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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.


President Trump’s Executive Order to Industrialize Great Lakes Violates the Public Trust


On June 19, 2018, President Trump issued an Executive Order that declared “the ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes waters of the United States are foundational to economy, security, global competitiveness, and well-being of the United States.” The purpose of this order is three-fold:

  1. Facilitate economic growth and industrial use of the Great Lakes, including increased off shore oil and gas exploitation from beneath the oceans and Great Lakes;
  2. Form partnerships between governments, scientists, and industries to better inform decisions and enhance development opportunities for industries in or along the oceans and Great Lakes;
  3. Revoke President Obama’s Executive Order 13547 (Stewardship of the Ocean, Our Coasts, and the Great Lakes) of July 19, 2010.

In other words, deep-six our nation’s water policies aimed at the continuing struggle to correct the ills of industrialization, oil and gas development, invasive species, waste discharges and abuses of our oceans and Great Lakes. Like a Chekhov short story after the Russian Revolution, our Nation’s ocean and Great Lakes policy has been stripped of any reference to the importance of “climate change,” “environment,” “sustainability,” “ecosystems”, “adaptability,” “resiliency,” and “stewardship” to our waters.

The Timeline

Reports, books, articles abound about the demise of the Great Lakes from industrial and wastewater abuse in the late 1800s until 1969– made infamous when the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire, one of many such incidents causing millions of dollars in damages. Soon after, Lake Erie was declared dead from phosphorous loading. Congress responded by passing the Clean Water Act to implement a national policy, carried out by the States, to prevent degradation of our nation’s water quality. States like Michigan banned detergents and cleaning compounds containing high levels of phosphorous. The International Joint Commission (“IJC”), the binational governing board over pollution and diminishment of the waters of the Great Lakes spearheaded a landmark Water Quality Agreement between Canada and the U.S. and the eight states bordering these inland seas. Along with the Santa Barbara oil spill, these events helped usher in the environmental era, one that has become as much a part of life as water, food, livelihood, and the economy.

In 1978, stories of toxic chemicals in waters and soil in Niagara, New York hit the national news, and soon the tragedy of “Love Canal” fostered a massive effort by the nation and states to make “polluters pay.” How could a canal turned into a waste dump of toxic soup– the list of hazardous substances a mile long, at the time unknown, today on all of the toxic regulatory lists– then be used by a school, and later sold for a 36-block subdivision? In response, Congress and the states passed laws like the Federal Superfund or state superfund laws to make the “polluter pay,” and force the cleanup of the toxic legacy left by industry over the past 150 years.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the IJC, Environment Canada, US EPA, states, and untold numbers of scientists, policy-makers, citizens and nonprofit organizations pushed for identification and cleanup of toxic “hot spots” in the harbors and along coastlines of the Great Lakes, and adopted an ecosystem lake-wide approach to protecting and restoring the Great Lakes and their connecting or tributary waters. In recent years, efforts by members of Congress who are part of the Great Lakes delegation, leading conservation and environmental organizations like National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, and so many others, pressed Congressional appropriations in the hundreds of millions to finally restore our Great Lakes and remove those toxic “hot spots” that continue to plague public health, fishing, recreation, tourism, jobs, economy and quality of life. 

In the past decade, the U.S. and Canada have amended the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement to address not only toxic hot spots, but stop acidification, waves of invasive species like Asian Carp and quagga mussels, nutrient runoff and algal blooms that have turned the western one-third of Lake Erie into a “dead zone,” stem the tide of aquiculture, and prepare for the potential devastating impacts from extreme weather caused by climate change. The States and Congress also enacted the Great Lakes Compact that prevents diversions of water from the Great Lakes, with a few exceptions for bottled water and communities whose territory and water systems cross the basin divide. Most recently, the IJC, courts, and states have begun to implement the ancient legal principle that protects the Great Lakes, known as the “public trust doctrine.”

In 2010, President Obama picked up the momentum to protect our oceans and Great Lakes after the Deep Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the effects of which decimated 1,300 miles of coastal ecosystems, towns, quality of life and water-dependent economies. Executive Order 13547 declared, “America’s stewardship of the ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes is intrinsically linked to environmental sustainability, human health and well-being, national prosperity, adaptation to climate and other changes, social justice, and security.” He recommended implementation – in cooperation with states, tribes, foreign governments, and citizens– of this goal for all agencies of the federal government whose decisions affected the oceans and Great Lakes. 

On June 19, 2018, in one short stroke of the pen, President Trump nullified decades of dedicated conservation efforts by the federal government, states, tribes, scientists, nonprofit organizations, and citizens to come to grips with the reality of what we and the world face in the 21st century. President Trump has returned the country’s national water policy back to the ecological barbarism of the late 1800s and the last century.  He has ordered federal agencies to abstain from stewardship and protection of the integrity and sustainability of our waters and start cooperating with the private sector to exploit them for industrial uses, oil and gas and energy development, and marine transport of oil and similar hazardous substances. Is it now open season for industry to plunder once more the Great Lakes? In the mind of President Trump and his private industry friends it is.  They will stop at nothing to push the Dow Jones to all-time highs, even if it costs us the Great Lakes, public health, and quality of life and our economy itself. Trump has called for increased offshore oil and gas leasing and development and energy maritime transport.

President Trump Ignores and Betrays the Public Trust in the Great Lakes

The real question now is whether President Trump’s Executive Order has any effect on the Great Lakes.  President Trump’s Executive Order spells doom for the oceans, but not the Great Lakes. While the order may force federal agencies to retract their powers when it comes to permitting industry and energy transport near or on the Great Lakes, the President and federal government have no say in the leasing, sale, and use of the waters and lakebeds of the Great Lakes and tributary lakes and streams.

Under the Federal Submerged Lands Act, the near-shore or coastal zone below the ordinary high-water mark is held by ocean coastal states in public trust. Beyond the near shore, the federal government controls the sovereignty of the water and bottomlands of the oceans, and can, subject to express authority and law, sell oil and gas or other mineral leases to develop the oceans.  Fortunately, that is not the law of the Great Lakes. President Trump’s Executive Order appears to be ignorant, at least oblivious, of the legal fact that all of the states of this country became vested with absolute title in the navigable waters and land below the ordinary high-water mark under the “equal footing” doctrine. All of the states bordering the Great Lakes took title to these waters and lakebeds when they joined the Union as sovereign for the benefit of citizens. All the federal government has is a reserved right of navigation for all citizens to travel and engage in commerce over the waters of the U.S.  The title and any decision concerning leasing, sale, or other use for oil and gas development, energy transport like Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac, remains with the State, not the federal government, and not President Trump.

But there is even more to it than state sovereign ownership.  This state ownership and control of the Great Lakes is subject to the public trust doctrine. In 1892, the U.S. Supreme Court in a case called Illinois Central Railroad v Illinois ruled that the Great Lakes are held by the states in public trust to protect paramount public trust uses of citizens: navigation, fishing, swimming, bathing, boating, recreation, and drinking water or sustenance. States have an affirmative duty to protect the public trust and cannot alienate or lease it for private development or risk impairment of these public trust waters and uses. Virtually every state on the Great Lakes and beyond has adopted state sovereign ownership and public trust in water.  After talking with my colleague and friend Dave Dempsey about the topic of this article, Dave, reminding me once more of the importance of history, sent me a news clipping from 2002, reporting the passage by the Michigan legislature of a ban on oil and gas development of the Great Lakes under the public trust doctrine. Governor Engler, in prescient Trump-like fashion, opposed the bill and refused to sign it. The legislature overruled him.

But the legal truth is, the public trust doctrine imposes a limitation on exploiting or risking the Great Lakes by leasing for oil and gas or other private development, except within a very narrow exception: A project must improve or enhance a public trust interest, such as a marina that fosters riparian and public fishing and boating and cannot otherwise risk impairment of the public trust.

Jim Olson, FLOW Founder

Sorry, President Trump, you may have the authority to revoke President Obama’s stewardship toward the oceans and Great Lakes and reindustrialize the waters of the nation. But you cannot revoke state ownership of water, bottomlands, or the public trust doctrine. Governor Engler didn’t have the authority to do so. You don’t either. We who live in the Great Lakes Basin hereby serve notice that the Great Lakes are off limits. The Great Lakes belong to the states in trust for its citizens– the legal beneficiaries.


Appreciating Our Submerged Lands: Michigan

byzantine-empire-public-land.-trusts
Submerged Michigan
 
38,000 square miles.  That’s a lot of real estate.  In fact, it’s bigger than the square mileage of 12 states — including Indiana, West Virginia and Massachusetts.
 
It’s part of Michigan.  It’s a part you and all other citizens of Michigan own.
 
And it’s all underwater, under Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron and Erie.
 
These Great Lakes submerged lands are protected by the public trust doctrine.  
 
Under the public trust, the waters of the Great Lakes Basin and the lands beneath them can never be controlled by or transferred to private interests for private purposes or gain. 
 
Our rights to use the water of the Great Lakes Basin cannot be alienated or subordinated by our governments to special private interests; this means that all reasonable private use and public uses may be accommodated so long as the public trust waters and ecosystem are not harmed and the paramount public right to public uses is not subordinated or impaired. Because many citizens are not aware that the public trust doctrine is part of their bundle of rights in our democracy, many of our leaders and big business are ignoring and violating these principles. 
Add these 38,000-plus square miles underwater to the 58,000 or so square miles of Michigan of land and water that makes up the Upper and Lower Peninsula, and you have a total state area of approximately 96,700 square miles of Michigan.  That makes Michigan the 11th largest state in area.

 

Trivia question:  how many states does Michigan border?  The answer is not 3 — Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio.  Michigan does border these states, but there are two more, Minnesota and Illinois, making a total of 5.  Michigan’s waters and submerged lands meet Minnesota’s in Lake Superior and Illinois in Lake Michigan.