  Bill Schuette has always had ample legal authority to seek termination of the easement for Line 5.  What is more, there is legal precedent for such action.

The Precedent

In 1986, Frank Kelley, then Attorney General for the State of Michigan, filed legal actions against Consumers Power Company and The Detroit Edison Company for fish mortality associated with the operation of the Ludington Pumped Storage Facility (LPSF) which was, at the time, the largest pumped-storage facility in North America.  The LPSF, which continues to operate today, stores 27 billion gallons of Lake Michigan waters in a reservoir 5.5 miles in circumference to produce electricity during times of peak demand.

The problem was that the pumping cycles of the LPSF killed millions of sports fish as well as the forage fish they depended on.

Kelley filed two lawsuits; one for $300 million in monetary damages for the economic impact on Michigan’s sports fishery, and another seeking termination of the state lease for Lake Michigan bottomlands that are an integral part of the LPSF.

The lawsuits alleged violations of the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act, the Michigan Environmental Protection Act, the common law of nuisance, and violation of the Public Trust Doctrine.  These same laws remain operative today and provide a clear legal basis for Bill Schuette to file suit to revoke the easement for Line 5 on Lake Michigan bottomlands.

In particular, the Public Trust Doctrine is a powerful legal framework to address the catastrophic threat posed by Line 5.  The doctrine holds that the waters and bottomlands of the Great Lakes are held in a public trust for the benefit of the people.  And further, the State of Michigan, through its attorneys general, has what the Michigan Supreme Court has stated is a “high, solemn and perpetual duty” to protect public trust resources from impairment or destruction.

Bill Schuette has that duty, and he has acknowledged that Line 5 presents an unacceptable risk stating that “you wouldn’t site, and you wouldn’t build and construct pipelines underneath the Straits today.”  Schuette’s assessment implies that a state-of-the-art, 21st Century pipeline presents an unacceptable risk, yet he has not initiated any legal proceedings despite the growing evidence that the integrity of Line 5 may be dangerously compromised.

Line 5 is showing a number of red flags.  Facts compiled by For Love of Water demonstrating impacts to and degradation of Line 5 would support the attorney general’s legal claims: 

  • Continuing scouring of bottomland support beneath the pipelines contrary to and in violation of 1953 Easement and original “as built” design.
  • Abrasion and loss of coating from the movement of the supports that are fastened to the pipelines.
  • Documentation that corrosion has occurred on the pipelines in nine locations and evidence of deformities or bending in the pipelines.
  • Observations that there are 55 “circumferential” cracks and loss of wall thickness in the pipelines.
  • As a result of the failure of the original design due to scouring and strong currents, the continual addition from 2001 to 2018 of 150 saddles and support, which have completely altered the original design and suspend almost 2 miles of pipelines above bottomlands of the Straits without legal authorization.
  • Anchor strikes that have dented the pipeline in three locations.

These facts support a finding that Line 5 poses an imminent risk.  Under the law, the concept of “imminent risk” has two components – the likelihood of a failure and the potential magnitude of the harm.  A study by the University of Michigan Water Center and modelling work done by the National Wildlife Federation have amply demonstrated the magnitude of potential harm by showing how a Line 5 failure would disperse oil and natural gas liquids throughout northern Lakes Michigan and Huron.  And a recent Michigan State University study commissioned by FLOW shows potential economic damages that could exceed $6.3 billion.

Line 5, if it continues to operate, will fail eventually.  It is unscientific and reckless to suggest that it can function indefinitely.  While it is true a legal action to compel a shutdown could take considerable time, failure to take legal action is a breach of the attorney general’s legal obligation to the citizens of Michigan under the Public Trust Doctrine.

The Result

So, what was the result of Attorney General Kelley’s action in 1986?

The Michigan Court of Appeals held that “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” but denied the state’s request to void the lease for state bottomlands.  Both parties appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court, but the case was settled before the Court rendered a decision.

Skip Pruss, FLOW Chair

The result:  A settlement valued at $177 million (1995 dollars), establishment of the Great Lakes Fisheries Trust, conveyance of over 24,000 acres of pristine lands to the State of Michigan (including 70 miles of undeveloped river frontage), 12 new public fishing sites on the Great Lakes, and prophylactic measures implemented to reduce fish mortality at the LPSF. 

As Attorney General, Frank Kelley obtained a major victory for the public interest in a situation involving an unacceptable use of publicly-owned Great Lakes bottomlands.  It is time for Schuette to act on Line 5, not make excuses.


FLOW’s Vision to Address the World Water Crisis

“The water cycle and the life cycle are one” —- Jacques Cousteau

 

A White-Water Trip Down the Currents of the Public Trust Doctrine

In ancient times, people knew water and the life cycles were the same. Without water, civilizations collapsed. Rome, with its dependence on water and the spokes of its aqueducts, knew this. It is little wonder that that nearly 2000 years ago, air, running water, and wildlife were considered common to all.

In 1215, paragraphs in the Magna Carta –that Great Charter of Liberty that formed the basis of modern constitutional democracies–ordered the Crown and Lords to remove weirs that limited the public’s access to water, fishing, travel, survival.

In 1821, the New Jersey Supreme Court recognized this principle. The legal principles around land came down to this country as private property. But the court ruled that water, particularly navigable waters, came down as commons. Landowners had rights of use of water, so did the public, but no one owned the water. The water was owned by the States as sovereign (the people) for the benefit of citizens. A private landowner could not claim ownership of the oysters and the seabed, and the state as sovereign could not transfer the seabed or exclusive license to take oysters to a private person.

In 1892, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the legislature of Illinois had had no power to convey a square mile of Lake Michigan on the shore of Chicago to Illinois Central Railroad for a private industrial harbor and industrial beachhead. Why? Because the Great Lakes, like all navigable waters or public property or commons of a special character, was subject to a public trust: Government cannot alienate the commons of water, lakebeds, or impair the quantity, quality, or public uses—fishing, navigation, boating, swimming, bathing, drinking water or sustenance—protected by the public trust doctrine.

Photo credit: Beth Price

When Michigan joined the Union—in 1837—the state, like every other state, took title to the waters and lakebed below the ordinary high water mark in public trust for citizens. The federal government reserved only a navigational servitude to assure travel for all citizens for commerce and pleasure over the navigable waters of the U.S. The title of the state cannot be transferred and the state cannot be divested, by anyone of this sovereign title of a state and its citizens. And because it is a trust, like any trust managed by a bank or other concern, each citizen is a legal beneficiary who can enforce this trust when the trustee breaches its duties.

In the 1970s, a Wisconsin court recognized that wetlands formed by the waters of an adjacent public stream were part of the public trust and could and should be protected. An Illinois court recognized the public trust doctrine applied to public parks, also public common property of a special character.

In the 1980s, the California Supreme Court ruled that Los Angeles could not divert water to feed its water demand from a tributary upstream from Mono Lake, because the diversion of the stream diminished and impaired the public trust in the lake.

From the late 1990s to this month, the Hawaii Supreme Court has ruled a number of times that tributary groundwater, connected to a stream, could not be removed if it dried up or diminished the basic public uses of all citizens under the public trust doctrine.

In the last eight years, the states of Vermont, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and California have recognized the connection between groundwater, springs, creeks, streams, wetlands, and lakes—the hydrologic or water cycle.

Last fall, and in two subsequent rulings, the federal district court and 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that children and persons whose health, property, and public trust uses of navigable public trust waters  were impaired or threatened with impairment in the future by climate change had a right under the public trust doctrine and constitution to bring a lawsuit against the federal government — to compel it to take actions within its governmental powers to reduce C02 and greenhouse gases to mitigate the coming impacts from climate change. The federal government and states have a duty to protect the public trust waters and commons, and the public uses that depend on it. It cannot stand by with deliberate indifference and do nothing. It cannot deliberately obstruct or interfere with efforts that protect our water and this commons.

 

Time for a Wide Application of the Public Doctrine’s Legal and Ethical Principles

The importance of the public trust doctrine grows exponentially and rapidly.  Some examples—some representing FLOW’s work—

  • Line 5 in Straits of Mackinac and the 645 miles under or near the lakes, streams, towns, groundwater drinking water zones of Michigan. The public trust in the Straits and Great Lakes and waters, and public use and health, are threatened with deliberate government refusal to take serious action.
  • Nestlé’s major expanded water diversion from the headwaters of creeks near Evart, with little regard for existing conditions and what the withdrawal will do to creeks, wetlands, and wildlife; and with little regard for the shocking injustice that even though water is held by the State for its people, Nestle gets it for a $200 administrative fee and pays nothing for the water, massive profits with no benefit to citizens. Meanwhile, people in Detroit are cut off public water supplies because they can’t afford the $150 to $200 a month bill. People in Flint couldn’t drink their water, can’t afford to fix their pipes from their home to the main system so it’s safe, and must pay $150 to $200 a month.
  • Foxconn recently obtained approval from the State of Wisconsin of an exception to the Great Lakes Compact diversion ban to divert 5 to 7 million gallons of water from Lake Michigan to 1,000 acres for a new industrial manufacturing facility outside the basin divide, for “public” and “largely residential” purposes.
  • Wall Street, backed by a federal government effort to cut funding for states and local governments, is stepping in to control water privately, for higher gains, and higher costs.
  • Scott Pruitt, EPA Administrator, wants to nix the federal clean water rule for waters of the U.S. under the Clean Water Act.
  • Climate change continues to exacerbate droughts and floods, causing devastating harm and damages; EPA’s Pruitt is interfering with efforts under Clean Air Act to reduce greenhouse gases.
  • Until recently, Ohio and the federal EPA have dragged their feet to declare western Lake Erie impaired to reduce phosphorous and prevent “dead zones” and algal toxins from entering public water supplies.
  • President Trump last week revoked an Executive Order and 8-year effort by the Obama administration to start protecting oceans and the Great Lakes with stewardship and other principles to assure sustainability and integrity of these waters. In its place, President Trump issued an Executive Order to increase opportunities for industrialization and oil and gas production and transport under and over our oceans and the Great Lakes.

Each of these examples runs counter to the public trust doctrine and the rights or interests of citizens as beneficiaries. Each example either alienates or privatizes public trust water or impairs or threatens impairment of drinking water, fishing, swimming, boating, and sustenance. Each of these threatens health, public and private property, public uses, tourism, and quality of life and long term economic stability.

President Trump’s Executive Order ramping up industrial uses and oil and gas leasing and transport in, under, or over the Great Lakes completely ignores the legal fact that the federal government does not own the lakebeds or waters of the Great Lakes. With last week’s announcement by Justice Anthony Kennedy that he will step down from Supreme Court later this summer, solutions to these major threats and problems will face greater difficulty if not impossible odds.

Science and common sense informs us in the context of today’s world that human behavior and actions influence every arc of the water cycle—groundwater, streams, lakes, rivers, ocean, evaporation, snowpack or rainfall. One simple documented conclusion makes the point: The demand for freshwater will outstrip supply by thirty to forty percent by 2050. Population will have increased to nearly 9 billion, and 2 billion persons may be without adequate or safe sources or supplies of freshwater. 

Jim Olson, President and Founder

At FLOW, we are working to educate leaders, citizens, communities, and businesses in a way that offers a legal and policy framework that is equal to and embraces the water cycle and, as noted at the outset, the life cycle. Water is public, held in public trust, and must remain so. If we protect water as a public trust, we will make good choices about energy, land development, economy, and quality of life.


Tapping into Local Awesomeness


The Local Movement

Did you know that the City of Traverse City has been addressing plastic pollution, climate change, and water privatization for almost a decade? I’m so proud of our small but mighty Midwest town here in the heart of the Great Lakes.

In 2009, our city adopted a resolution to ban plastic bottled water from all municipal functions! Why? Because the city had already recognized the wasteful nature of single-use plastic water bottles, the staggering expense associated with bottled water, the climate change impacts and carbon footprint associated with producing and shipping plastics made from fossil fuels, and the incredible high quality drinking water Traverse City provides its residents. City Planner, Russ Soyring, explained that this resolution is a reflection of the city’s culture now. And it’s a testimony to how resilient we are when we decide to be. 

In less than 10 years, bottled water has outstripped the sales of carbonated soda beverages, and bottled water has been become another normalized American addiction. Compared to municipal water, bottled water can cost up to 2000% more per volume than tap water. Around 64% of commercial bottled water is just tap water that’s been filtered or purified. 70% of plastic water bottles are not recycled — and still people drink from them.

The Larger Conversation

This conversation about bottled water is a critical one to us at FLOW because it opens the door to a larger policy conversation about the urgency of retaining and protecting water as a public resource. That’s why we started the Get Off the Bottle campaign. That’s why we started mapping all the drinking fountains and refillable bottled water stations on an app called WeTap. If we’re going to change our habits, we know we need alternatives like knowing where we can fill up our reusable water bottle. 

In buying bottled water, consumers are inadvertently legitimizing the capture of water that belongs to all of us by private, for-profit companies who reap unearned, enormous riches. Water belongs to the public and cannot be privately owned. Turning water into a product for private profit is inconsistent with the 1500-year-old public trust doctrine of law and risks putting all water up for grabs. 

The majority of municipal water systems in this country – some 85% — are publicly owned and remain accountable to residents under constitutional and public governance. But as our municipal infrastructure continues to age without adequate funding support, there will be increasing pressure to privatize our drinking and wastewater systems. The latest example comes to us from Puerto Rico. And clear patterns emerge from water privatization, well documented to include: rate increases, lack of public accountability and transparency, higher operation costs, worse customer service, loss of one in three water jobs. A Food & Water Watch survey of rates by 500 water systems showed that privatized systems typically charge 59 percent more than publicly owned systems.

We know there is no one size that fits all; however, when it comes to water, we have to affirmatively commit to protecting it as a shared public resource. To this end, we believe that local governments across the Great Lakes Basin must insist on key principles that Jim Olson articulated in his blog several months ago:

  1. Declare all water public; just because our natural public water commons enter an intake pipe does not mean this water loses its public common and sovereign status. Government at all times must manage and provide water as sovereign for the benefit of people.
  2. Impose public oversight with a duty to protect the public service, public interest, public health, and public trust in water and the infrastructure the water passes through;
  3. Establish rights and Impose duties of accountability, notice, participation, equal access to safe, adequate, clean, affordable public water;
  4. Guarantee principles of due process, equal protection of law, and right to basic water service;
  5. Guarantee affordability and equity in access and use of water by all residents and customers;
  6. Implement fair and innovative pricing, subject to public oversight, a public utility or water board, with a statement of rights, duties, enforcement, and government process to assure safe, clean, affordable public water.

Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director

 

Fundamentally, while national and state environmental policies are critically important, we know that local communities are where policies take shape in our daily lives. It’s right here in our own communities where we can make a difference. Thanks TC for taking back the tap!


Water for Flint, Not for Nestlé


Flint is still dealing with the lead poisoning of residents’ drinking water. Residents of Detroit are once again experiencing water shutoffs. Ontario has the highest number of Drinking Water Advisories in First Nations out of all the provinces in Canada. All the while Nestlé is allowed to pump millions of litres of water from Ontario and Michigan every day to bottle and sell for profit. 

I went to Detroit recently to meet with the Water Is Life coalition to talk about these and other water justice issues around the Great Lakes. Nearly 20 organizations gathered over two days to develop strategies to prevent the privatization and commodification of water, ensure affordable access to drinking water and sanitation, uphold Indigenous rights to water, protect the Great Lakes and implement the UN-recognized human rights to water and sanitation. 

The groups included the Council of Canadians including the Guelph chapter, Detroit People’s Water Board, Flint Democracy Defense League, Flint Rising, Chiefs of Ontario, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, Story of Stuff, Wellington Water Watchers, Corporate Accountability International, Great Lakes Commons and more. The coalition has continued meeting since the Water Is Life: Strengthening a Great Lakes Commons summit in Flint last fall to coordinate work and develop collective strategies to advance the human right to water around the Great Lakes Basin. 

Nestlé’s bottled water operations in the Great Lakes Basin

In Ontario, Nestlé continues to pump up to 4.7 million litres (1.2 million gallons) of water every day on expired permits from its two wells in Wellington County, Ontario. Nestle has purchased a third well in Elora and could be given the green light to pump once Ontario’s moratorium on new and expanded bottled water permits ends in January 2019. The City of Guelph has raised concerns about the impacts of Nestlé’s water takings on the municipality’s future drinking water. 

Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford becoming Ontario’s new premier raises serious concerns about the protection of water from Nestlé and other bottled water companies.

Council of Canadians’ Political Director Brent Patterson has noted, “Ontario PC leader Doug Ford does not appear to have issued a policy statement on the issue of bottled-water takings, but the Toronto Star has previously reported that clients of the Ford family firm, Deco Labels & Tags, include Nestlé Canada Inc., Coca-Cola, Cara Operations and Porter Airlines.” 

Wellington Water Watchers and the Council of Canadians have been calling for a phase out of bottled water takings in Ontario. Recent surveys by both organizations have shown that the majority of people in Ontario want bottled water takings to be phased out and for water to be protected for communities. 

Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation and the Grand Traverse Band of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians (GTB) both recently filed legal challenges against the Michigan government for giving Nestlé the green light to increase its pumping from 250 gallons (946 litres) to 400 gallons (1514 litres) of water every minute. GTB have consistently raised concerns that Nestlé’s permit approvals fail to consider the GTB’s treaty rights.

Drinking Water Advisories in First Nations

Six Nations of the Grand River, downstream from Nestlé’s water takings in Ontario, and the Chiefs of Ontario have stated that First Nations have not given consent to Nestlé’s permits in Ontario.

CBC recently reported that only 9% of residents of Six Nations have clean water

In May, there were 174 Drinking Water Advisories in First Nations across Canada, with 91 DWAs in Ontario alone. Some of these First Nations have been under DWAs for 5, 10 and some even nearly 20 years and rely on bottled water as a Band-Aid solution. The Mohawks of Tyendinaga on Lake Ontario have had DWAs since 2003 and 2008. Despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promises to end DWAs, the total number of DWAs has remained largely the same. 

Different levels of government are responsible for different areas of water management. The provincial government issues Permits to Take Water to companies like Nestle while the federal government is responsible for water on First Nations reserves. But both levels of government have continued to approve projects without free, prior and informed consent as required by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and governments must coordinate to respect treaty rights and implement the human right to water.

Detroit water shutoffs is a violation of the human right to water

In Detroit, the fifth round of water shutoffs began this spring. 17,000 homes were earmarked for their water to be shut off this year. Roughly 80% of Detroit residents are black. Poverty rates are also at roughly 35%. Water rates have risen in Detroit by 119 per cent in the last decade and many residents are unable to pay the high water bills. 

UN experts have made clear: “Disconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights.”

Council of Canadians Guelph chapter members Lin Grist and Ron East and I joined the Solidarity Saturday’s rally outside the Detroit Water Department to protest the water shutoffs. Participants at the rally connected the dots between water justice issues like Nestlé’s water takings, Flint’s water crisis, Indigenous water rights and the Detroit water shutoffs. Residents and supporters chanted, “Water for Flint, Not for Nestlé” and “Water is a human right!” 

The Detroit Water Department now shares an office with the Great Lakes Water Authority. Food and Water Watch and other groups raised concerns about the potential for privatization with the regional water authority early on.

Flint’s water crisis is not over

The poisoning of the water in Flint over the last four years has led to urgent water and public health crises. The lead has resulted in an increase in fetal deaths and miscarriages, development impacts on children and a host of serious medical conditions.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder ordered the last water pods to be closed in April stating that they have restored water quality and the need for bottled water has ended.

But Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, state representatives and thousands of residents have highlighted a lack of trust and a lack of proof that the water is now safe.

Water is a human right

The corporate takeover of water by big water corporations like Nestle around the Great Lakes and the violations of the human right to water and Indigenous rights shows that access to water often falls along racial, class and other lines.

Economic globalization and unregulated market capitalism have divided the world – and the Great Lakes Basin – into rich and poor as at no time in living history and endangered the ability of the planet to sustain life. Tragically, most governments support an economic system that puts unlimited growth above the vital needs of people and the planet. 

I am heartened and energized by groups and communities around the Great Lakes as we continue to build a world that protects the human right to water and protects water for people and the planet. 


Emma is a FLOW Board Member and currently the national water campaigner for the Council of Canadians, Canada’s leading social action organization that mobilizes a network of 60 chapters across the country and advocates for clean water, fair trade, green energy, public health care, and a vibrant democracy. She has been with the Council since 2010 and has worked in the field of human rights and social justice for 15 years. She also holds an M.A. in Political Economy.

 

The Public Trust Doctrine and the Implications of the Walker Lake Litigation

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.


An upcoming decision by the Supreme Court of Nevada may have major implications on the public trust doctrine’s ability to protect the public’s water resources.

The Walker River Basin is over 4,000 square miles and stretches from the Sierra Nevada Mountains to its terminus, Walker Lake.[1] Walker Lake is located in Mineral County, Nevada and is roughly thirteen miles long and over five miles wide.[2] The lake is primarily fed by the Walker River, which flows sixty-two miles from California to its mouth on Walker Lake. Unfortunately, Walker Lake has seen a massive decrease in water levels since the state of Nevada started allocating water rights from the Walker River to farmers and ranchers upstream. These water diversions have been so impactful that they have caused the Walker River to run dry before reaching the lake for an almost continuous ten-year period.[3] Reminiscent of Russia’s massive draining of the Aral Sea, since irrigation began on the Walker River, the lake has lost approximately 171 vertical feet of water and is now one third the size it once was.[4]

Not surprisingly, the dramatic decrease in water levels to Walker Lake has also led to significant water quality issues. The lake’s impaired water quality threatens native fish species as well as several bird species that use the lake as a resting stop along their migratory journeys.[5] The diminished water quality of the lake has also affected recreation activities such as boating, swimming, and of course fishing. To help restore Walker Lake, Mineral County has intervened in on-going litigation to challenge previous allocated water rights of farmers and ranchers from the Walker River.

This litigation revolves around a prior appropriation battle that has been on-going since 1924. A previous 1909 court case created the “Rickey decree,” which allocated water rights from the Walker River to over 150 different users.[6] In 1924, the Walker River Paiute Tribe and the United States sued the Walker River Irrigation District (“WRID”) to win recognition of the Tribe’s right to additional water rights from the Walker River.[7] Mineral County has now intervened to win recognition of the rights of its citizens under a legal theory known as the public trust doctrine.  

The public trust doctrine is a common law doctrine that dates back to Roman law. The public trust doctrine provides that sovereign states hold “all of [their] navigable waterways and the lands lying beneath them ‘as trustee of a public trust for the benefit of the people.’ ”[8] This principle has been affirmed by the Supreme Court of the United States for over a century, and has been applied not only to navigable waters, but also to tributaries and ground water aquifers that feed navigable waters.[9]

Even though the public trust doctrine has been firmly established in the United States, how the public trust doctrine interacts with the Western United States prior appropriation system of water rights is still being navigated. Under the prior appropriation system, which is commonly found in the arid Western United States, water rights are generally allocated based on a “first come, first serve” system. In neighboring California which also recognizes prior appropriation and riparian law, the Supreme Court of California held in the seminal 1983 Mono Lake case that the public trust doctrine creates an affirmative duty for the state to take the public trust into account when planning or allocating water resources, and to protect public trust uses (such as swimming, boating, and fishing) whenever feasible.”[10] The Supreme Court of California further went on to hold that the prior allocated water rights out of Mono Lake are still subject to the public trust doctrine, and as such must comply with the public trust duties of the state.

The question of how the public trust interacts with previously appropriated water rights is still unanswered by the courts in Nevada. Nonetheless, the public trust in water resources is generally recognized as paramount to private use of water. A linchpin of the Supreme Court of California’s decision to protect Mono Lake from excessive upstream water diversions was the irrevocable nature of the public trust doctrine and the duties of the state as trustee of Mono Lake. The discovered harm to public trust waters and dependent water resources and uses substantiated the Court’s authority to limit previously appropriated water rights to protect the public trust. Mineral County’s challenge to previously allocated water rights from the Walker River is therefore dependent whether the Supreme Court of Nevada’s will follow the Supreme Court of California and rule that the public trust doctrine is paramount to prior allocated water rights in Nevada. 

If the Supreme Court of Nevada does indeed follow its neighbor to the west, the state of Nevada must fulfill a duty to continually supervise the taking and use of appropriated water rights. Nevada would not be confined to prior allocated water rights, but rather would evaluate these previously allocated water rights to ensure that such rights do not negatively affect the public’s interest in the water resources of Nevada. It is a hard task to balance the needs of farmers and ranchers with the public’s interest in restoring Walker Lake. However, Nevada must resolve this complex question of how to best manage these perpetual competing interests in its freshwater resources for future water security.

To ensure the long-term sustainability and future of Nevada’s finite fresh water resources, the Supreme Court of Nevada should conclude that the state has an affirmative duty to consider the impacts on public trust resources for both future allocations and maintenance of previously allocated water rights. This conclusion would allow Nevada to restore Walker Lake and more importantly guarantee that the state could effectively manage other public trust resources, so that all citizens of Nevada may always enjoy them. Additionally, a decision from the Supreme Court of Nevada that establishes the public trust doctrine as paramount over prior allocated water rights would likely affect how other courts view future challenges to the public trust doctrine across the West and throughout the United States.

In conclusion, even though the litigation surrounding the devastated Walker Lake is binding only in the state of Nevada, the decisions made in this case surrounding the public trust doctrine have the potential to ripple across the nation. The public trust doctrine allows citizens to hold governments accountable for their decisions concerning our public resources. It is a paramount right that is inalienable and perpetual in nature. The Supreme Court of Nevada must now come to a just conclusion and strengthen our ability as citizens to protect the water and natural resource we so deeply depend on and care about.


[1] United States v. Walker River Irrigation District, No. 3:73-cv-00128-RCJ-WGC, 2015 WL 3439122, *1-10, *1 (9th Cir. May 28, 2015).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Walker Lake Crusaders,  http://www.walkerlakecrusaders.com/ (last visited Jun. 11, 2018)

[5] Staci Emm and Kellie Zuniga, Walker Lake: A snapshot of Water Flow and Water Quality, (2008), https://www.unce.unr.edu/publications/files/nr/2008/fs0808.pdf

[6] Daniel Rothberg, 9th Circuit Ruling on Walker Lake Puts Far-Reaching Water Rights Issue Before Nevada Supreme Court, The Nevada Independent (May 27, 2018).

[7] United States v. Walker River Irrigation District, No. 15-16478, 2018 WL 2306279, at *1-10, 1 (9th Cir. May 22, 2018)

[8]  National Audubon Society v. The Superior Court of Alpine County, 658 P.2d 709, 718 (Cal. 1983)(quoting Colberg, Inc v. Sate of California ex rel. Dept. Pub Works, 432 P.2d 3 (Cal. 1967))

[9] James Olson, All Aboard: Navigating the Course for Universal Adoption of the Public Trust Doctrine, 15 Vt. J. Envtl. L. 361, 401 (2014).

[10] National Audubon Society v. The Superior Court of Alpine County, 658 P.2d at 712.