Author: FLOW Editor

FLOW Deeply Disappointed in Court Decision Today Leaving State of Michigan’s Lawsuit to Shut Down ‘Line 5’ in Federal Court, Denying the State’s Request

Editor’s Note: The following is a media release issued by FLOW on November 16, 2021; please contact Executive Director Liz Kirkwood at (570) 872-4956 or or Senior Legal Advisor Jim Olson at (231) 499-8831 or

Judge Neff’s decision today addresses only the narrow, procedural issue of whether a state or federal court should decide if the State of Michigan lawfully ordered the shutdown of the Line 5 oil pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac. Although the federal court’s decision to exercise jurisdiction over this matter is disappointing, it does not resolve the validity of the State’s action to protect the public’s legally revered interests in the Great Lakes. Canadian energy transport giant Enbridge continues to defy the order to shut down Line 5.

The decision is legally deficient for multiple reasons, most notably because it failed to consider express provisions of federal law that affirm Michigan’s sovereign right to apply and enforce its own laws to protect its waters and environment. The court also did not properly consider the State’s sovereign interests as required when making a jurisdictional determination. 

“The court overlooked the sovereign public interests of Michigan, an omission that seriously threatens not only Michigan’s sovereignty over its navigable water, but every state in the nation,” said FLOW Founder and Senior Legal Advisor Jim Olson

The decision also threatens the sovereign interests of states by setting an extremely low bar for removing state-court lawsuits to federal court. This could result in the weaponization of federal jurisdiction by foreign corporations seeking to litigate disputes involving state law in federal court.

“Fortunately,” said Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director of FLOW, “until decided by a court, Governor Whitmer’s revocation of Line 5 stands firm. FLOW stands in solidarity with the State of Michigan as Attorney General Nessel defends the public waters of the Great Lakes in this nationally significant litigation.” 

Background from FLOW:

Key Context on Federal Lawsuit:

Recent  Line 5 Analysis:

State’s Line 5 Shutdown Deadline:

Reality Check:

Gov. Whitmer’s Line 5 Shutdown Order & Reaction:

For more information, see FLOW’s Line 5 fact sheets and blogs:

FLOW’s Blog Coverage: Line 5 blogs providing news & analysis.

Spurred by Citizens, Michigan Speeds Up Getting the Lead Out of Benton Harbor’s Drinking Water Supply

By Dave Dempsey

In the end, it took outside intervention to begin moving the people of Benton Harbor toward a clean, safe water supply this fall. Why?

Despite three years of data showing that the city’s drinking water exceeded state standards for lead contamination, it wasn’t until the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center filed a petition with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on September 9 that the State of Michigan took decisive action to address the problem. The EPA followed suit with an order to the city on November 2 to improve disinfection and corrosion treatments at the water plant, monitor for disinfection byproducts, repair plant filters, and contract with a third party to study the long-term operation of the city’s drinking water system.

Lead is a neurotoxin that is especially dangerous to children. Among other things, it can damage the brain and central nervous system and lower IQ.

The citizen petition, which FLOW also joined, cited an “imminent and substantial endangerment” to health and urged the EPA to immediately order city and state officials to provide Benton Harbor residents with safe drinking water and full removal of the nearly 6,000 lead service lines delivering water to homes. Benton Harbor’s population is approximately 9,800 people.

Reverend Edward Pinkney, president of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, expressed impatience with the state and federal response to the city’s lead crisis. “For at least three years, the people of Benton Harbor have been waiting for safe drinking water uncontaminated by dangerous lead. But we are not willing to wait any longer. It’s urgent that the EPA intervene to give this community access to water that won’t harm our health, especially our children’s health,” he said.

“Michigan’s response to this lead-in-water crisis has been plagued by delay and failure,” said Cyndi Roper, senior Michigan advocate with NRDC. She added that environmental agencies were “already well aware of the significant damage inflicted on Michiganders’ lives by lead-contaminated drinking water,” referring to the emergency in Flint that exposed approximately 99,000 residents to lead in drinking water in 2014 and 2015.

The citizen petition to the EPA also galvanized Governor Whitmer, who on October 14 issued a directive calling for an “all-hands-on-deck, whole-of-government approach” to rectifying Benton Harbor’s drinking water crisis. The order directed state agencies to:

  • Provide free bottled water to the residents of Benton Harbor until further notice. 
  • Offer free or low-cost, lead-related services including, but not limited to, drinking water testing and health services. 
  • Collaborate closely with federal partners, county officials, city officials, and community leaders to communicate up-to-date information and leverage every available resource to accelerate lead service line replacement.

Gov. Whitmer visited Benton Harbor on October 19 to hear from local leaders and stress her personal attention to the problem. She asked the Legislature for an immediate $11.4 million to remove lead pipes. The state’s goal is to remove all lead pipes in the city in 18 months by early 2023. Whitmer also visited Benton Harbor on Nov. 9 to witness the removal of the first lead pipes.

In a further response to the Benton Harbor emergency, the Governor issued a six-point executive directive on November 4 to improve the state’s water protections. One point directed state agencies to conduct a “line-by-line review of existing laws and regulations governing water. The review will recommend reforms that could include legislation, amendments to existing rules, new rules, and executive reorganization,” she said.

The state delay in responding to Benton Harbor was puzzling in light of the early actions the Whitmer Administration took to avoid a repeat of the Flint disaster, including a policy calling for state employees to come forward with information about potential environmental health threats, and the creation of a Clean Water Public Advocate within the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. The Advocate’s mission is to ensure that drinking water concerns are investigated and that trends are analyzed.

The federal infrastructure bill approved by Congress last week contains $15 billion for removal of lead water pipes nationwide. Michigan also has $5.7 billion in unspent federal funds from last winter’s COVID relief package. Some of that money could also be spent for lead pipe removal. Estimates for replacement of all lead water pipes in Michigan range as high as $1.5 billion.

Infrastructure Bill Passes, Now the Work Begins in the Great Lakes Basin

Photo: Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Nov. 9, 2021, joined by Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad and construction workers, visits the Benton Harbor site where the first lead service lines were being replaced after her expedited commitment to replace 100% of those lines in the city in 18 months.

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

By Dave Dempsey

Michigan has a gigantic opportunity to provide clean drinking water, clean up sewage and stormwater runoff, and restore the Great Lakes—while promoting access for all to clean, safe, affordable water—after last Friday’s final bipartisan Congressional action on the Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act. President Joe Biden in a statement said he will sign the legislation this week.

As FLOW begins to review what the $1.2 trillion bill means for environmental investments in Michigan, one of our guiding principles will be the need to assure the federal money goes where it is needed most—to help communities that are unable to drink their water safely and affordably, and to address our most urgent water pollution problems. National and state leadership is critical to securing equitable access to water.

FLOW has continued to urge state and federal officials to address lead, PFAS, and other contaminants in drinking water and to assure water affordability for water customers facing shutoffs because of skyrocketing rates. During the early months of the pandemic, FLOW demanded a water shutoff moratorium. This state water policy resulted in significantly lower rates of infection and death from the pandemic. The state should program some of the new federal funding to address the urgent matter of water affordability.

Nationally, the legislation spends $55 billion on water and wastewater infrastructure. It has $15 billion to replace lead pipes and $10 billion to address water contamination from PFAS substances.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer says that Michigan should receive a total of $10 billion in federal aid from the bill, including funding for roads, bridges, energy efficiency, and environmental needs. 

One of the best early analyses of the bill’s environmental impact in Michigan as provided by Bridge Magazine, which notes the state will receive:

  • $1.3 billion for water infrastructure, including replacement of lead lines that contaminate drinking water in communities like Benton Harbor and Flint and funds to address widespread PFAS chemical contamination.
  • $1 billion in public transportation improvements.
  • $110 million for electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will have an extra $1 billion to spend over five years on Great Lakes restoration. This infusion of funds should be spent to have lasting benefits for the Lakes. Because it comes from an infrastructure bill, it makes sense for much of the money to be spent on green infrastructure—restoring wetlands, cleaning up urban stormwater, and improving stream hydrology.

The federal money will come to Michigan at a time when the Governor has ordered a complete review of the state’s water program and laws in the wake of an overdue state response to lead contamination in the water supply of the City of Benton Harbor that has been challenged by community groups and organizations including FLOW.

One of the biggest obstacles to the allocation of the funds in Michigan may be reaching agreement between Governor Whitmer and the Legislature. They have not yet agreed on how to spend $5.7 billion in federal funds from the federal COVID-19 relief bill passed earlier this year

Pres. Biden is pushing a second, larger piece of legislation called the Build Back Better Act, which includes what the White House calls “the largest effort to combat climate change in American history.” It is unclear when Congress will take up the approximately $1.75 billion bill.

We Must Map and Make Room for Climate-Induced Water Levels to Protect Communities, Taxpayers

The Betsie Valley Trail floods in June 2019. Photo by Kelly Thayer.

Editor’s note: While world leaders gather through November 12 in Glasgow, Scotland, at the United Nation’s COP26 climate change conference, FLOW Founder Jim Olson in this blog calls for a new approach to watershed and land use planning and zoning in the Great Lakes Basin that respects the increasing variability of water levels.

Jim Olson is FLOW’s Founder and Legal Advisor

By Jim Olson

Whether it’s extreme drought or heavy precipitation and flooding from climate change events, it is indisputable that the range between all-time high and all-time low water flows and levels in the Great Lakes watershed has changed dramatically, and will become only more extreme.

FLOW and our partners are working to research, analyze, and advance funding and financing solutions to equitably address Michigan’s pressing drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater needs with the involvement of those people and communities most deeply impacted. Visit our Clean Water for All page to learn more.

Because the change is permanent for the foreseeable future, current assumptions and data about water levels, wetland maps, and floodplain maps are obsolete. Climate change is not only straining infrastructure for water, sewer, storm runoff, roads, bridges, dams, breakwalls, harbors, airports, and more, but it also is transforming natural areas at the land-water interface. Lowland not previously mapped is changing into floodplains or even wetlands, floodplains are changing to wetlands, and wetlands are fast changing to emergent and inundated wetlands. 

Yet we have not mapped what is happening and what is to come based on climate change forecasts in each area or region. We haven’t even gathered and incorporated the data on rapidly changing conditions that we need to map.

It is essential and long overdue, at this point, and a costly failure in our law and public policy, not to measure and map these changes, and adopt new or amended regulations that prevent the filling or diminishment of wetlands and floodplain-wetlands, and the new floodplains.

The sooner, the better.

We will save billions of taxpayer dollars in damages averted, and trillions of dollars nationwide, and at the same time prevent or mitigate recurring damage to our health, communities, infrastructure, and economy from the increasing intensity and frequency of climate-fueled extreme weather events. Once the mapping is completed, these areas must be jealously guarded as the backbone of our natural and built systems, for nature-based green infrastructure to provide ecosystem services that include drainage, flood control, water recharge, but also habitat and land uses that underpin our homes, communities, jobs, and economy.

In her acclaimed book Replenish (Island Press, 2017), leading global water policy expert Sandra Postel describes in Chapter 4, titled “Make Room for Floods,” the dramatic increase in the evaporation rate of 6-7% for every degree Celsius of increase in temperature. Some scientists refer to this increased rate of evaporation as “rivers in the sky,” ready to drop the next catastrophic harm somewhere in the world. Twenty-year, 50-year, or even 100-year weather events are becoming far more frequent, and have not been  incorporated into our planning, land use, and development tools and regulations.

Author Postel describes the historic flood of 1927 in the Mississippi River basin, when the river breached or overtopped levees in 145 locations, inundated 16 million acres of cities and farms, and displaced 700,000 people from their homes, some for weeks or months. In the disaster’s aftermath, the Flood Control Act of 1928 directed the U.S. Army Corps to stop piecemeal management of floods in the Mississippi River basin and to adopt a coordinated system. With levees remaining the system’s backbone, the act called for something new: the creation of “floodways”—areas where some water from a raging Mississippi could exit the main channel and flow into a designated area on its former floodplain. In that way, some pressure would be taken off the levees, reducing the risks of a breach.

FLOW’s research shows that while Michigan is “the Great Lakes State,” it is a poor steward of the sixth Great Lake, the water lying beneath Michigan’s ground. Michigan needs a statewide groundwater policy and septic system code to protect this freshwater resource that is vital to human health and the economy. To learn more visit Groundwater: The Sixth Great Lake.

Because the federal government under the floodway project was persuaded to invest $14 billion to purchase farming and residential property rights in floodplains, upgrade levees, and develop other components of the system, when a record flood in 2011 poured into the restored floodways, the damages were confined to $2.8 billion, or about one percent of the $234 billion in damages to farming, cities, and infrastructure in the last major storm before the floodway project was started.

With climate change worsening and no major shift by nations and states in sight despite the hopeful changes that might come from the ongoing COP26 climate conference, it is up to each nation, state and community, and professional planners, engineers, and developers to step up their efforts to conduct and complete the needed changes in collecting data and mapping. This will allow us to know where and when to expect the expanded and shifting range of low- and high-water or flooding conditions in every watershed. Then state and local planners and zoning officials must reevaluate land use plans, zoning ordinances, and stormwater, drainage, and sedimentation control standards and ordinances.

As an emergency measure before this mapping and these much needed changes are implemented, states and local communities should impose a moratorium on any further filling, dredging, clearing, or altering of any wetlands and floodplains. Exceptions could be made where there are no adverse impacts from a proposed project when taking into account climate change effects, no other feasible and prudent alternatives exist, and the proposed activity is necessary for public health, safety, and general welfare. 

If we invest in these emergency measures, collecting the data and remapping our natural areas for drainage, flood control, and water recharge, we will be more nimble and resilient before the next major weather event strikes. And it will.

Line 5’s Clock is Ticking Ever Louder in the Great Lakes

Photo at the Straits of Mackinac by Beth Price.

Editor’s note: The following op-ed originally appeared Nov. 3, 2021, in the Traverse City Record-Eagle

By Liz Kirkwood, FLOW Executive Director

FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood

Regarding Enbridge’s recent op-ed in the Traverse City Record-Eagle, we at FLOW agree with just these first four words: “The clock is ticking.”

That “tick, tick, tick” sound, however, isn’t coming from Enbridge’s proposed tunnel. It is coming from an environmental ticking time bomb called Line 5—Enbridge’s twin pipelines pumping oil nearly 20 years past their intended lifespan in raging currents at the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac.

Since 2018, three anchors and cables have struck these patched and propped up pipelines. Each strike could have delivered a $6 billion blow to Michigan’s economy, jobs, and natural resources, according to an MSU economic study, with oil coating beaches as California has recently experienced.

Thankfully Gov. Gretchen Whitmer hears the Line 5 ticking time bomb. That’s why in November 2020, after a comprehensive review, she ordered Line 5 shut down by May. Enbridge, however, is defying that lawful order and public trust law too. Why stop now, when every day Line 5 pumps oil through the Great Lakes, it deposits another $1.5 million or more into Enbridge’s pocket?

Plus the unlawful tunnel deal Enbridge struck in the dying days of the Snyder administration allows Line 5 to keep running until the tunnel is built, which might never happen considering the lack of public need for the tunnel and risk to the Great Lakes and climate during and after construction.

In July 2010 Enbridge testified before Congress that leak detection and response “can be almost instantaneous.” Ten days later, the Canadian company failed to hear another pipeline ticking, and its Line 6B crossing southern Michigan dumped more than one million gallons of heavy tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River.

Line 6B leaked for 17 hours while Enbridge employees in Western Canada shut off alarms they thought were false and repeatedly restarted the line. The spill sickened more than 300 Michiganders and cost 150 people their homes and properties. An unknown amount of oil remains in the environment, but Enbridge is done cleaning it up.

When the State of Michigan revoked the easement and sued Enbridge in November 2020 to shut down 68-year-old Line 5, it rightly did so in state court. The State’s ownership of Great Lakes public trust waters and bottomlands imposes a duty on it to revoke and enforce the shutdown of Line 5.

Enbridge, though, removed the lawsuit to federal court to delay judicial enforcement of the State’s order. Nearly a year later, a federal judge is still considering the State’s motion to return the case to a state court room where it belongs. Enbridge has further interfered with judicial proceedings by spurring Canada to invoke formal treaty negotiations with the U.S. that could take years to resolve.

Meanwhile the Line 5 clock is ticking ever louder in the Great Lakes. Don’t count on Enbridge to hear it, let alone defuse it or clean it up. It’s up to the State, its citizens, tribes, and the courts to protect the Great Lakes from Enbridge.

New Officers Elected to FLOW Board of Directors

As we celebrate our 10th anniversary throughout 2021, we at FLOW are pleased to announce the election of new officers on our Board of Directors.

“I joined FLOW’s board because I was so inspired by the impactful work founder Jim Olson and Executive Director Liz Kirkwood have done through FLOW and wanted to do what I could to support the FLOW team,” — new Board chair Renee Huckle Mittelstaedt. 

Renee Huckle Mittelstaedt, former president and CEO of Huckle Media, LLC/Huckle Holdings Inc., has taken over as FLOW’s new Board Chair. She joined FLOW’s board in 2015 and previously served as treasurer.

“I joined FLOW’s board because I was so inspired by the impactful work founder Jim Olson and Executive Director Liz Kirkwood have done through FLOW and wanted to do what I could to support the FLOW team,” Mittelstaedt said. 

“Like so many others who love the Great Lakes and value clean water, I want to support an organization that creates lasting change. And I believe the way in which FLOW approaches its work—through law, sound science, and policy—is the most effective and sustainable way to protect these precious waters,” she continued.

Organizational consultant Sarah Naperala is FLOW’s new Vice Chair. Former Board Chair Mike Vickery, an Emeritus professor of Communication, Public Affairs, and Environmental Studies at Alma College, is now Board Treasurer. Lisa Wyatt Knowlton, an executive advisor and learning leader in leadership, management, and policy, is FLOW’s new Board Secretary.

“I am grateful to have a team of Board Officers who are accomplished professionals in management, leadership, and thought whom I can rely on as strategic partners committed to delivering on FLOW’s mission to ensure the Great Lakes are healthy, public, and protected for all,” said FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood. “I believe 2022 will be a year of significant challenges and opportunities as we work with urgency to combat the climate crisis and protect the Great Lakes, groundwater, and drinking water for current and future generations.”

Click here to learn more about FLOW’s new Board officers and all the other valued volunteer members of the Board of Directors.

Fighting Forever Chemicals: Michigan Governor, Feds Take Action

The logjam that has halted progress in dealing with PFAS, the toxic “forever chemicals” that plague communities across Michigan and the nation, is finally breaking up.

On October 27, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered state government to discontinue the purchase of many PFAS-containing products, as encouraged by FLOW last month. In a message to the Governor’s environmental advisor, FLOW and PFAS activist Tony Spaniola wrote, “The purchase and use of materials containing PFAS is an obstacle to reducing their presence in the environment and to reducing human health and environmental exposure. Because state government is a major purchaser of goods, this reality provides an opportunity for Governor Whitmer to show the way for other governments and the business sector to reduce PFAS in the supply chain.”

In signing her October 27 executive directive, the Governor, whose support was critical in enacting health-protective state drinking water standards for PFAS last year, said, “PFAS are dangerous, man-made chemicals that pose a threat to our health. While this is a good step, we still have so much more to do to address these forever chemicals. We need to lead with science and work together to keep families safe and ensure Michigan continues leading the nation when it comes to protecting people from toxic contaminants.”

Nine days earlier, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan announced a national PFAS strategy, the first proposed comprehensive federal effort to curtail PFAS threats to human health and the environment. While winning praise for many provisions, the strategy has been criticized for failing to address contamination from military facilities like the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base near Oscoda.

The action message was also the centerpiece of a webinar co-hosted on October 21 by the Michigan League of Conservation Voters (MLCV) and FLOW. While MLCV introduced a toolkit for residents of communities affected by PFAS, U.S. Representative Debbie Dingell provided an update on her federal legislation, the  PFAS Action Act.

PFAS are a class of more than 4,700 different chemicals, poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances. PFAS can take thousands of years to break down. PFAS are most dangerous when ingested by drinking or eating. PFAS have been linked to health effects such as impaired immune response, high cholesterol, and altered liver function. Other possible health effects include difficulty getting pregnant, kidney disease, heart disease, osteoarthritis, and some cancers.

The webinar was the second hosted by MLCV and FLOW in response to PFAS contamination confirmed in private drinking water wells in the Pine Grove neighborhood of East Bay Township near Traverse City in fall 2020. The contamination was found after state agencies decided to investigate groundwater near Cherry Capital Airport and a U.S. Coast Guard facility that used firefighting foams containing PFAS in training exercises for years. Residents of 18 homes in the Pine Grove neighborhood whose wells were contaminated with PFAS are now supplied with drinking water by Traverse City.

Controversy arose after it was learned that state officials waited eight months after commencing the investigation before notifying the affected residents. A citizens advisory group has now recommended that state officials should notify potentially affected residents as soon as the state commences a PFAS study.

FLOW provided updates on several issues related to the PFAS contamination in the Traverse City area:

  • The Traverse City drinking water treatment plant has reported that quarterly testing of East Bay, the source of the city’s drinking water, has not detected PFAS, but testing of treated drinking water has shown low levels of a PFAS compound, PFOA, though below the state health standard.
  • Cherry Capital Airport has submitted a grant application to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for $1.25 million to begin cleaning up the plume of contamination. 
  • The FAA has issued an alert informing airports that the use of non-PFAS firefighting foams will be allowed, but none meet the current specification requirements. The FAA expects that the U.S. Navy will be providing a specification for a PFAS-free firefighting material by January 31, 2023, and the FAA looks to adopt this specification.
  • Because the FAA agreed that PFAS firefighting foams do not need to be used in training exercises, Cherry Capital Airport’s use now should be zero unless there is an aircraft accident. 
  • The airport and Coast Guard are conducting further investigation of the PFAS-contaminated groundwater this fall, with results expected in early 2022, The study will include borings in the Pine Grove neighborhood.

Dingell’s PFAS Action Act, which passed the U.S. House 241-183 in July, would require EPA to take action to address two PFAS chemicals — PFOA and PFOS — through a number of regulatory provisions:

  • Designating PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (Superfund).
  • Designating PFOA and PFOS as hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act.
  • Requiring EPA to establish national drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS. 
  • Requiring EPA to place discharge limits on industrial releases of PFAS.
  • Providing $200 million annually for wastewater treatment.
  • Prohibiting unsafe incineration of PFAS waste.
  • Placing a moratorium on the introduction of new PFAS chemicals into commerce.
  • Requiring comprehensive PFAS health testing.
  • Creating a voluntary label for PFAS in cookware.

Dingell urged webinar participants to express support for the bill to Michigan’s U.S. Senators.

Leaders from communities impacted by PFAS recently announced the launch of the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network (GLPAN), a coalition led by impacted community members to create a unified voice for action on PFAS contamination.

Making a Difference for the Environment: Youth is No Barrier for Michigan’s Nisha Singhi

At the age of 14, Nisha Singhi has already made more impact on state environmental policy than most adults. As a result of her work, two Michigan legislators have introduced bills. Nisha, who resides in Bloomfield Hills and is a sophomore at International Academy there, became concerned several years ago about the problem of balloon debris and litter in the environment. She decided to do something about it through state policy.

Over the summer, she met with her state lawmakers, Representative Mari Manoogian and Senator Mallory McMorrow, to discuss the issue of balloon releases and their harm to wildlife and the environment. In September, she was invited to shadow Rep. Manoogian for a day at the State Capitol. When Nisha arrived, Rep. Manoogian and Sen. McMorrow surprised her by introducing bills in the Michigan House (H.B. 5373) and Senate (S.B. 675) banning the intentional release of balloons into the outdoors. The Illinois Legislature is considering similar legislation. FLOW interviewed this enterprising young advocate. Here’s the conversation:

FLOW: How did you first hear about the environmental problem of balloon releases?

Nisha Singhi: Just a couple years ago, I wasn’t even aware of the issue of balloon debris. I was at my uncle’s birthday celebration when my aunt decided to release a bouquet of balloons in “celebration” of him. I saw the balloons being released and just a few seconds later, to my dismay, they got caught in a massive oak tree near the house. Later that month, I was sitting in the dentist’s office, reading Pure Michigan magazine and saw that Lara O’Brien, a graduate student at the University of Michigan’s School for the Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) and founder of the Balloon Debris Citizen Science Survey, was championing this issue. I read that released balloons could cause immense harm to the environment and that the balloon I saw that was stuck in the tree could have killed a bird! That’s when I decided to pursue this issue further. (Nisha has been working closely with O’Brien and María Dabrowski, a current SEAS graduate student, who have shared research on balloon debris, community engagement and outreach, policy, and plastic pollution in the Great Lakes). Click here to read FLOW’s coverage of Lara O’Brien and her advocacy against balloon releases.

FLOW: Why did you think it was important to deal with the problem?

Singhi: The driving force that motivated me to help with the problem was the startling statistics I encountered. Eighteen thousand pieces of balloon debris were found in the Great Lakes between 2016 and 2018, and according to a study done by the University of Tasmania, balloon debris is 32 times more likely to kill seabirds than hard plastics. Balloon debris is a type of plastic pollution, and 22 million pounds of plastic enter the Great Lakes annually, costing about $500 million each year for coastal communities to clean up. I finally understood that while many people believe that balloon debris is a small problem, it has significant impacts on the environment, natural resources, and our economy. 

FLOW: What steps did you take after learning about the problem to become better informed?

Singhi: After reading about the work that Lara [O’Brien] has done to spread awareness about the harmful effects of balloon releases, I reached out to her to learn more about the issue when I was in 8th grade. I have worked with her, as well as María [Dabrowski] consistently throughout the past two years. I read many news articles and blog posts about the issue of balloon debris in the Great Lakes region and attended webinars about plastic pollution. Among the webinars I attended, a few were hosted by environmental groups in my region, such as the Alliance for the Great Lakes. I also did research into the distribution of balloon debris in the Great Lakes and Midwest regions, as well as all of the balloon regulations and policies in these areas. I delved deep into the policy aspect of environmental issues and the Michigan political system.

FLOW: How did your local legislators get involved and what have they done so far to get something done about all the releases?

Singhi: I have always been interested in public policy and government, so meeting legislators to help enact regulations that address this problem was a priority for me. I got the amazing opportunity to speak with Representatives Manoogian and [Padma] Kuppa and Senator McMorrow to discuss pursuing this issue as a bill in the Michigan Legislature. I have been working with Rep. Manoogian, Sen. McMorrow, and their staff to draft and introduce legislation. As a result of their amazing support and hard work, H.B. 5373 and S.B. 675 came to fruition.

FLOW: You testified in front of a state legislative committee in Lansing. Could you describe what that was like, and what do you think of the outcome? What impressions do you have of the political process to make legislation?

Singhi: Walking into the committee room in the Anderson House Office Building, I was extremely nervous. Usually, I get very nervous before presentations and then as soon as I start talking, my heart rate slows down, and I become calm. It was exciting and exhilarating sitting in front of the experienced committee members in a seat that was meant to intimidate—the Representative and I were sitting at a lower height in the center of the room with the committee sitting all around us looking down. As soon as I started speaking, the words flowed out since I was speaking about something that I am passionate about. As a young girl listening to “I’m Just a Bill” by Schoolhouse Rock, I always thought the political process was drawn-out and unnecessary. However, now I believe that each step is crucial in ensuring that well thought-out, justified legislation is passed. It is a long process, for sure, but now I understand it is necessary to make legislative decisions that benefit the people.

FLOW: Do you have advice for other people your age who might want to get active on an environmental issue based on what you’ve learned so far? 

SinghiMy biggest advice would be to choose a problem dear to your heart that is small enough to tackle. No issue is too small, but sometimes, and this has happened to me as well, it is extremely overwhelming and discouraging to look at all of the threats facing our environment as a whole. I would say finding an issue that you can tackle wholeheartedly, and encouraging others to get involved as well, is my best advice for youth advocacy. Also, being flexible with your goals is another big one. Sometimes, certain paths don’t work out, and you may get discouraged along the way (I know I did), but making sure that you have a plan A, plan B, plan C, and more for ways you can get involved in the issue is one of the most important parts of spreading awareness and advocating.

In His Newest Book, Jerry Dennis Defines “Up North”

Jerry Dennis (foreground), Glenn Wolff (background). Photo by Pamela Grath.

Jerry Dennis is a Michigan treasure. The 67-year-old Dennis, a native of Northern Michigan, is the author of more than 10 books, including the epic, The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Island Seas, and essays, poems, and short fiction that have appeared in more than 100 publications. He has received the Michigan Library Association’s 1999 Michigan Author Award, the Outstanding Alumnus of the Year Award from the University of Louisville’s School of Arts and Sciences, the Great Lakes Culture Award from Michigan State University, and the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award. His recently-released Up North in Michigan: A Portrait of Place in Four Seasons, illustrated by frequent collaborator artist Glenn Wolff, gets at the timeless feel of the North Country in an era of rapid global change.


FLOW: Much of your writing conveys a vivid sense of place. How does this book build on that in a new way?

Dennis: I’m always trying to find my way into a deeper understanding of this place, which requires fresh ways of writing about it. In some of my earlier work, I took a journalistic approach, interviewing experts, writing photo-like snapshots of places and people, compiling footnotes and endnotes. In the new book (and in The Windward Shore and in long sections of The Living Great Lakes), I gave myself permission to abandon formal journalism and not worry about gaps in the account. Instead of adhering to a schedule, I cultivated a sort of vigorous loafing. Whenever I found myself in a spot that seemed to require interviews with experts or a visit to a famous landmark or any other task that reeked of duty, I would turn and head off in another direction. Rather than organizing a strategy, I just trusted my gut.


FLOW: You say in the introduction that changes are all around in the north country, including land development and the climate change-induced rapid warming of Lake Superior, but it still feels like up north. Do you think that will still be true in 10, 20 or 50 years?

DennisI have to believe that this place will continue to “feel” like it does now and, presumably, like it has for several hundred years or more. I’ve read dozens of old journals and memoirs written about the region, and, in all of them, the feel of the place seems the same. [Henry Rowe] Schoolcraft’s journal of the 1820 Cass Expedition around the Great Lakes shores of Michigan is a good example. Two hundred years later, his descriptions of places like Sleeping Bear Dunes, the Straits of Mackinac, Pictured Rocks, the Keweenaw Peninsula, and others are easily recognizable. He mentions the ridges formed by the ancient lakeshores visible along the Lake Michigan shore above Good Harbor Bay and just north of Charlevoix. There are many houses on those shores now, but you can still see those exact ledges from the water, especially when the leaves are down. As I mention more than once in the book, we’re lucky that so much of our region is protected within national and state forests and parks and by the crucial purchases of the various land conservancies. We can’t know what it will be like in 50 years, of course, but we can hope that much of Northern Michigan and the U.P. will remain as they are now.  

We can hope that much of northern Michigan and the U.P. will remain as they are now. That’s one reason FLOW’s mission is so vitally important. If the waters we hold in common are lost to private interests or aging and ill-advised infrastructure like Enbridge’s Line 5 fail, northern Michigan as we know it could be lost.


FLOW: How far can we go in sharing this beautiful place? We’re hearing a lot of talk about climate refugees now; what are the implications of that for the land you write about?

Dennis: It’s a privilege to live here. And it comes with responsibilities—to honor it, to protect it for others to enjoy, and to never forget that most people are not as fortunate. We all know the story. Throughout history, it has been the people who are the most impoverished and disenfranchised who are forced to live in the ugliest, most polluted, and most dangerous places. Climate change could turn that tendency on its head and make the Great Lakes watershed not just a desirable place to live, but a safe and necessary one for people of every kind.


FLOW: How long has this book been in the making?

DennisI could argue that it goes back to age 17, when I started keeping notebooks in which I recorded observations, overheard conversations, random ideas, excerpts from my reading, and notes to myself about what and how to write. One subject that appears over and over in 50 years’ worth and thousands of pages of those notebooks is how to write about the sense of place in general, and about Michigan and the Great Lakes in particular. One passage, written in 1988, has been a guiding influence on every book I’ve written since:

Write the book you want to read. An honest book. A spacious book. A book that resonates like bells. That is as informative as waves breaking on gravel. That has beach stones and wind in it. Water stains, gull keen. Sand. Silence. A book that asks instead of answers. An open book. A ventilated book. A pristine flowing spring of a book.

A book that remembers on every page that everything is temporary. All else will follow from there.


FLOW: How does your collaboration with Glenn work? Are you like jazz musicians riffing off each other or is it something more conscious?

DennisWe’re simpatico. Always on the same page. Our friendship has been one of the most creative and enjoyable of my life. Glenn’s an accomplished jazz musician, so I’m sure he would say we riff off each other.

Iron Fish Distillery Celebrates, Supports FLOW and Superior Watershed Partnership

Photos by Liz Kirkwood

We at FLOW are grateful to Iron Fish Distillery and Belsoda Farms, which celebrated a trifecta with us on Tuesday evening, October 12, in Marquette. Richard Anderson, one of the family leaders and visionaries behind the Thompsonville-based Iron Fish Distillery—and the company’s entrepreneurship for the public interest throughout the Upper Peninsula and Northern Michigan—combined the release of his distillery’s new Two Peninsulas Bourbon with a celebration and fundraiser for two strong, influential organizations based in each peninsula and dedicated to protecting the Great Lakes—Superior Watershed Partnership (SWP) and FLOW.

The Superior Watershed Partnership has established energetic, skilled teams that address shoreline restoration, solar and renewable energy, climate change, and stream and environmental protection in coastal watersheds along Lake Superior. FLOW has affected change in water and environmental actions, public and private, through deep research, legal and policy analysis, and reports, catalyzing action that includes the State of Michigan’s lawsuit to end the risks and breach of public trust law by Enbridge in operating Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac, the International Joint Commission’s adoption of public trust principles to protect the Great Lakes, the state’s passage of a moratorium on water shutoffs during COVID-19, the state’s regulatory and public health actions to address ubiquitous PFASs contamination and groundwater pollution.

The evening epitomized the good energy and efforts by all. Anderson led off with a tribute to the pioneering work of the late Julia Tibbitts, who led Superior Public Rights (SPR), a group of courageous, informed citizens who brought Michigan’s first major environmental citizen suit in the early 1970s to protect Presque Isle and the public’s use and enjoyment of Lake Superior. Anderson also recognized the accomplishments of Superior Watershed Partnership and FLOW founder Jim Olson, who as a young lawyer in the 1970s represented SPR in the first environmental and public trust suit. On the bourbon tasting and cocktail menu, Iron Fish even listed the “Olson Cocktail”—comprised of Iron Fish’s new Two Peninsulas Bourbon, water and maple syrup, and orange bitters on ice.

SWP Executive Director Carl Lindquist covered his organizations with wisdom and witticism. The Upper Peninsula’s Poet Laureate M. Bartley Seigel left the crowd spellbound during a reading of his poems, full of cadence, sound, and images of rivers, cliffs, bears, bones, wolves, sky, love and mourning, and the wild. Not Quite Canada, a popular band across the U.P. and Wisconsin, entertained with stirring classic rock, keyboard and guitar licks, and funk originals bordering on Herbie Hancock.

Olson recounted the story of the Superior Public Rights lawsuit against a consortium of the nation’s steel, railroad, and electrical power industries, and a company town who opposed them. He then advanced the topic to 2021 and the need to expose and stop the hype by a small cluster of industrialists who want to colonize 2,800 acres of Lake Superior Shoreline between Big Bay and Marquette into a satellite and rocket launch site for the world’s wealthy elite.

FLOW’s executive director Liz Kirkwood capped off the evening with a description of FLOW’s mission and vision for protecting the Great Lakes, including programs that focus on groundwater, Line 5, public water justice, Nestlé and bottled water, and the Flint, Detroit, and now Benton Harbor access-to-health-and-water crises.

The gratitude we at FLOW have for Richard Anderson, Iron Fish, Carl Lindquist and SWP, Balsoda Farms, their staffs, and everyone who attended is ineffable, but in our hearts. Attendees fully engaged and expressed their dedication to the UP and Great Lakes with positive confidence and lots of smiles.

Editor’s note: FLOW is welcoming donations here to the newly launched Olson-Dempsey Fund for Public Trust in the Great Lakes to extend the legacy of FLOW’s Founder and Senior Legal Advisor Jim Olson and Senior Policy Advisor Dave Dempsey. Learn more about the Olson-Dempsey Fund here.