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Beans4Blue Coffee Now in Three Blends at Stores Statewide

Click here to view and download the full press release as a PDF


Contact: Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director, FLOW or 231-944-1568
Jack Davis, Owner, Great Northern Roasting Company or 231-943-3917

Beans4Blue Coffee Now in Three Blends at Stores Statewide

3% of Sales to Benefit the FLOW Great Lakes Policy and Education Center

TRAVERSE CITY, MI – A new series of three coffee blends aims to caffeinate and conserve water for Great Lakes lovers. The Beans 4 Blue coffee line from Traverse City-based Great Northern Roasting Company (GNRC) has three blends: the original Lake Effect blend, the Wake 5 dark roast, and the Shoreline light roast. All three blends are now on the shelves at grocers throughout Michigan’s lower peninsula. Three percent of every bag benefits FLOW, a Traverse City-based policy and education center working to protect the Great Lakes.

All three blends of Beans 4 Blue by Great Northern Roasting Company will now benefit FLOW

All three blends of Beans 4 Blue by Great Northern Roasting Company will now benefit FLOW

The GNRC has been roasting and selling coffee beans since 2001 when it was founded by Jack and Sarah Davis. GNRC is dedicated to providing the most exclusive and unique coffees, all of which are drum roasted by hand and held to the highest standard in quality and freshness. Embedded within their business standards is Jack and Sarah Davis’s love for the Great Lakes. Now with three blends available in the Beans 4 Blue coffee line, the GNRC is happy to announce that their customers can join them to help protect the Great Lakes.

“After all, coffee is just filtered water” says GNRC Owner Jack Davis, “and you just won’t get a good cup of coffee without fresh, clean water. That’s why we decided to create a product that includes protecting the Great Lakes as a part of the bottom line.” Teaming up with the Traverse City-based nonprofit FLOW “was a no-brainer” says Mr. Davis, because of their common goal to protect the Great Lakes.

FLOW’s mission is to advance solutions to save the Great Lakes and their expert team of attorneys and professionals specialize in the legal strategies known as the public trust doctrine. Through educational presentations and advanced policy research, FLOW develops legal strategies that all add up to better protections for the waters of the Great Lakes.

“Sometimes folks can feel helpless when big issues threaten to harm the Great Lakes,” says FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood, “and that’s where FLOW comes in, to empower people with tools for taking action that will ultimately create a better future for these waters.”

This rang true and captured the attention of Mr. Davis, whose daughter goes to the same school in Traverse City as both of Mrs. Kirkwood’s kids. A longtime vision that had yet to come to life, Mr. Davis had always wanted to find a way for his company to give back to the community. When he learned about FLOW’s action-oriented policy and education programs that address Great Lakes issues, “right away I knew that we should collaborate to create a coffee that benefits the Great Lakes,” he says. And so, Beans 4 Blue was created.

The first Beans 4 Blue coffee, the Lake Effect blend, premiered in stores in late fall of 2013. Now, GNRC is in full-tilt production and fulfilling requests for Lake Effect blend as well as the new dark roast, Wake 5 blend, and the light roast, Shoreline blend. All blends of the Beans 4 Blue Coffee are 100% shade grown Arabica, and Rainforest Alliance certified.

Not unlike FLOW’s educational programs, and in the spirit of ensuring an excellent coffee experience to customers, GNRC also offers informational workshops on coffee, roasting, tasting, and human and economic impact of global coffee markets. GNRC specializes in direct trade and fair trade, and are committed to upholding the highest standards for human and labor rights as well as environmental protection, including biodiversity and sustainability.

For more information, to find a store near you that carries Beans 4 Blue, or to place an online order, please visit:

Contact: Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director, FLOW or 231-944-1568
Jack Davis, Owner, Great Northern Roasting Company or 231-943-3917

FLOW Local Ordinance Program Addresses Fracking Impacts in Conway Township, MI

FLOW Founder Jim Olson addresses Conway Township Fracking Issues

Click here to view and download the full press release as a PDF

Contact: Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director or 231-944-1568

FLOW Local Ordinance Program Addresses Fracking Impacts in Conway Township, MI

Over 100 Citizens Attend FLOW Presentation

FOWLERVILLE, MI – In February of 2014, Conway Township signed up as the third township to participate in FLOW’s Local Ordinance program that helps the township develop regulatory ordinances to address potential risks and impacts of high volume hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) for oil and gas. On February 6th, FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood and FLOW Founder Jim Olson delivered the first of two public presentations to educate and empower Conway Township leaders and residents about the associated risks and impacts of fracking and specific legal strategies to consider.

Held at the Alverson Center for Performing Arts in Fowlerville, the presentation drew an estimated crowd of almost 150 citizens and leaders who came to learn about horizontal fracking developments in Michigan since 2010, potential risks and impacts, and viable legal strategies to regulate fracking impacts as part of FLOW’s ordinance program for Conway Township. FLOW works with the township to determine what areas of concern are most pertinent to the community to regulate, and the public presentations dually serve as a forum for citizens and leaders to express the topics they hope local legal strategies can address.

“The turnout was impressive,” says Olson, “and the citizens demonstrated not only a real concern but a remarkable knowledge of the issues and context of fracking in Michigan and in their own community.” The GeoSouthern Energy Corporation drilled an exploratory well in Conway Township, granted by a 2013 permit. The permit approved three million gallons of water and fracking fluid to explore a one-mile radius area. The exploratory well is located on a property that, according to the owner in a Denver Post article from September 2013, was drilled three times in the past 30 years without success.

The February 6th presentation in Fowlerville was the first of two public presentations FLOW will host for Conway Township. Then, the FLOW staff will carefully craft a package of recommendations for Township leaders to consider incorporating into their local ordinances and laws as they see fit.

FLOW Founder Jim Olson addresses Conway Township Fracking Issues

FLOW Founder Jim Olson addresses Conway Township Fracking Issues. Photo (c) FLOW/Liz Kirkwood

“The fracking process is largely under-regulated or exempt from key federal and state laws that protect common water, land, air, and public health,” says Kirkwood. “The local governments are left holding the bag when it comes to protecting their citizens from the potential harms and risks of the fracking process or any other industrial processes that come to their town. Our program empowers local governments and their citizens to prepare themselves in advance to handle it,” she says.

Fracking for oil and natural gas is exempt from many regulatory laws at both the federal and state levels, including the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts, the Great Lakes Compact, and Michigan’s Water Withdrawal Act. Despite zoning prohibitions to regulate drilling, construction production, and operation of oil and gas wells, townships still do maintain legal authority to regulate ancillary activities, including roads, truck traffic, pipelines, flow lines, gathering lines, location of wells, disclosure of chemical use, air pollution and more. Moreover, townships can rely on other sources of authority such as police power ordinances and franchise agreements.

FLOW has delivered a similar educational overview to over twenty communities throughout Michigan in the past year. This informational presentation is based on FLOW’s November 2012 report, “Horizontal Fracturing for Oil and Natural Gas in Michigan: Legal Strategies and Tools for Communities and Citizens.” FLOW’s report highlights legal strategies and policies designed to assist local governments in safeguarding their communities against the unprecedented and cumulative impacts of fracking.

Horizontal fracking requires injecting a cocktail of up to 21 million gallons of water and over 750 chemicals under high pressure into wells in order to fracture deep shale formations and release oil and natural gas. A review of literature on fracking and its associated risks reveals several concerns: (1) massive water withdrawals; (2) groundwater contamination; (3) surface spills and leaks; (4) wastewater management; (5) land-use impacts; (6) truck traffic and burden on infrastructure; (7) lack of public disclosure.

An op-ed piece from January 12, 2014 the news service published outlined that, no matter where Conway Township officials and citizens choose to draw their party lines in regards to fracking, “there clearly can be an impact on the surrounding community where fracking is conducted, and it is more than fair for the local communities to have some controls in place to make sure they are minimal.”

The next FLOW public workshop for Conway Township will be held in late March, early April.  Conway Township like many of the neighboring townships in Livingston County is interested in proactively protecting the area’s valuable natural resources for agriculture and high quality of life. To ensure different viewpoints on this topic, Conway Township has invited the Department of Environmental Quality to speak to local officials about its permitting role for the oil and gas industry this coming week of February 10.

Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director or 231-944-1568

FLOW Selected as Great Lakes Information Network (GLIN) Site of the Month

Click here to view the full press release as a PDF

Contact: Allison Voglesong, Communication Designer or 213-944-1568

FLOW Selected as GLIN Site of the Month

February 2014 to Feature FLOW

TRAVERSE CITY- The Great Lakes Commission-based Great Lakes Information Network (GLIN) has named FLOW their Site of the Month for February. As a GLIN partner, FLOW is honored to contribute to their outstanding resource network.

GLIN is a partnership that provides one place online for people to find information relating to the binational Great Lakes-St. Lawrence region of North America. GLIN offers a wealth of data and information about the region’s environment, economy, tourism, education and more.

FLOW is a non-profit organization working to ensure the waters of the Great Lakes are protected now and for future generations by recognizing the Great Lakes as a Commons, building deep public awareness and engaging the public and decision-makers about the threats and abuses facing the Great Lakes, and advancing public trust solutions to protect the rights of the people and waters of the Great Lakes Basin.

Because partnership is the core of GLIN, each month they highlight the wealth of information available on the web site of one active GLIN partner. These partners work closely with the GLIN Project Team to ensure that their information is integrated into the regional network; in turn, these partners point back to relevant GLIN pages from wherever appropriate on their own web sites so that people can easily find information about a topic of interest.

More on GLIN at
More on FLOW at

FLOW Funder Park Foundation Among Growing Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement

The New York Times recently featured one of FLOW’s major funders, the Park Foundation, in an article about a group of philanthropic foundations that are collaborating to move their financial investments away from fossil fuels (divestment) in an effort to align their money with their missions to curb climate change. Among the groups involved in the Divest-Invest Philanthrophy coalition, some  moving their investments out of fossil fuels are moving into sectors such as renewable energy and sustainability ventures.

Why we care: We applaud the Park Foundation for recognizing fossil fuel divestment as a paramount strategy for ameliorating climate change. This is important to FLOW as we continue to work on policy and education programs that emphasize the “nexus” between water, energy, food, and climate change. For example, fossil fuels are a cause of climate change, which is lowering water levels on inland lakes and streams in Great Lakes (despite the temporary respite from snowfall this winter), and climate change is exacerbating algal blooms such as those that caused the “dead zone” in Lake Erie. This year, we are developing analyses and strategies that address and prevent extreme energy, including fossil fuels, from further impairing our Great Lakes water. Read more about our nexus work here.

The Park Foundation’s divestment campaign is part of their broader “Mission Related Investing” practices, and is in the process of following through on a 2011 commitment and move 100% of their endowment portfolio to companies that comport with their Environment, Social and Governance screens. Learn more about Park’s mission related investing here. To read about Park Foundation’s participation in the Divest-Invest Philanthropy coalition in their own words, check out their article in the National Committee for Responsible Philanthropy’s winter publication here.

Read the New York Times Dealbook article below, or link to it here.

Foundations Band Together to Get Rid of Fossil-Fuel Investments

By: Diane Cardwell

January 29, 2014

Seventeen foundations controlling nearly $1.8 billion in investments have united to commit to pulling their money out of companies that do business in fossil fuels, the group announced on Thursday.

The move is a victory for a developing divestiture campaign that has found success largely among small colleges and environmentally conscious cities, but has not yet won over the wealthiest institutions like Harvard, Brown and Swarthmore.

But the participation of the foundations, including the Russell Family Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America and the John Merck Fund, is the largest commitment to the effort, and stems in part from a push among philanthropies to bring their investing in line with their missions.

“At a minimum, our grants should not be undercut by our investments,” said Ellen Dorsey, executive director of the Wallace Global Fund, which is practically divested of fossil fuels already and is coordinating the effort among foundations. “If you owned fossil fuels in your investment portfolio, it became increasingly clear to foundations that they own climate change, and they’re potentially profiting from those investments,” at the same time as they make grants to fight the issue.

She said she expected several larger foundations to commit to the effort, which includes moving investments to renewable energy or other sustainability ventures, in the coming months.

Among the largest in the current group is the Park Foundation, with a portfolio worth roughly $335 million, and the Schmidt Family Foundation, with about $304 million, co-founded by Google’s executive chairman, Eric E. Schmidt.

The divestiture campaign is modeled on earlier efforts aimed at ending apartheid in South Africa and ceasing to support tobacco companies. Many groups are involved, but the movement has largely been escalated by a grass-roots organization,, whose name refers to 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which some scientists say is the maximum safe level, a threshold already exceeded.

In addition to the foundations, 22 cities, two counties, 20 religious organizations, nine colleges and universities and six other institutions had signed up to rid themselves of investments in fossil fuel companies, frequently defined as the top 200 coal-, oil- and gas-producing companies identified in a report from the Carbon Tracker Initiative based in London.

The campaign’s expansion comes as institutions like public pension funds are changing their investment strategies to reflect a calculation of the so-called carbon bubble. That idea holds that most of the coal, oil and gas reserves owned by fossil fuel-based companies cannot be burned without dire climate consequences, meaning that the value of those companies will plummet once governments start strictly limiting emissions.

Some pension funds, like those of California and New York, are looking to pressure conventional energy companies to address the risks of climate change. But in some cities, like San Francisco and Boulder, Colo., officials are urging their pension funds to divest themselves of the investments.

Bill McKibben, president and co-founder of, said he had been encouraged by the spread of the argument “that fossil fuel companies as they’re currently incarnated are essentially rogue companies, that they have in their reserves far more carbon than any scientist thinks it’s safe to burn.”

Divestment advocates have run up against opposition from some of the major academic institutions, which argue that the move would have little practical effect on the activities of fossil fuel companies and that institutions would be better positioned to press for change through their roles as shareholders. Endowment officials have also said that their primary purpose is to maximize returns.

“Universities own a very small fraction of the market capitalization of fossil fuel companies,” Drew Faust, Harvard’s president wrote in a statement in October of the university’s decision not to sell. “If we and others were to sell our shares, those shares would no doubt find other willing buyers. Divestment is likely to have negligible financial impact on the affected companies. And such a strategy would diminish the influence or voice we might have with this industry.”

But the foundation executives, whose organizations are at different stages of examining and shifting their investments, said they were convinced that the more compelling action was to take their money away.

Olivia Farr, chairwoman of the John Merck Fund, said there had been concern about financial performance among some board members at first. “But that was pretty quickly alleviated as we got excited about some of the new investments we were making,” she said, adding that the fund, which is about 97 percent divested of fossil fuel, was up roughly 20 percent last year.

Executives said they had become convinced that the move made economic sense.

“Freeing up resources through the divestment allows us to concentrate on the renewables future,” said Richard Woo, chief executive of the Russell Family Foundation, “and to really see the marketplace as a platform for this kind of change.”

Pennsylvania Court Precedent on Fracking and How It Relates to Protecting Michigan’s Commons: PA State Supreme Court rules municipalities can limit what gas drillers can do

From the desk of FLOW founder Jim Olson: thoughts on the recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling on how municipalities can limit gas drilling in their community (you can also read the full text of the article at the bottom of this post).

In a show of judicial analysis and sympathy toward the importance of land use stability and values of local communities, the recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ruling upholding local government regulation of the risks of fracking sends a strong message: courts will look with skepticism and scrutinize attempts by state legislators to help special interests overrun local communities’ traditional land use and police powers to pass ordinances that address fracking for oil and gas. The decision is especially important in consideration of mainly vacuous federal regulation and tepid state regulation, where fracking’s substantial effects on land use, water, health, and quality of life are largely ignored.

In sum, the court’s decision refuses to allow a state legislature to take away local governments’ zoning or local power regarding expectations of their community and residents, thus upholding and retaining local governments’ ability to have a say in the location of land uses and the stability of their community, including regulation of industrial uses like fracking through land use districts and special use permits. This precedent is important for other Great Lakes states like Michigan with a long and strong history of enabling local governments with zoning powers because it protects their ability to use zoning powers as a legal and useful tool for protecting land uses, water, air, and health from the impacts and risks of fracking. Click here for more about FLOW’s local government ordinance program to address fracking impacts at the community level.

In December 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court tossed out controversial portions of the state’s oil and gas law changes, letting municipalities retain control over where and when to allow gas drilling (fracking) in their jurisdictions. This is great news for Pennsylvania, and can be good news for local governments in other states as well. However, from state-to-state the laws are somewhat different, so while the ruling reveals a trend that is positive for empowering local governments to address fracking, it is not on “all fours” as we say in terms of useful precedent, and may not necessarily apply verbatim to other states. Thus, it is important that citizens and communities understand the differences of their own state and local government structures and laws so that communities can tailor their ordinances and regulation of various aspects of fracking and ancillary oil and gas uses and activities.

Basically, Pennsylvania’s prohibition on local regulations/ordinances was general in nature as to “oil and gas operations.” Since zoning power was and is delegated by states as a “state delegated specific power” and Pennsylvania zoning law does not exempt regulating the location of oil and gas operations or wells as land uses through districts and permitting schemes, the Pennsylvania court properly found that a general law prohibiting exercise of local governmental police power cannot be used to trump or limit a specific delegation of power like zoning. The Pennsylvania court also chastised the legislature for an overly general and vague prohibition, thus leaving room for local governments to exercise some power, and specifically their delegated zoning power. However, the Court also refused to allow the state legislature, by a broad sweeping law, to remove or take away zoning or the general exercise of local ordinance powers regarding expectations and reliance of communities and their residents on the stability of their land use plan and ordinances. This general reasoning is very important in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan, with strong local government traditions and involvement, including specified powers or preferences toward local governments in state constitutional provisions.

Here are five key points (with a few nuances) about how the Pennsylvania ruling relates to Michigan:

  1. In Michigan, there is no general prohibition on local governments to pass “police power” ordinances to address risks and harms and protect property, health, safety and general welfare. Hence, local governments in Michigan are free to regulate to the point that the ordinance does not outright prohibit a use but addresses the risks of harm or concern for protection of the public health, safety and welfare.
  2. Unlike Pennsylvania, in Michigan the state-delegated zoning statute to counties and townships specifically exempts “oil and gas wells, drilling, completion, production, and closure or abandonment.” However, the exemption is a narrow one. The Michigan Supreme Court has ruled that the “oil and gas well” exemption does not apply to ancillary uses and facilities related to oil and gas wells, such as pipelines, access roads, haul and transfer facilities, storage, sweetening facilities, pumps, and high-volume water wells such as those required for horizontal fracturing. At least as to the location of such wells and related facilities, a special use permit or other zoning regulation to assure compatibility with existing land uses, water uses essential to a land use district such as farming, residential, or park and recreation, could be required.
  3. On the other hand, like Pennsylvania, in Michigan there is no such specific exemption for “oil and gas wells” in the state delegated zoning power to cities. So, unlike townships and counties in Michigan, cities are similar to the Pennsylvania situation. If the legislature attempts to prohibit generally what the zoning power to cities specifically allows, i.e. does not exempt, the Pennsylvania case would be useful precedent
  4. In Michigan there are limitations, although not outright prohibitions, on local government police power ordinances that regulate the location of public utilities or natural gas or other pipelines that are certified by the Michigan Public Service Commission (with the exception of interstate federally certified lines, which are not subject to local ordinances). However, local governments, in these instances, may require by ordinance essential or critical information concerning:
    • use and safety of roads,
    • environmental and hazardous substances disclosures,
    • including chemicals,
    • bonds, indemnities, and insurance,
    • site plans,
    • reporting and inspection reports, and
    • action plans in the case of spills or emergency.
  5. Michigan’s 2008 water withdrawal law, with its corollary Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool (WWAT) contains a provision that prohibits local ordinances from regulating water withdrawals. However, this law does not regulate or address land use or zoning, such as the location, site plan, and facilities themselves. It follows that local communities could, through their state-delegated zoning power, regulate the location of water wells to assure they are harmonious and not incompatible with existing land uses.
    • It would be quite reasonable for a local community to restrict high-volume water wells, pumps, and facilities and pipelines through land use districts or special use permits. Indeed, the Pennsylvania court decision would provide solid precedent for this, because, as described above, a general prohibition on local ordinances would not preempt or limit the scope of specifically state-delegated zoning power.
    • So when it comes to high-volume water wells for oil and gas development, local communities should be able to regulate them through zoning. Why? Because for townships or counties, water wells are “ancillary” to the oil and gas well and therefore not within the “oil and gas well” zoning exemption, and for cities because there is no oil and gas exemption in the city zoning law.
    • Finally, in a somewhat ironic twist, the 2008 water withdrawal law expressly exempts oil and gas development from having to comply with the WWAT or 2008 water withdrawal law. Hence, arguably it would be inconsistent for an oil and gas company to argue that local governments could regulate their water withdrawals when they do not need a permit or fall with the regulatory purview of the water withdrawal law in the first place.
    • But there is another twist to the irony. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) by internal directive requires oil and gas companies to comply with the WWAT to show no adverse environmental impacts. However, no permit is required under the 2008 water law, and the DEQ directive is more lenient in its application than the WWAT and its application and permitting requirements. Despite these twists, local governments, in any event, have the zoning power to restrict or require special use permits for high-volume water wells based on location and land use issues as opposed to withdrawal issues.

In conclusion, Michigan law already empowers local governments with a broader and more effective ability to address fracking impacts via municipal zoning and police power ordinances. However, this Pennsylvania Supreme Court case is still very relevant for supporting the broader effort throughout the Great Lakes and Midwest region to protect our land, water and common resources, and community well-being from a loosely regulated in terms of land use and impacts of fracking oil and gas development.

-Jim Olson

Read on for the full story from

PA State Supreme Court rules municipalities can limit what gas drillers can do

December 19, 2013

By: Timothy Puko, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

After nine years of drilling, three years of debate and 14 months of court deliberation, Pennsylvania is back where it started, with shale gas companies and municipal governments at odds over how to manage the Marcellus shale natural gas boom.

The State Supreme Court ended more than a year of uneasy stalemate on Thursday when it struck down oil and gas law reforms that were supposed to limit municipal powers on drilling. The 4-2 decision allows municipal governments to keep blocking off some, though not all, of their neighborhoods from drilling, and subjecting drillers to reviews before permitting drilling.

The long-awaited decision undoes a key element of Gov. Tom Corbett’s signature legislation: It strips the oil and gas law reforms known as Act 13 of the biggest benefit they gave drilling companies. It gives environmentalists and municipal governments a potentially historic precedent to challenge drilling all over the state, reigniting legal battles that were brewing before the case went to state courts last year.

“It’s a great day for all the residents here in Pennsylvania,” said Deron Gabriel, commissioner in South Fayette, one of five Pittsburgh suburbs to lead the legal challenge that started in March 2012. “Fundamentally, we’re vindicated. … We’re able to continue to zone and keep industrial activities where they should be — in industrial areas.”

Both Corbett and members of the Marcellus Shale Coalition industry group called the decision a disappointment. Officials of the coalition and the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association said they want to work with municipal groups to find solutions to their conflicts.

“We must not allow (Thursday’s) ruling to send a negative message to job creators and families who depend on the energy industry,” Corbett said. “I will continue to work with members of the House and Senate to ensure that Pennsylvania’s thriving energy industry grows and provides jobs while balancing the interests of local communities.”

The passage of Act 13 culminated three years of debate on how to modernize the state’s rules to manage the new rush of shale gas drilling. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing began in the Marcellus shale about nine years ago, booming to more than 7,400 unconventional wells statewide, according to state records.

Passed in February 2012, Act 13 was supposed to have a three-pronged effect. Two — an update to environmental protections and a fee on deep-shale wells — remain. But the effort to help drillers by making uniform land-use laws in all 2,500 municipalities was part of the challenge and the part the court struck down.

The rules would have required municipalities to allow drilling, wastewater pits and seismic-testing explosives even in residential areas, which Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille called a “remarkable … revolution” on existing law. It would have allowed pads within 300 feet of existing buildings, which Castille said effectively stripped municipalities’ ability to plan for development.

Municipalities previously had the power to decide where and when drilling could happen, and South Fayette, Cecil, Peters, Mt. Pleasant and Robinson in Washington County sued to keep that power. The law put them in conflict with a constitutional mandate to protect residents and property rights by not allowing them to keep drilling away from schools, parks and businesses, they argued.

The Supreme Court heard the case in October 2012 and took 14 months to craft a broad, 162-page decision. Castille wrote it for three members of the majority, and a fourth wrote a concurring opinion. Castille, a Republican Vietnam War veteran and former Philadelphia prosecutor, wrote at length about the state’s history of environmental degradation.

He quoted a passage on deforestation from the timber industry, listed a series of local environmental disasters including the 1948 Donora smog tragedy and noted the billions needed to repair decades of environmental damage from coal mining, which he later said may be rivaled by shale gas extraction. The state has a “notable history of what appears retrospectively to have been a shortsighted exploitation of its bounteous environment,” Castille wrote.

His argument attempts to re-establish the importance of the state Constitution’s Environmental Rights Amendment, the pivotal law cited in his opinion. That amendment empowers municipalities to protect the environment, and the state overstepped its powers by ignoring it, forcing them to accept uniform rules for gas drilling, Castille said.

“A new regulatory regime permitting industrial uses as a matter of right in every type of pre-existing zoning district is incapable of conserving or maintaining the constitutionally protected aspects of the public environment and of a certain quality of life,” he wrote. “Protection of environmental values … is a quintessential local issue that must be tailored to local conditions.”

The ruling is likely to trigger a flurry of activity from drilling industry lobbyists and lawyers, experts said as they awaited the high court’s decision.

The industry may pressure state lawmakers to try again to streamline rules. One option may be to write a model ordinance for municipalities, then pass a law that allows them to collect impact fees only if they use that ordinance, said Ken Komoroski, an attorney at Downtown-based Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP.

“If they can’t do it with a sledgehammer, they’re going to have to do it with a carrot,” attorney Kevin McKeegan, a land-use law expert with Meyer, Unkovic & Scott LLP, Downtown, said last December.

Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Total Trib Media. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or

FLOW Staff to Issue Public Statement at Army Corps of Engineers Public Comment Forums on the Great Lakes Mississippi River Interbasin Study

Click here to view and download the full press release PDF

For immediate release
Contact: Allison Voglesong, Communication Designer
231 944-1568 or

FLOW Staff to Issue Public Statement at Army Corps of Engineers Public Comment Forums on the Great Lakes Mississippi River Interbasin Study

TRAVERSE CITY – The United States Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) public comment forums on the Great Lakes Mississippi River Interbasin Study (GLMRIS) report makes the fifth of nine stops in Traverse City, MI on Thursday, January 23, 2014. FLOW, a Traverse-City based nonprofit water policy and education center, has prepared written comments and will make public statements during today’s forum that seeks public input on the new GLMRIS report. The study enumerates eight plans for keeping invasive species, namely Asian Carp, out of the Great Lakes. FLOW encourages the ACE to implement plans that undertake complete hydrologic separation of the Great Lakes Basin and the Mississippi River Basin.

“We need strong Great Lakes policies that protect water quality and quantity, and ensure that invasive species never reach our common waters of the Great Lakes,” says FLOW Communication Designer Allison Voglesong. The present systems for keeping invasive Asian Carp out of the Great Lakes are a series of electrical barriers, but these alone are insufficient, and additional measures are needed urgently.

“To address this complex ecological and multi-jurisdictional problem, there must be a complete hydrologic separation between the Great Lakes Basin and the Mississippi River Basin,” says Voglesong. Cost estimates for ACE plans including complete hydrologic separation vary, upwards of $15 billion in some cases. “From an economic standpoint the Great Lakes support a $7 billion fishery and a $62 billion overall economy,” she says, “There is too much at risk, and the cost of inaction will be far greater than the investments considered here today.”

Voglesong outlines three statements and three questions for the ACE to consider:

  • The 25-year implementation timeframe is too long, and we urge research into a realistic but shorter timeframe;
  • The research in the GLMRIS study is thorough, but the public and our decision-makers need better guidance from the agency for prioritizing possible solutions;
  • We are proponents for plans that establish complete hydrologic separation for all five possible pathways.
  • Is it economically and logistically feasible to scale back portions of these plans that are outside of the scope of managing invasives, such as water treatment, sediment remediation, and flood mitigation?
  • And, are there risks with eliminating these components?
  • Could other plans for complete separation, like those released by GLC and the Cities Initiative, be substituted or reconciled with your complete separation plans to find an economically viable middle-ground?

Voglesong urges the long-term implications of the plan. She says, “Doubtless, there are incomparable, difficult tradeoffs involved in solving this problem. The bottom line, however, is that we must protect the delicate ecological balance of the Great Lakes from destructive invasive species because the waters of the Great Lakes Basin are our shared commons, and our legacy for generations to come.”

Wisconsin Pauses Great Lakes Tar Sands

Congratulations to Alliance for the Great Lakes, citizens and organizations in Wisconsin and Michigan, and Council of Canadians for leading the way to deny Elkhorn’s request to improve a barge dock in Superior, Wisconsin to transport dirty tar sands oil over the Great Lakes.  With citizen vigilance, persistence, and growing awareness that these Great Lakes are a commons held and treasured as a perpetual public trust for benefit of all citizens, proposals to put the Great Lakes in harms way like this will more and more fall by the wayside treating these precious waters as a trust for each generation.  A basic principle of public trust and commons law and policy is the standard that requires full and complete information proving and assuring that a proposal, if authorized, will not violate or impair this public trust. If that cannot be shown, then it is never proper and should note be authorized. A huge thank you to Wisconsin Ministry of Natural Resources for holding Elkhorn to this standard.


Media Release via Council of Canadians

January 9, 2014

Council of Canadians applauds Wisconsin government pausing Great Lakes tar sands project

The Council of Canadians is congratulating Wisconsin’s Ministry of Natural Resources on its decision to reject Elkhorn Industries’ application for dock repairs that would eventually lead to the construction of an oil terminal from which tar sands and fracked oil would be shipped across the Great Lakes.

“We are heartened that the Wisconsin government has listened to the local community as well as communities around the Great Lakes,” says Maude Barlow, National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians. “The Ministry is doing the right thing by pressing pause on this bigger project to ask more questions about the plan to ship tar sands and fracked oil through the Great Lakes.”

Media reports noted that public comments influenced the agency’s decision to demand much more information from Elkhorn Industries.

“The fight to protect the Great Lakes from irresponsible and short-sighted oil projects is far from over,” says Emma Lui, Water Campaigner with the Council of Canadians. “Calumet’s oil barge dock is on the radar of U.S., Indigenous and Canadian groups and communities, and Calumet can expect a lot of noise if it tries to push this plan through.”

Earlier this year Calumet Specialty Products announced it was considering an oil shipping terminal at the harbour in Superior, Wisconsin, which is located on the western tip of Lake Superior. That same week, Elkhorn Industries submitted a permit application for a $25-million upgrade to its dock, which is connected by an existing pipeline to Calumet’s 45,000 barrels per day refinery in Superior.

In December, the Council of Canadians, on behalf of 16 of its local chapters and tens of thousands of supporters around the Great Lakes, made a submission to the Ministry raising concerns about the threats the project presented to the Great Lakes, the increase in tar sands expansion and the need to obtain free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous communities like the Bad River Band. The Council urged the Ministry “to stop this dock repair project and shut down the broader oil terminal and shipment project in order to protect the Great Lakes and other shared waterways.”


Dylan Penner, Media Officer, Council of Canadians, (613) 795-8685 | | Twitter: @CouncilOfCDNs

FLOW Marks First Two Protective Ordinance Packages

Click here to view and download the full press release PDF


Contact: Liz Kirkwoood, Executive Director
231 944 1568 or

FLOW Marks First Two Protective Ordinance Packages:
Addresses Fracking Impacts for Two Michigan Townships

TRAVERSE CITY, MI — In late November, FLOW—the Great Lakes Basin’s only public trust policy and education center—will roll out two Protective Ordinance Packages for two separate townships in Michigan. The Protective Ordinance Packages are designed to protect the townships’ water, land, and air resources from impacts of the high volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF) method for extracting oil and natural gas from deep shale reserves, commonly known as “fracking.”

Gun Plain Charter Township in Allegan County and Cannon Township in Kent County are the first two townships to participate in FLOW’s Local Government Ordinance Program. This participatory workshop series for citizens and local township and planning officials culminates in a tailor-made Protective Ordinance Package developed by FLOW to address community concerns and improve local regulations.

“Our goal was to educate our people and identify specific things we can do to alleviate the potential impacts and risks of fracking,” says Gun Plain Charter Township Supervisor Mike VanDenBerg. Gun Plain Charter Township partnered with FLOW in May to participate in the Local Government Ordinance Program.

The Program is unique because it enables communities to chart their own future, strengthen their existing local regulations, and preserve their rural and agricultural character. In a two-part workshop series, the program:

  • engages and educates local government official and residents about the risks and impacts of fracking and specific legal strategies for communities to consider;
  • identifies community priorities and related oil and gas activities to regulate (e.g., water withdrawals, chemical disclosure, roads/truck traffic impacts, pipelines, etc.); and
  • recommends optimal strategies for integrating and amending the community’s existing master plans, zoning and police power ordinances, and franchise agreements in the Protective Ordinance Package.

The local planning commission and township board then use the Protective Ordinance Package as the foundation for drafting and adopting substantive ordinances protecting water, air, and land from fracking impacts and preserving their community.

Based on the past months’ workshops and community input, the Gun Plain Charter Township Protective Ordinance Package identifies the following seven fracking related activities for the Township to regulate:

  1. truck traffic and routes,
  2. franchise agreements and consent to use roads,
  3. chemical disclosure for hauling and emergency response plans,
  4. surface water contamination,
  5. noise and dust nuisance,
  6. trout stream protections, groundwater conflicts, and the study of hydrogeologic impacts, and
  7. contamination issues for first responders in case of emergency.

Similarly, the Cannon Township Protective Ordinance Package identifies nine areas, including:

  1. high-volume water removal, on-site pumps, tanks, and handling facilities,
  2. chemical disclosure and use, mixing tanks, and air emissions,
  3. disclosure and consideration of impacts before permit approval,
  4. incompatible ancillary industrial-type land uses and facilities, such as production and sweetening facilities, mixing tanks, pump stations, and pipelines,
  5. access roads, truck traffic, and safety,
  6. road use, truck routes, indemnity and bonds for spills, wear and tear of roads,
  7. nuisance impacts, including noise, dust, light pollution, hours of operation, vibrations, and odors,
  8. flow lines, gathering lines, and pipelines, and
  9. accident prevention plans, fire and emergency response to chemical releases or related accidents.

“FLOW developed this program to both inform communities about the impacts and potential threats of fracking, and to provide local governments with solutions within the scope of their existing legal authority,” says FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood.

“We get dozens of calls from township and county government leaders who want to address fracking threats but are concerned that it might be illegal to regulate all activities related to fracking.” she says, “Townships and counties do have the authority to regulate ancillary fracking activities, and FLOW’s program zeros in on these important local legal solutions in developing our Protective Ordinance Packages.”

After the several public meetings held in each township, FLOW evaluated the townships’ respective master plans, zoning and police power ordinances, and franchise agreements. Then FLOW considered the priorities identified by the community and leaders, and drafted the Protective Ordinance Package as a menu of recommendations for amending the existing laws and adopting new ordinances.

These Protective Ordinance Packages come at a time when both Gun Plain Charter Township and Cannon Township are in the process of their five-year review of their townships’ master plans.

Gun Plain Charter Township and Cannon Township first approached FLOW about participating in the program in March and April 2013, respectively.

FLOW President and Chair of the Board of Directors, Jim Olson, gave a presentation to a group of Supervisors in Allegan County back in March, speaking to the risks and impacts of fracking and the legal strategies and tools available to citizens and leaders. This is where Gun Plain Charter Township officials first learned of and showed interest in FLOW’s program.

Combined, FLOW staff Olson and Kirkwood have delivered this informative legal strategies and tools presentation to more than ten communities across Michigan in the past ten months, reaching hundreds of community leaders and citizens. FLOW has also partnered with land-use planner and hydrogeologist, Dr. Christopher Grobbel in making presentations and evaluating optimal ordinance strategies.

“Our phones are ringing off the hook,” says Kirkwood, “and the interest in our informational presentation and Local Government Ordinance Program continues to grow. People are really concerned about what is going to happen to their community’s natural resources after a fracking permit gets approved and they need solutions before this stage.”

Since 2010, the nature of fracking operations in Michigan have changed dramatically in terms of land-use impact and water used to fracture and release natural gas in the tight shale formations. For example, the Pioneer well in Missaukee County used 6.7 millions gallons of water, and now pending permit applications plan to use up to 35 million gallons of water forever lost to the water cycle.

“Regulating the industrial related impacts of fracking is just like regulating any other industrial activity at the local level.” observes Kirkwood, “Imagine if local governments allowed sand and gravel pits, shopping malls, cell towers and other industrial uses to come into their communities and do business unregulated.”

FLOW’s program is designed to protect the rural and agricultural character of the communities in Michigan that are most vulnerable to the negative spillover effects of fracking happening on adjacent state land or neighboring private land.

The package, program, and presentation all stem from FLOW’s November 2012 report: Horizontal Fracturing for Oil and Gas in Michigan: Legal Strategies and Tools for Communities and Citizens.

Early on, FLOW recognized the growing and urgent need to develop sound legal strategies and policies for local governments to safeguard their communities against the unprecedented, huge, and cumulative impacts of fracking.

Fracking occurs in the context of little to no regulatory oversight; the natural gas and oil industry is largely exempt from key federal environmental laws, including the Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Water Act.

The industry is also largely exempt from key water statutes like Michigan’s codification of the Great Lakes Compact. Furthermore, under Michigan’s Zoning Enabling Act, local governments also are prohibited from enacting or enforcing an ordinance that regulates permit issues related to the location, drilling, operation, completion, or abandonment of oil and gas wells. Despite the Zoning Enabling Act’s prohibition to regulate oil and gas wells or operations, townships do maintain some zoning authority to regulate related oil and gas activities.

The two principal statutes delegating local government legal authority to address oil and gas development like hydraulic fracturing and related processes include the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act of 2006 and the
Township Ordinance Act of 1945.

The Township Ordinance Act authorizes a township to adopt police power ordinances, which are distinct from zoning ordinances, because they can only regulate harms and activities rather than land uses.

Thus, townships can adopt police power ordinances that reasonably relate to the transport, disposal, and transfer, diversion, use, or handling of “produced” water and chemical mixing for fracking.

After producing the legal report, it made sense for FLOW to produce a presentation of the findings and share it with concerned local government leaders.

“The overwhelming response we got to the first few presentations was that of ‘What can WE do?’ from citizens and officials alike,” says Olson. “That’s when we started to develop the program and work directly with townships to help them take the leap and take positive action,” he says.

For more information about FLOW’s work on legal strategies for addressing fracking at the local, state, and federal level, please visit

FLOW Chair Jim Olson, left, addresses Cannon Township Supervisors and citizens in June. Photo credit (c) Liz Kirkwood/FLOW 2013

FLOW Chair Jim Olson, left, addresses Cannon Township Supervisors and citizens in June. Photo credit (c) Liz Kirkwood/FLOW 2013

Canada’s Bill 6 Great Lakes Protection Act, the Public Trust, and Your Water Rights

Jim Olson, FLOW President

Jim Olson, FLOW President

This week I teamed up with Ralph Pentland, a leading Canadian water policy expert (see Pentland and Wood, Down the Drain, Greystone Books, 2013), and submitted to the Ontario Parliament comments on Bill 6, its proposed Great Lakes Protection Act. Bill 6 looks to the future by requiring policy and initiatives to protect Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, but does not declare or recognize the importance of protecting the public’s right to use these waters and the water they depend on for enjoyment.

FLOW has been working at several levels to make sure the Great Lakes are protected as a public trust – with the International Joint Commission, federal government, and the states. But Canada and its provinces are equally part of the Great Lakes Basin and community, and they, too, recognize the importance of the public right to boat, fish, and swim in the Great Lakes basin. As you may know, the U.S. Supreme Court and state courts have ruled for more than 100 years that the waters, shore, and bottomland of the Great Lakes and all connecting or tributary streams and waters are owned by the state and held in trust for all citizens of each state, as legal beneficiaries. This means the state must protect, and that others cannot impair, the public’s right to boat, fish, swim and enjoy these public trust waters and shores.

Canada’s Pentland and my joint comments on Bill 6 to Ontario legislators and leaders spell out the application of the public right to use these waters that is recognized by the provinces, and that these rights, like the public trust in the U.S., are held in trust by the government. On both sides of the border, these waters are held in trust, and government has an affirmative duty to account to the people as beneficiaries that the waters have been and will be protected. If governments or others violate this duty, citizens have a right to demand the violation is correct — like beach closings, nutrient run off and “dead zones,” and drops in water levels. Pentland and I urge Ontario to declare these waters a public trust and impose duties and rights to make sure the rights of all citizens, the legal beneficiaries of the trust, are honored from one generation to the next.

The full text of our comments are set forth below:
Click here to view the comments as a PDF

31 October, 2013

Submission Regarding Bill 6, Great Lakes Protection Act

Ralph Pentland1 and James Olson2

The preamble to Bill 6 states that “In the face of the pressures of population growth and development, and threats such as climate change and invasive species, three of Ontario’s four Great Lakes are in decline.”3

That is clearly an understatement. New toxic substances are showing up in fish and sediments. These include fire retardants, plasticizers, pharmaceuticals, and personal care products. Many of these pose a risk to fish, wildlife and people. Although the exact cause has not been definitively established, various species of Great Lakes fish now suffer from tumors and lesions, and their reproductive capacities are decreasing. Of the ten most valuable species in Lake Ontario, seven have almost totally vanished.

Non-native species are threatening the balance in biological systems and water chemistry, and climate change is contributing new challenges to the sustainability and health of the basin. In recent years, we have been witnessing biological deserts developing in some areas, a series of botulism outbreaks in fish and birds, and extensive algae blooms. An increasing proportion of these algae blooms are blue-green cyanobacteria, which when they break down release a variety of liver, skin and neurological toxins.4

We applaud Ontario for its environmental leadership for more than a century. It introduced the first nineteenth century public health Act, and was the first to manage water resources within the natural contours of river basins in the 1940s. Uniquely among provinces, Ontario enacted an Environmental Bill of Rights in 1993 which acknowledges that Ontarians “have a right to a healthy environment” and to “the means that it is ensured.”

In 2002, the Province passed the Safe Drinking Water Act, which tightened oversight of municipal utilities, and mandated water testing and reporting to provincial authorities. The Clean Water Act followed four years later. Both of these, along with existing legislation, such as the Ontario Water Resources Act (which among other things regulates municipal sewage discharge) received further updates in a suite of related amendments in 2009. And in 2010, the Water Opportunities and Water Conservation Act authorized a variety of measures, including mandatory plans for water sustainability.

The vision of Bill 6 to authorize policy initiatives, and if ever adopted implement the initiatives as benchmarks for governmental decision-making is laudatory. But, given the magnitude of the issues and the urgency for action to address the systematic threats to these waters, simply piling on more and more laws will not in and of itself accomplish the desired outcome. During the 20 years of legislative activism since enactment of the Environmental Bill of Rights in 1993, the Ontario Ministry of Environment lost 45 % of its budget, while overall government spending soared by 72% (in constant dollars). Coincidentally federal environmental capacity was also drastically curtailed over the same period. And not coincidentally, the decline in the health of the Great Lakes has accelerated over that same 20 year period.

After delivering his annual report to the Ontario legislature in November of 2011, Environment Commissioner Gordon Miller reminded reporters that “I have 30 years of experience and I’m nervous”. He pointed to a “culture of inaction and procrastination” in defence of water productive ecosystems, marked by a demonstrable decline in resources dedicated to protecting Ontario’s overtaxed landscape.5

Have we been making the right choices? Probably not. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that well-designed and stringently enforced environmental regulation will yield economic benefits greater than their costs. As we let the quality, and in some instances the quantity of the Great Lakes and other provincial ecosystems decline, there is a very high probability that we are becoming both less wealthy and less healthy than we would have been if we had protected those ecosystems more rigorously.6

The proposed Great Lakes Protection Act has many good features. But, it could be both more effective and more beneficial if it were to include provisions designed to uphold the Bill of Rights guarantees of a “right to a healthy environment” and “the means that it is ensured.”

In enacting the Environmental Bill of Rights in 1993, the Province of Ontario essentially and quite appropriately accepted the fact that it has a fiduciary duty to preserve the essence of provincial environmental resources for the use and enjoyment of the entire populace into perpetuity. There can be no more important governmental responsibility than preserving the natural security supporting health, wealth and life itself.

The Ontario Bill of Rights commitments are not unlike the public trust doctrine as it has evolved in the United States and has been increasingly recognized in Canada. Public trust principles can be traced from Rome to the present, through both civil law systems, like those in France and Spain, and common law systems, like those in Canada and the United States. As a result, generally the waters of the Great Lakes are held in the public domain in the name of the Crown in Canada, and in the sovereign state in the United States, in trust for the benefit and welfare of its citizens.

Today, the courts in all eight Great Lakes states have recognized the public trust doctrine, either expressly by naming the Great Lakes and the connecting or tributary waters subject to a public trust, or though application of the public’s paramount right and use of public or navigable waters. More recently, the Canadian courts have begun to recognize the potential of public trust principles, and several Canadian water law and policy experts have urged the adoption of public trust principles by the courts or the provincial governments. And, while not labelled public trust, Canadian courts have consistently recognized that the Great Lakes are subject to a paramount right of the public to navigate, fish, boat and otherwise enjoy these waters. This means the governments hold the waters in trust to prevent a subordination or interference with this fundamental public right.

Under these principles, governments have a continuing duty to determine that there will be no significant impairment or harm to the flows, levels, quality and integrity of public trust waters, uses and ecosystems before they approve or deny a governmental private action. This duty requires the collection of data and information necessary for long-term planning sufficient to satisfy the solemn and perpetual trust responsibility, and affected interests and citizens as beneficiaries can institute administrative or judicial actions, as a last resort, to enforce public trust duties or apply public trust limitations that protect the integrity of the whole.7 If this duty is honoured by government and citizens, there will be instant consideration of the whole of the systemic threats facing the Great Lakes in every government decision that may impact these waters, their uses, and ecosystem. This would bring about instant accountability while the policy and initiatives called or by Bill 6 are developed and implemented.

Public trust (or public rights) principles could be introduced into Bill 6 by including:

  1. A general recognition of the interconnected or single hydrological relationship of the waters of the Ontario portion of the Great Lakes Basin with other portions of the Basin waters, including tributary groundwater and surface waters.
  2. A general recognition that these waters are held by the Crown in common and in public trust as recognized by decisions of the courts in Ontario and the Supreme Court of Canada.
  3. A recognition that, along with First Nation interests, each citizen has a right as a member of the public to use and enjoy the waters and the bed of the Great Lakes and connecting and tributary navigable waters for boating, swimming, navigation and other water dependent public needs.
  4. A provision that such public right to use and enjoy these waters shall not be subordinated to primary private purposes or otherwise materially interfered with or impaired.
  5. A provision that any initiatives, decisions and instruments made or proposed under this Act shall conform to these public rights in navigable waters.

1. Ralph Pentland is Acting Chair of the Canadian Water Issues Council at the University of Toronto. He resides in Ottawa, Ontario
2. James Olson is Chairman of FLOW U.S. (for the Love of Water). He resides in Traverse City, Michigan
3. Bill 6, Great Lakes Protection Act 2013
4. Ralph Pentland and Chris Wood, Down the Drain: How We Are Failing to Protect Our Water Resources, Greystone Books, 2013
5. Gord Miller, Engaging Solutions: Annual Report 2010/2011, November 2011
6. Chapters 7 and 8 of Down the Drain (see 4 above)
7. James Olson and Elizabeth Kirkwood, Submission to the International Joint Commission, Comments on the Lake Erie Ecosystem Integrity (LEEP) Report, Scientific Findings and Policy Recommendations to Reduce Nutrient Loadings and Harmful Algal Blooms

#FAIL – It’s a Good Thing

As FLOW’s Communications Designer, I have been working in our Traverse City office since January, creating print and web content that gets the word out about FLOW’s policy programs that help protect the integrity of Great Lakes water with the vision of the commons. I have been given the great opportunity to work with our team on a number of tasks, from fundraising and grant writing, to research and policy reports, to event organizing. One experience remains with me as the most interesting to date (the one where I learned to embrace–or at least redefine–failure, something we all face from time to time): The Michigan Corps Social Entrepreneur Business Plan Challenge.

Serendipity and Facebook brought FLOW and Michigan Corps together. Back in April, a college friend working with Michigan Corps posted on Facebook about “The Challenge” – a business plan competition for social entrepreneurs with start-up or emerging companies. I clicked, I scrolled, and read the five-point checklist for a Great Social Entrepreneur:

  1. The entrepreneur is a tenacious leader with a pragmatic vision;
  2. The solution addresses a clear social problem;
  3. The solution changes systems, not just symptoms of the problem;
  4. The [business] model prioritizes social impact over financial gain;
  5. The model generates a sustainable funding stream.

As I read over these points my face lit up and I was brimming with enthusiasm. FLOW would be the “ultimate” candidate for this competition! We have Jim Olson as our leader, and many who know Jim call him their “hero” as a water law champion. His vision is to work proactively to improve policy that protects water, rather than defend against or fight over discrepancies of inadequate law. Our solution to improve Great Lakes water policy directly addresses the social (and environmental) impacts of the threats harming the Great Lakes (see map – red is bad).

great lakes threats map

The GLEAM maps environmental threats and stresses throughout the Great Lakes.

The solution of starting from the core value that water is common to all and held in the the public trust, which we at FLOW take to heart and specialize in, fundamentally addresses the whole system or framework–the policy. We work on policy because it ultimately determines the way in which we view, protect, and impose limitations on how we can use (or abuse) our water. FLOW programs seek to help communities and governments to improve their policies, and as a non-profit we do much of our policy and consultation work at pro-rated and discounted rates. We’re not in this to make a profit, but to cover our costs and make a difference–this is our “profit.”  And with our awesome Great Lakes Society member supporters–that unique group of people and businesses who understand and are dedicated to our mission to save the Great Lakes with sound policy and strong commitment–we’ve got a growing stream of donations that will help us to get our work done.

The Challenge

So we at FLOW threw our hat in the ring and submitted our business plan to “The Challenge” in May. By June, the Michigan Corps folks read all the 160 business plan entries, and selected FLOW as one of the top 12 participants! While we didn’t win the big bucks, we received really valuable feedback from the judges who had clearly been intrigued with our nonprofit business plan and wanted to help us succeed. FLOW Communications Director Eric Olson and I went down to Lansing and attended the award ceremony, which dovetailed with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s Great Lakes Entrepreneur’s Quest award ceremony.

social entrepreneur challenge2

The “Ask the Investors” panel at the Michigan Corps Social Entrepreneur Business Plan Challenge award ceremony. June, 2013.

We met so many inspiring entrepreneurs whose missions were to create social wealth through a variety of unique business models. I’ll never forget squirming at the sight of blood when Gillian Henker of DIIME showed us pictures of her patent life-saving medical device invention, or cracking up at the subtle humor of Rich Daniels, whose mission to hire veterans into his FunPak company touched my heart. Even though we didn’t win, as Eric and I drove back north at dusk, we agreed that participating in the Challenge was a valuable exercise for FLOW. We met so many people and learned about so many great ideas. We learned about the many ways to run a nonprofit in an era of tight competition for funding, and we felt good about being selected as a finalist.

The Pitch

However, that’s not the story of “failure” I’m talking about, and FLOW’s relationship with Michigan Corps didn’t end there in Lansing. As runners-up in “The Challenge” we were given the opportunity to join in a three-month fellowship, hosted by Michigan Corps, with coaching from the awe-inspiring business strategist and consultant for The Public Squared, Richard Tafel. Our Executive Director Liz Kirkwood did the majority of the training sessions, and I jumped in at the end to help her with our “final project” (which gave me flashbacks of college deadlines, and was just as nerve-wracking). The October capstone of the fellowship was the opportunity to give a five-minute pitch to a panel of high-level investors looking to invest in social entrepreneurs. This was a real world litmus test for all the work and strategizing we’d been up to. We were competing against other impressive social entrepreneurs and asking high-level investors to invest in us as a nonprofit where the returns would be purely social, rather than financial. Not an easy task!

For our pitch, we decided to speak in a language that investors get – money. Using the bank trust analogy, we explained how our “special sauce” was our public trust policy strategy for water and the Great Lakes. If the “asset” is the Great Lakes water, then the governments are the “trustees” who are required to protect the asset for the “beneficiaries” – you, me, and all the 40 million residents in the basin. Is government doing a good job? Are they accountable? Is our trust safe and improving?

Here we are with the entire Michigan Corps Social Entrepreneur Fellow cohort and our consultants, mentors, advisors, and new friends.

Here we are with the entire Michigan Corps Social Entrepreneur Fellow cohort and our consultants, mentors, advisors, and new friends.

At the pitch summit in Detroit, the morning workshop was a lesson in “design thinking” from Mike Brennan of United Way for Southeast Michigan. We learned a lot through his Venn diagrams and four-quadrant modules, but the best lesson was about failing. His advice: instead of bending over backwards trying to insist that you have “the solution” to the problem you’re trying to solve, make sure that you’re using both research and observation to inform a prototype first. And then: fail. A lot. It wasn’t the first time we’d heard this at FLOW, a son-in-law of a Board member here told us to “fail forward.” Nonetheless, easier said than done.

One of the investors on the panel, Romy Gingras Kochran of Gingras Global, highlighted the importance of failing early and often, and she even suggested hosting a “failure conference,” where entrepreneurs tell their “I failed” stories. So the more I thought about this idea of embracing failure as a learning tool, the more I realized that FLOW needs to share a “failure story” from our past to help illustrate WHY we are a policy and education center, and not an advocacy and lobby group, or a defense fund, why we offer something that is both visionary and real in the field of water commons, the water-food-energy-climate change nexus, and public trust policy. It’s because we have failed before, and it launched us forward to where we are today.


In 2009, the volunteers and policy advisors of the (at that time) “FLOW Coalition” worked with then-U.S. Representative Bart Stupak (D-MI) to draft important federal legislation that would make a big difference for protecting the Great Lakes from the threat of water exports. Put this in the context of the 21st Century water crisis, and you see why it’s important to keep our water IN the Great Lakes ecosystem. The bill, which was about to report out of committee and be introduced on the floor of the House of Representatives, was to close a loophole that allowed for water to be exported from the Great Lakes provided that it was labeled an “end user product.” (This arguably means water as an “export,” which in the trenches of international trade law could weaken the defense of the Great Lakes.) It took a huge amount of effort and countless hours spent building a public campaign to support the legislation, working with other organizations like Food & Water Watch in Washington, DC.

The FLOW Coalition also worked on legislation at the state level in Michigan that proposed to extend public trust protections from surface water (lakes, rivers, streams) to also include groundwater (like aquifers). Why? Because whatever happens to tributary groundwater will impact the surface waters and wetlands they replenish. Protecting water at every step in the hydrological cycle is important and a primary policy objective for FLOW. This legislation was important, and the idea is still important, because it helps protect water on a larger scale in the Great Lakes region, and it protects the water for all of us, public and private users alike.


Some say that the bills were poised for success, but they did not live long enough for any to ever truly know their viability. Why? Because the Affordable Health Care Act was introduced shortly thereafter, usurping the attention and impetus behind the FLOW legislative effort. Then we lost our political allies in the mid-term elections. When legislators pulled back from supporting these bills, FLOW was, at this point, tapped out. Our two-year flagship effort as an advocacy coalition for guarding the Great Lakes and our groundwater and surface water from export and abuse was over. It was a big, fat, #FAIL.

While we all could still benefit from federal and state laws better protecting our water with the public trust, FLOW founders and staff pulled back, knowing that it was time to re-evaluate our strategy for just how we could get this–and other important policy–accomplished in the most efficient, effective manner. From a coalition with a pinpointed goal, we realized that we had a big idea: enshrining water as a commons, public trust in our policy can protect citizen beneficiaries, communities, business, and quality of life for the whole region. These are ancient and core values, and we knew not to give up. We knew that our big idea was right, that we were addressing the important problem, but that our prototype was in need of refinement.

Our #FAIL demonstrated to us that it was worth the shot to try, and we almost succeeded, but events like the economic collapse in 2009 and the health care agenda took all of Congress’ attention in 2010. The lesson was that narrow windows of opportunity are not guaranteed. Going it alone for a single attempt with a federal legislative campaign means going back to square one, when things out of your control force you to scrap your efforts.

Resurget Cineribus

We realized after the legislative efforts were swept away in the health care debate, that the vision to save the Great Lakes from the many threats of this century requires education, deep education, as deep as the lakes themselves, so that the winds and whimsies of politics do not affect the goal and changes that are needed. Water is deep in all of us, we’re made of water, and literally it is our lifeblood. So is it for the Great Lakes and around the world. If people begin to connect, through education, that water is at the core of their lives and well-being, then they will support, vote for, and take action to save the Great Lakes when it is needed.

We also realized that there were more, equally important, low-hanging fruit on the policy tree that could be addressed as part of demonstrating and applying the public trust to protect Great Lakes water. What’s more, part of our failure was embedded in a lack of public awareness and education. The reason the public campaign took so much energy out of us is that we didn’t have a strategy building up to the campaign. Did anyone really know about the public trust? And that people, as legal beneficiaries of the Great Lakes water, can use the public trust to enforce an “umbrella” standard of protections for the water? Or did they know why groundwater needs to be protected by the public trust? Or did they even know enough to make the connection that groundwater becomes streams, rivers, and the Great Lakes, and that all are one? That if groundwater and surface waters are not protected by public trust, that they can more easily be abused or exported right out from underneath a farmer’s crops, a golf course’s aquifer, or a fly fisherman’s favorite river? After all, the public trust protects access, use, quantity and quality of our Great Lakes for fishing, boating, swimming, sustenance, navigation, the basics of life and community. If these are compromised, interfered with, or harmed, then citizens, knowing these rights and uses are protected, and can speak out and take action to prevent and restore the harm from these threats.

With so many questions to ponder, and so many gaps in knowledge to fill, the FLOW Coalition evaluated the need for education, and this is how FLOW became the FLOW policy and education center for the Great Lakes. Rather than only focus on export loopholes and groundwater protections, we recalibrated our mission and thus our operations. To solve a big, systemic problem like preserving the Great Lakes, we needed to pursue the big, holistic solutions. It was 2011 when FLOW began to beat the drum of public trust policy and education.

In this way, the FLOW Coalition was an important first step – a prototype for the steps to follow. When we went back to the drawing board, we came up with a two-pronged strategy for our next prototype: deep legal research and policy development on one hand, and education and training for both leaders and citizens on the other hand. We went through a phase where we were the FLOW Coalition, which undertook the education, and the Public Trust Policy Center, which performed the research and reporting. However, one hand didn’t know what the other was doing, and we saw that the interdependence of policy and education work was too strong to keep them separate.

So, we’ve moved past the bicameral organization prototype, too. Our objectives remain twofold: to educate and train leaders and citizens, and to undertake deep legal research and policy. Now, from an organizational standpoint, we are simply FLOW, the public trust policy and education center. Our programs vary and are topic-based, weaving both policy and education into the components of the programs. We have a much deeper and more insightful strategy for targeting our actions to our audience. So far, these programs have been successful. And now, with many thanks to our partners at Michigan Corps, we are prepared to move them forward, and are equipped with the tools for embracing the opportunity of failure. We learn from our #FAILs and improve ourselves to create more success in the long run. Even more importantly, like singing in public, we have learned to work boldly and steer clear of the shadows of reticence and into the lightness of sanguinity.

Allison Voglesong and salmon on the Crystal River in MI.

Allison Voglesong and salmon on the Crystal River in MI.