Lake Michigan water along the shore of South Manitou Island, as seen from the top of a lighthouse tower, in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
by Jeff Smith
Northern Michigan Outdoors: We last checked in with environmental attorney Jim Olson in late 2011, when the nationally renowned water law expert was launching a nonprofit called FLOW, for the love of water. The group’s mission is to promote new legal protections for water based on public trust principles, principles that he says lie at the very foundation of Western environmental law. Boiled to the essence, the principle asserts that water should be governed so that everybody can use the water, but nobody can use water in a way that renders it unusable for others (like, say, pollute the water or over-draw the water). (Get a more in-depth explanation here: mynorth.com/My-North/August-2011/Traverse-City-Attorney-is-Defender-of-Global-Water/). The public trust principles sound like common sense and simple enough, but in practice not so easy to get through a legislature.
Olson has been promoting public trust protection of water for more than 30 years. Back when he started, few people took him seriously, but over the decades and through his tireless efforts, his ideas have become part of the national and international water management dialog.
We checked in with Olson on a recent snowy Traverse City afternoon to see how things have progressed since we last spoke.
What’s the biggest victory FLOW has had since we last spoke?
Olson: In December 2011 we met with the International Joint Commission, which is a U.S. and Canadian board that has legal authority to set laws for Great Lakes water, and presented our ideas. They invited us to Washington D.C. and gave us a private hearing, which is a rare event. We followed up with a report to the Environmental Protection Agency and to the president’s coastal policy board. We also published an article in the Vermont Law Journal.
Water levels in the Great Lakes are on everybody’s minds these days—landowners, freighter ship captains, environmentalists—are you doing anything in that realm?
Olson: In fall of 2012 we submitted comments to the IJC about how public trust principles can be applied to water level decisions. These are complex and multi-layered challenges and public trust principles offer a profound limitation to possible abuses.
What was your approach in your comments?
Olson: We took each threat to the Great Lakes and looked at how public trust would affect that particular issue, how public trust principles would play out in the real world to get a good result.
What about on the FLOW organization side, what’s to report there?
Olson: We now have 17 board members and two paid staff. Liz Kirkwood is our executive director and Allison Voglesong is doing our communications. They are a couple of very dynamic people and really doing a great job.
What do you see as some of the specific issues you’ll be tackling in coming months?
Olson: Water levels, certainly. And we are looking for the ability to use local regulations to protect against fracking. Nutrient loading into the Great Lakes is important. How the energy and water and climate interaction will affect water in the Great Lakes.
Obviously the biggest environmental issue of our time is climate change—is there a connection to public trust principles there?
Olson: The Great Lakes are at an all-time low, and many people think climate change is largely to blame. We are looking closely at the hydrologic cycle. If you think about it, excess evaporation due to climate change is actually a diversion of some sort.
Learn more about FLOW: flowforwater.org/