A true watershed moment: As FLOW in 2021 marks our first 10 years of groundbreaking work on behalf of public trust rights and responsibilities in the Great Lakes, we honor two of the most ardent champions of public water and most inspiring leaders in the Great Lakes watershed. To ignite FLOW’s next 10 years of forward thinking and momentum, as exemplified by Jim Olson and Dave Dempsey, FLOW and our community of local, regional, and international partners are recognizing, honoring, and ensuring the continuing influence of these two visionary leaders to protect public water in the Great Lakes Basin.
FLOW Founder & Senior Legal Advisor Jim Olson
For nearly 50 years Jim Olson, FLOW’s founder and senior legal advisor, has been an ardent and effective environmental, water, and public interest law advocate and champion. He has developed a deep knowledge and understanding of public trust principles and law as they apply to the systemic threats facing the Great Lakes Basin. Jim is a graduate of Michigan State College of Law (Detroit College of Law) and has an L.L.M. Degree in public lands, natural resources, and environmental law from the University of Michigan Law School. He received the Champion of Justice Award in 2010, one of the highest honors of the Michigan Bar Association, and was named a Michigan Lawyer of the Year in 1998 for his work on environmental and water citizen suit laws. Jim has lectured in Brazil, Canada, and the United States, and has written numerous articles and essays and three books. He was featured in two eminent documentary films on water, “FLOW: For Love of Water” (2008) and “Blue Gold” (2008).
Watch FLOW’s video homage to Jim Olson below:
FLOW Senior Policy Advisor Dave Dempsey, with long-time friend and colleague Lana Pollack
FLOW senior advisor Dave Dempsey has 40 years’ experience in environmental policy. He served as environmental advisor to former Michigan Governor James Blanchard and as policy advisor on the staff of the International Joint Commission. He has also provided policy support to the Michigan Environmental Council and Clean Water Action. He has written dozens of books on the Great Lakes and water protection. Dave has a bachelor’s degree from Western Michigan University and a master’s degree in environmental policy and law from Michigan State University. He has served as an adjunct instructor in environmental policy at both universities.
Watch FLOW’s video homage to Dave Dempsey below:
Central to ensuring the ongoing impact of Jim’s and Dave’s achievements is the establishment of a special fund dedicated to securing the legacy of their leadership and the deepening influence of the public trust doctrine in environmental public policy. Gifts to the Olson-Dempsey Fund will support FLOW’s ongoing mission to educate about the power of public trust law, underscoring the rights and responsibilities of the public and public officials. By underwriting public presentations, communications initiatives, and engagement activities, the Fund will shine a light on the power of the public trust to inform law and science-based policy protecting the Great Lakes and will help to expand and sustain the application of the public trust doctrine as a key legal and policy instrument to protect the waters of the Great Lakes Basin.
FLOW publicly announced the Olson-Dempsey Fund on September 21, 2021, at our 10th anniversary celebration. Donors may add to the Fund through gifts and grants of all levels. Multi-year pledges and structured/planned gifts are welcome. Contact Diane Dupuis at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions about giving, or visit our online donation portal to make a gift now.
FLOW and the residents of the Great Lakes Basin are forever indebted to the brilliance, dedication, and relentless efforts that Jim Olson and Dave Dempsey have made on behalf of public water, the public trust doctrine, and the well-being of future generations who will call the Great Lakes home.
Traverse City, Mich.—FLOW is celebrating our 10th anniversary of keeping the Great Lakes public and protected and kickstarting the next 10 years.
Founded in 2011 by Jim Olson and directed since 2012 by Liz Kirkwood, both environmental attorneys, FLOW is a nonprofit law and policy center based in Traverse City dedicated to protecting the Great Lakes, groundwater, and drinking water for all. Independent and nonpartisan, FLOW works with the public and decision-makers to hold the government accountable in protecting and providing access to public waters.
Notable highlights of our 10th anniversary year and celebration include:
Tuesday, September 21, from 7:00-8:00 pm EDT—“Confluence”—FLOW’s marquee 10th anniversary event, live-streamed and emceed by dynamic Traverse City talent Ben Whiting. Free and open to the public, the online event will include a special honor for FLOW luminaries Jim Olson and Dave Dempsey, and promises a fun and fast-paced frolic through FLOW’s history and heroes, with special guests, and prize-drawings for Patagonia gear! Register here.
The addition of FLOW’s first-ever full-time legal director, an achievement many years in the making. Environmental attorney Zach Welcker joined FLOW in July, after more than a decade representing Indian tribes in the Pacific Northwest on water, fisheries, and other natural resource issues. Zach now carries the legal torch borne since 2011 on a part-time and volunteer basis by Jim Olson.
Video reflections by FLOW supporters, staff, and collaborators who have been instrumental to our work and shared successes over the past decade—meant to inspire everyone to join us in protecting freshwater for all. See the video series here.
Release of a penetrating groundwater-protectionreport—Deep Threats to Our Sixth Great Lake: Spotlighting and Solving Michigan’s Groundwater Emergency—and fact sheet authored by Dave Dempsey and conveyed via webinar. See FLOW’s groundwater program page for more.
“There isn’t another FLOW. There are many worthy environmental organizations but there isn’t another FLOW,” said Lana Pollack, former U.S. Chair of the International Joint Commission. “So I think that FLOW, although it’s not a political organization, it’s a deeply education organization. That has to come first before people will understand and demand of their government representatives protection for their most magnificent home.”
Watch Lana’s testimonial below.
For 10 years, FLOW has worked to keep our water public and protected. During 2021, our 10th anniversary year, FLOW staff, supporters and collaborators are sharing reflections on what our work together has meant to them, and to the freshwaters of the Great Lakes Basin. We hope you will find their words and deeds inspiring. Read more of those reflections here.
“It’s so simple, it’s so basic, and it’s often overlooked. It’s another long-term, generational educational effort that needs total place for people to understand that governments, at any period, at any place, hold the environmental entities of their regions in trust for all generations—not there to be given away, used up, sold, contaminated, forgotten about, taken for granted.”
Click here to see a larger version of the SepticSmart graphic.
By Dave Dempsey
Groundwater, a critical part of Michigan’s water cycle, is out of sight—and so is the groundwater pollution that contaminates thousands of drinking water wells and reaches hundreds of rivers and lakes across the state. Despite its invisibility to the naked eye, groundwater contamination sickens Michigan residents. About 45% of the Wolverine State’s population drinks well water.
Among the biggest culprits in degrading Michigan’s groundwater are failing septic systems. Designed to treat household wastewater in areas not served by sewers and buried beneath the land surface, septic systems require proper maintenance if they are to avoid polluting groundwater. Such maintenance includes regular inspections and, when necessary, pumping out of the wastewater. But because there are no inspection and maintenance requirements in most areas of the state, an estimated 130,000 septic systems in our state are failing. That means sewage and associated microorganisms are reaching groundwater, lakes, and streams.
September 20-24 is SepticSmart Week in Michigan and nationally—an opportunity for owners of property with septic systems to learn about the threat failing systems pose to our water resources, and ways to prevent or minimize such pollution. As our allies protecting Crystal Lake in Benzie County, Michigan, point out: Being septic smart can extend the life of a septic system, keep well water safe, protect the environment and prevent accidents at home.
FLOW’s Groundbreaking Reports on Groundwater
As FLOW described in our fall 2018 report on groundwater contamination in Michigan, and a second report we released earlier this year, our state is the only one of the 50 states that lacks a statewide sanitary code requiring regular inspection and maintenance of small, mainly domestic septic systems. Because of the gap in state protections, some counties, townships, cities, and villages are enacting local ordinances in place of statewide requirements, but they are relatively few out of Michigan’s approximately 2,000 local units of government.
Septic systems are small-scale wastewater treatment options, used when a home or complex cannot easily be connected to a municipal sewer system. Raw sewage and wastewater (e.g., bath water and dishwater) are first pumped from the home into the septic tank. This is an underground, sealed, concrete tank where the household waste is treated. Here, solid waste sinks to the bottom of the tank and materials such as oil form a layer of scum on top. Bacteria in the tank break down the solid waste, while the wastewater migrates out of the septic tank and into the drain field. Perforated pipes distribute the liquid wastewater throughout the drain field. Once out of the pipes, the wastewater effluent seeps through a gravel layer, then through the soil. Both filter the wastewater before it flows into the groundwater or nearby surface water.
Leaking or malfunctioning septic systems allow organic wastewater compounds like nitrate and E. coli to percolate through the soil and enter the groundwater. Leakage and effluent runoff are also major contributors to E. coli levels in surface water. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) has identified 196 rivers, lakes, and beaches with E. coli levels over the EPA limit.
Between 2013 and 2014, an estimated 5.7 billion gallons of untreated sewage from failing septic systems were pumped into surface water in Michigan. A 2015 study headed by Dr. Joan Rose, co-director of Michigan State University’s Center for Advancing Microbial Risk Assessment and Center for Water Sciences, sampled 64 river systems that drain approximately 84 percent of the Lower Peninsula for E. coli and the human-specific source tracking marker bacteria called B-theta. The more septic systems in the watershed, the more human fecal source tracking bacteria were found in the water.
Failing septic systems have been correlated with disease. A 2003 study found that septic system densities were associated with endemic diarrheal illness in central Wisconsin.
Septic Systems and Emerging Contaminants
Human wastes are not the only pollutants that failing septic tanks are releasing to groundwater and surface water. So-called emerging contaminants are found in household wastes, whether they discharge to publicly owned sewage systems or septic tanks. Twenty different studies on septic systems have identified 45 contaminants in septic effluent, including pharmaceuticals, personal care product ingredients, chemicals in cleaning products, flame retardants, hormones (both natural and synthetic), and other common substances such as caffeine. Septic systems are somewhat effective at removing chemicals such as acetaminophen, caffeine, and alkylphenols, a common group of ingredients used in cleaning products. But some chemicals remain largely untreated, including the carcinogenic flame retardant TCEP, an anti-epilepsy drug called carbamazepine, and the antibiotic sulfamethoxazole.
One cause of the septic system pollution problem is homeowners’ lack of awareness. A 2018 study of mid-Michigan residents likely to have septic systems, conducted by Public Sector Consultants, found:
Approximately 30 percent of residents did not know they have a septic system.
The average age of septic systems was 28 years old.
Forty-three percent of respondents indicated they had not had their system pumped within the last 5 years, and 25 percent indicated that they did not pump or maintain their system on a regular basis.
Only 15 percent of residents were aware of the normal lifespan of a septic system.
Only 11 of 83 Michigan counties have ordinances that require septic tank inspection at the time property is sold. Within the first 6 years of implementing their ordinances, two Michigan counties found 1,000 failed septic tanks and 300 homes without any septic system or other wastewater treatment.
Protect It and Inspect It: Homeowners should generally have their system inspected every three years by a qualified professional or according to their state or local health department’s recommendations. Tanks should be pumped when necessary, typically every three to five years.
Think at the Sink: Avoid pouring fats, grease, and solids down the drain. These substances can clog a system’s pipes and drainfield.
Don’t Overload the Commode: Only put things in the drain or toilet that belong there. For example, coffee grounds, dental floss, disposable diapers and wipes, feminine hygiene products, cigarette butts, and cat litter can all clog and potentially damage septic systems.
Don’t Strain Your Drain: Be water-efficient and spread out water use. Fix plumbing leaks and install faucet aerators and water-efficient products. Spread out laundry and dishwasher loads throughout the day—too much water at once can overload a system that hasn’t been pumped recently.
Shield Your Field: Remind guests not to park or drive on a system’s drainfield, where the vehicle’s weight could damage buried pipes or disrupt underground flow.
Pump your Tank: Routinely pumping your tank can prevent your septic system from premature failure, which can lead to groundwater contamination.
Test Your Drinking Water Well: If septic systems aren’t properly maintained, leaks can contaminate well water. Testing your drinking water well is the best way to ensure your well water is free from contaminants.
Source: Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.
“FLOW is responsible for the major success we’ve had so far as a movement in halting the Line 5 pipeline that crosses the Straits of Mackinac,” said FLOW senior policy advisor Dave Dempsey in this testimonial about the impact we’ve had during the past decade.
During 2021, our 10th anniversary year, FLOW supporters and collaborators are sharing reflections on what our work together has meant to them and to the freshwaters of the Great Lakes Basin.
“Without the public trust doctrine that Jim Olson and Liz Kirkwood have been advocating, that pipeline would be set to operate for another 50 years, and I think we’re in a position to shut it down, thanks for FLOW’s work on this. I think of the public trust doctrine as the key that can unlock all the environmental doors for us. It can protect our water, protect our air, protect us from climate change. It’s the secret weapon.”
Watch a video below of Dave Dempsey’s testimonial:
Because we’re concerned about protection of water, the FLOW staff and board make frequent reference to the hydrologic cycle in our conversations. You know, the movement of water from the Earth’s surface to the atmosphere and back again. But on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the cycles of politics also come to mind.
Dave Dempsey as a 2-year-old boy (left) together with his brother Jack (right) in 1959 on the shore of Lake Erie, before the tumult of the 1960s and the environmental progress of 1970.
I was 13 and unconcerned about environmental issues on the first Earth Day in 1970—teenage obsessions were foremost on my mind. But because my father was a public servant and spoke to my brothers and me about policy, governance, and elections throughout our youth, I was well aware of the social ferment around the Vietnam War, the women’s movement, and the civil rights movement. Among my formative memories were the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, when I was barely old enough to understand it and the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968. My generation came of age during a domestic and overseas bloodbath, but also a time of rising activism to make the world better.
But only when I look back at 1970 later in life, as an amateur environmental historian, do I fully appreciate what happened that year. It wasn’t just April 22—the first celebration of Earth Day—it was 12 months of successful citizen work to raise consciousness and pass new federal and state laws that revolutionized America’s treatment of air, water, land, fish, and wildlife. Michigan was a national leader on the environment throughout 1970. Every time I think of Michigan in 1970, I am deeply grateful to the many largely unsung citizens who pressured elected officials to conserve and protect the environment. We owe them a great debt for reforms that persist today.
By the time I dedicated myself professionally to environmental policy, the cycle had moved almost to the opposite side. Michigan’s unemployment hit 17% in 1982, and conservative political forces had chosen environmental laws and rules as one culprit (even though, in reality, an energy crisis and policies to squeeze inflation had induced a national downturn).
Most of my career has taken place in that long swing of the pendulum. For the most part, my contemporaries and I have been playing defense. In a swirling flood of destruction, we’ve been holding on to many of 1970s’ gains like a life raft.
That’s the policy world. In the world of public consciousness, the need for environmental protection has remained steadfast. What seems to have changed, then, is the link between public opinion and public policy.
Opponents—primarily Big Business and Big Agriculture—have changed tactics. Instead of bluntly saying they doubt the need for environmental protection, as they often did in 1970, they acknowledge the need but offer a different route—voluntary, non-enforceable stewardship that has proven to be undependable. It almost makes me long for the days when they were blunt about their belief that environmental protections were a luxury America could not afford. They aren’t so direct now. They exploit Supreme Court decisions about back-door corporate funding of political campaigns and lavish significant sums to install candidates who talk a good environmental game, but won’t deliver.
These changes could lead one to despair, but they shouldn’t. When I first started looking at Michigan’s environmental history, I found evidence of the first lonely citizen voices who sounded alarms about the ravaging of Michigan’s forest, fish, and game in the 1870s. Those voices swelled into a chorus within decades, and a crescendo in 1970. If those earliest conservation pioneers could start from nothing 150 years ago to accomplish so much over generations, we should take heart. We are neither few, nor lonely.
I began this essay by talking about cycles. There are indeed cycles of water and politics, but there is also a kind of renewable energy in the citizenry. What’s needed is a long perspective. If it has been the lot of my generation to fight for what the previous one accomplished, it will likely be the next generation’s accomplishment to make the broad advances needed to assure a high quality of life for humans and the world we inhabit.
One of the slogans of Earth Day 1970 was “think globally, act locally.” Fifty years later, I would frame it in time, rather than scale: Think millennially, act perennially.
Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor
Dave Dempsey is the senior policy advisor at FLOW.
Photo: Dave Dempsey (right) appears at the Michigan Union together with (l-r): moderator Jen Read, UM Water Center; Clare Lyster, University of Illinois at Chicago; and Margaret Noodin, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Photo by Diane Dupuis.
Since the beginning of Michigan as a state in 1837—the starting point of my book, Ruin and Recovery: Michigan’s Rise as a Conservation Leader (University of Michigan Press, 2001)—we’ve had several resource binges. First, we took a heavily timbered state and consumed over 90% of the resource in less than 50 years, leaving behind what commentators have called “a burned-over, cutover wasteland.” Then we fouled the waters, first with mill waste and raw sewage, then with persistent toxic chemicals. Then we consumed the land, building unsustainable communities crawling across the landscape.
How could these things happen? Didn’t people care about their own children and grandchildren? I think most did. But they believed in something I call “the myth of inexhaustibility.” The myth holds that despite our great numbers, the world is so plentiful in resource riches that humans cannot exhaust them.
This played out in Michigan as elsewhere. In the late 1860s, timber interests estimated there was so much white pine in our state that it would last 500 years. Most of it was gone in two generations.
Later, the experts said our waters, including the Great Lakes, were so plentiful they would absorb and “purify” the wastes. Before long, Michiganians were dying of typhoid and cholera because their drinking water supply intakes were downstream of cities discharging raw sewage.
When Michigan awoke with hangovers from the first two binges, public-spirited women and men, volunteer conservationists and environmentalists, fought successfully for societal healing. Citizens pressured public officials to take over the cutover lands, plant trees and initiate mostly sustainable forestry, and build the largest state forest system east of the Mississippi. Similar events occurred in the Great Lakes states most like Michigan—Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Citizens pressured public officials to attack raw sewage and industrial wastes, including the early persistent toxins like DDT and PCBs. Over a period of 50 years, Michigan displayed national leadership. For example, Michigan was the first state to cancel the registration for DDT after it showed up in alarmingly high levels in Great Lakes fish.
Whether we’re going to have a similar healing cycle for our use and misuse of land is an open question. There are hopeful signs, but our “Tale of Two Cities”—central cities and all the other cities—still reeks of institutional racism, flawed economic thinking, and personal prejudices.
And don’t get me started on climate change.
I’ve had a front-row seat in the environmental policy theater for 30 years as Michigan and Wisconsin have denied, delayed and degraded serious answers to the climate crisis. Like the public officials who facilitated the gluttonous consumption of our forests and waters, we’ve been misrepresented for those three decades by officials eager to please short-sighted interest groups for today’s gain. Two lost generations.
So we continue to suffer these periods of ruin and recovery, degradation followed by healing. And we need recovery now. Will we have it?
Yes, if we learn.
If we heed the lessons of the past, there is abundant hope.
It starts with those who envision the future, who see where our patterns of resource exploitation will take us if unchecked. In both the forest and water ruins of our history, individuals saw early what was happening and fought to prevent it, or at least to cure it.
In 1900, Charles Garfield, one of our first citizen forestry advocates, said, “Some time it may be, our state shall be so ruled by men of vision and men of taste—sometime, it may be fondly hoped, our legislature shall have the leisure from the petty politics and the strident voice of the lobbyist and the crank to turn its attention to the State of Michigan—to renew its waste places with forest life—to make this peninsula, which is bound to shelter 10,000,000 of people, as beautiful as God intended it to be.” Garfield was instrumental in making it happen.
In 1878, Robert Kedzie of the state health board warned, “A systematic pollution of our rivers has already begun in our State … any one can easily see that these evils will come in with an increase in our population, unless they are excluded by timely precaution on the part of the public authorities. The evil can be successfully resisted or averted only by combined opposition.” Kedzie called for development of sewer systems designed to prevent stream pollution. His advice was ultimately heeded—after much damage was done.
These men and women educated, they battled and lost, they persisted and ultimately, they prevailed. I can scarcely convey how moved I was when, pawing through papers in the State Archives, I came across a citizen petition to the Governor of Michigan urging action to conserve forests and fish—in the 1870s. These were people looking ahead, a few voices compared to the loud societal chorus demanding consumption now.
Probably the most important lesson to take from that history is the one I didn’t learn in political science, but learned the hard way: our so-called leaders don’t lead, they follow. We are the leaders, if we choose to be.
Today we have many voices urging a better way that meets today’s needs without sacrificing those of tomorrow. At least at the state level in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, they are making gradual progress.
Another big step toward forging a sustainable future is to behold a history larger than those that I’ve described in my books. The place now called Michigan did not really begin in 1837. The ecosystem known as the Great Lakes did not really begin in the 17th Century, when the first Europeans arrived. I wrote only about those histories because they were all that I felt qualified to discuss. But in the context of history as a whole, they are a tiny fraction of time—although an overwhelming majority of the resource consumption.
I’ve been happy to see a steady growth in public consciousness about the Great Lakes. We no longer take them for granted. Each year, we care a little more, and do a little more. Most importantly, we no longer subscribe to the myth of inexhaustibility. We are understanding that despite their size, the Great Lakes are fragile, vulnerable; that we need to take care of them. We are making changes.
Drunk on Development
As the governments of Canada and the U.S. were negotiating a new Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 1978, a group of scientists from both nations urged them to build the new pact around the concept of ecosystems. Instead of looking at the Great Lakes as separate holding ponds, aquatic highways, or waste receptacles, the governments should pledge to regard them as an interconnected system of water, land and all life forms. In that way, we would base policy on the idea of looking at effects systemwide instead of in isolation.
To make the point, a Canadian scientist named Jack Vallentyne presented to the members of the International Joint Commission (IJC). Jack, who in retirement became “Johnny Biosphere,” teaching kids about ecosystem concepts, had something special in mind for the commissioners.
Standing in front of the commissioners and onlookers, he produced a bottle of whisky and four glasses from under a table that served as a bar. He poured a shot of whisky into the first glass, two into the second, four into the third, and eight into the fourth glass.
“Commissioners,” he said, “you and our leaders of government and industry believe that constant growth is a good thing. I am going to drink this whisky the way you say our society should grow.” He promised to drink one glass each ten minutes, and began making his formal presentation. It discussed growth as an exponential function – constant growth meaning a doubling of the initial quantity over constant intervals of time. Just like his body, Vallentyne said, the Great Lakes Basin had limits of adaptability to the stresses of population growth and technology.
Vallentyne took a second drink, blinked and cleared his throat. He explained the ecosystem approach, citing acid rain, road salt and toxic chemicals as examples of problems affecting water quality that couldn’t be addressed by considering only water.
After the third drink, a reporter in the front row of the audience gasped loudly, “My God, it really is whisky!” Growing more theatrical with his ingestion of the liquid, Vallentyne demonstrated that there is no “away” in nature by crumpling a piece of paper and throwing it to the floor in front of the commissioners.
“After the fourth drink my hands instinctively went to my chest as the whisky burned down my throat. After regaining my breath, I spent the better part of a minute looking unsuccessfully for the summary sheet of my text.” Knocking himself on the head, Vallentyne realized the summary sheet was the one he had wadded up and hurled to the floor. He read it “cool and collected” to the commissioners.
The commissioners verified the validity of Vallentyne’s stunt by sniffing the bottle—which did contain whisky, though diluted by tea. The chair of the Canadian section of the IJC told a Canadian Broadcasting Company reporter that Vallentyne’s presentation had been “a simply staggering performance.”
That was Jack Vallentyne—a brilliant scientist willing to drink too much in public to prove a vital point. He and his scientific colleagues prevailed, and the 1978 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement ushered in a new ecosystem approach for these magnificent waters. It’s significant that he told this story, again, in a paper he authored for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, “Managing the Great Lakes Basin as Home.”
I hope we won’t have to get drunk to chart a new course for the histories we’re going to make. I don’t think we will. People ask me, “Do you think we are going to be able to turn things around in time?”
And I say “yes, because we have to.”
I believe human beings are resourceful, and can choose life over extinction if they are determined to.
And I believe the histories future speakers talk about in the year 2120—100 years from now—will be ones that talk about how we came to our senses, and learned to live sustainably in Michigan, in the Great Lakes region, and globally.
From left to right, panelists Alan Steinman, George Heartwell, Skip Pruss and Dave Dempsey. Photo by Liz Kirkwood
FLOW held a community engagement session at the Grand Rapids Public Library on Thursday, December 5, to make the economic case for government’s role in protecting human health and the environment—both nationally and locally.
The Grand Rapids event featured presentations by Pruss, as well as Alan Steinman, who directs Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute, former Grand Rapids mayor George Heartwell, and FLOW senior policy adviser Dave Dempsey. FLOW executive director Liz Kirkwood opened the engagement session with introductory remarks and closed it with a panel discussion.
Pruss spoke about his early career in government and highlighted the then-prevailing spirit of public service, and public support for and confidence in government’s high aspirations for implementing change. Examples of that change include building the interstate highway system, reaching the moon, launching the war on poverty, and fostering a nationwide public education system which was at one time the envy of the world. Landmark environmental laws passed approximately 50 years ago demonstrated the value of well-conceived governmental interventions. Since its enactment in 1970. economic health benefits related to the Clean Air Act are estimated at $22 trillion.
Paradoxically, despite significant achievements, public confidence in government has declined in recent decades, said Pruss, who argued in his “Resetting Expectations” briefs that government should support the renewable energies of tomorrow rather than the dirty fossil fuels of yesterday.
Without government subsidies, the oil and coal industries are going bankrupt: they no longer make good business sense. Meanwhile, a report by the White House Office of Management and Budget demonstrates that environmental regulations have the best cost-benefit ratio of any federal rules. Those regulations also help to level the playing field, and eliminate free riders who don’t abide by the rules.
Across the political spectrum, economists agree that positive externalities—activities that result in additional benefits for society—should be promoted, and negative externalities, which indicate market failure, should be avoided. Negative externalities impose “spillover” costs on society that are not included in the cost of production.
To emphasize his point, Pruss quoted Sir Nicholas Stern, who said that “Climate change is a result of the greatest market failure that the world has ever seen.”
“It’s not just the release of hazardous substances and soil and groundwater contamination and the impact to health and wildlife, it’s also the irreparable loss of these functions of this landscape,” said Pruss while sharing a searing image of the destruction of the Tar Sands region in Alberta, Canada. “The benefits of this landscape that are now gone for future generations. We can’t afford to do that.”
Government environmental protection and investments pay off at the local level, too, added Dr. Alan Steinman and former Grand Rapids mayor George Heartwell.
Steinman opened his presentation with an image of a West Michigan sunset over Lake Michigan, which he said shows how economic development and environmental protection go hand in hand. Steinman then contrasted images of Muskegon Lake as an industrial hub and now, as a favorite recreation spot.
Steinman worked 10 years ago on a project to stabilize Muskegon Lake’s shoreline—a project whose funding didn’t originally intend to highlight economic impacts, but whose cascading benefits included “when the insects came back, the fish came back, and when the fish came back, the people came back.”
Ecosystem restoration is generally considered a 3-to-1 return on investment, but the Muskegon Lake restoration yielded a 6-to-1 return.
Former Grand Rapids mayor George Heartwell started his presentation on an upbeat note: “Let me start with a modest proposition—mayors will save the world!” he boomed. “The work that’s done by cities, by progressive mayors, by visionary and innovative mayors will turn down the thermostat on global temperatures.”
While these superheroes are saving the world, they must also address extreme rain events, flooded sewers and common issues facing cities like Grand Rapids.
Heartwell narrated a Grand Rapids story that evolved from spilling billions of gallons of combined storm water and sewage overflow into the Grand River to separating storm and sanitary sewers and creating storm water treatment systems in neighborhood green spaces that also serve as amenities.
Heartwell shared a litany of steps that Grand Rapids has taken to improve the urban environment and mitigate against the effects of climate change.
“I know it sounds like a very small step toward saving the human species but green infrastructure in every city will at least save us from storm water and flooding damage and buy us the time we need to do other climate change mitigation.”
“If every city did what Grand Rapids is doing, life on our planet would survive, and the seventh generation would look back at us with gratitude.”
Dave Dempsey stressed the economic value of groundwater to Michigan and the huge costs of failing to protect it from contamination. About 45% of Michigan’s population gets its drinking water from groundwater sources and industry and agriculture also use considerable groundwater for manufacturing and irrigation. Yet a legacy of contamination has cost Michigan taxpayers over $1 billion in cleanup costs, and there are 6,000 more orphan sites—where no private source is available—that may require taxpayer money to clean up.
Dempsey said Michigan needs stronger groundwater protection policies to support Michigan job creation and reduce health risks from chemically contaminated water supplies.
Above photo: Jane Corwin, US Commissioner/Chair of the International Joint Commission, speaks at a public hearing in Traverse City on July 24, 2019. Photo by Rick Kane.
By Liz Kirkwood
Editor’s note: FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood was recently appointed to be a member of the International Joint Commission’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board.
Liz Kirkwood, FLOW Executive Director
My colleague and mentor, Dave Dempsey, knows almost everything there is to know about the Great Lakes. He’s encyclopedic, you could say. He’s authored over 10 books, including a classic one entitled Ruin and Recovery (University of Michigan Press, 2001).
It’s the cycle we here in the Great Lakes are all too familiar with.
The book tells a story of Michigan’s environmental ruin that began to worsen in the early 1900s, followed by the recovery that began in the 1970s as the public clamored for a clean environment.
It is amazing to imagine that over one hundred years ago, as lax water pollution standards led to the fouling of the Great Lakes, the US and Canadian governments had the vision and foresight to craft an international treaty to address boundary water management and disputes. Known as the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, this pact established the International Joint Commission (IJC) to serve as the advisor to both governments in preventing, arbitrating, and navigating water conflicts. Of the nine major water basins shared by the US and Canada, the Great Lakes is the largest and has global significance because it contains 20 percent of the planet’s fresh surface water.
In 1972, with increasing international water pollution, the US and Canada entered into the seminal Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA). The Agreement called for binational action by the governments to reduce phosphorus pollution and meet water quality goals. It also set up the Great Lakes Water Quality Board (WQB) to assist the IJC in watchdogging Great Lakes cleanup.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the IJC was considered the moral authority on Great Lakes issues, candidly assessing progress and problems. Thanks in part to the Water Quality Board, the commission made a lasting contribution to Great Lakes cleanup by defining 43 “areas of concern” (AOCs)—bays, harbors, and rivers with severe legacy contamination—that needed sustained commitment to be cleaned up. Over 30 years later, work continues on the AOCs, along with congressional funding of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI).
The work of the Water Quality Board continues, too. The 28-member board provides advice to the IJC for the benefit of the 40 million people who rely on the lakes for drinking water, sustenance, and way of life. The IJC recently appointed me to serve on the Board.
The Board represents the crossroads of the Great Lakes, bringing together diverse viewpoints from tribal leaders like Frank Ettawageshik and water affordability advocates like Monica Lewis-Patrick. It is a pleasure to serve with them and to problem solve how we can bring the Great Lakes community together to respond to old and new problems in the Basin. This work depends on developing key priorities and scientific goals to measure progress, coordinating strong and committed implementation among federal, state, and provincial environmental agencies, building stronger and new partnerships and alliances across these lakes, lifting up silenced voices to ensure water justice for all, and educating and empowering all peoples about the vital importance of protecting the health of our common waters.
It’s been almost 50 years since the two nations entered into the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, and during this time, we have watched rust-belt contaminated urban cores rebound and polluted ecosystems revived. But we also have witnessed a rollback of major federal environmental regulations and laws, the Flint lead crisis, Detroit water shutoffs, lack of investment and crumbling regional water infrastructure, lack of safe, affordable drinking water, wetland destruction, water privatization, legacy and emerging pollutants like PFAS, and unprecedented climate change impacts.
Our challenge in this new century, then, is to break the constant cycle of ruin and recovery, and replace it with sustained protection and prosperity. This is critical in the context of the climate crisis where we are testing the capacity of our ecosystems to rebound. Instead, we must imagine the future we want, where natural and human ecosystems can thrive and prosper together.
To do this, we must challenge traditional assumptions and ways of thinking. We must draw not only on science but also on traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) is a relational process for indigenous peoples that is built through experience and relationships that are difficult to incorporate into non-indigenous information systems and decision frameworks. We must design and enact bold policies that acknowledge the interconnectedness of human health, economic prosperity, and ecosystems.
With public trust doctrine protection, we can steward our waters as a shared public resource from one generation to the next and ensure multigenerational equity. Healthy economies and communities depend on healthy ecosystems. It’s as simple as that. The future of the Great Lakes depends on a vision and plan based on a water-economy that embraces a new water ethic at its center.
I am honored to serve on the Water Quality Board for the IJC and it is my great hope that we can work together to develop recommendations thattranslate into meaningful bi-national actions designed to protect the long-term health of the Great Lakes.
Gov. William G. Milliken, Traverse City’s native son and Michigan’s longest-serving governor, who passed away October 18 at age 97, left behind an important legacy of environmental protection, good governmental policy, and civility in public discourse.
As Michiganders, we’re deeply proud of Gov. Milliken and mourn his passing, too. FLOW senior policy adviser Dave Dempsey, who wrote Gov. Milliken’s biography, knew him and his wife Helen well, and authored this remembrance.
After he left office, Milliken summarized his environmental values: “In Michigan,” he said, “our soul is not to be found in steel and concrete, or sprawling new housing developments or strip malls. Rather it is found in the soft petals of a trillium, the gentle whisper of a headwater stream, the vista of a Great Lakes shoreline, and the wonder in children’s eyes upon seeing their first bald eagle. It is that soul that we must preserve.”
It is the responsibility of FLOW and other environmental stewards to take up Gov. Milliken’s torch and carry it forward. We must preserve our Great Lakes, wetlands, and drinking water held in public trust for all of us, and stop polluters from soiling these most precious resources—which represents 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater. We will help carry that torch both with honor and humility.
You can learn more about Gov. Milliken’s life in the family tribute posted here. FLOW gratefully acknowledges the Milliken family’s suggestion that memorial donations in Governor William G. Milliken’s name be made to FLOW and the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. We will carry on the Milliken legacy of environmental stewardship and hope for the future.
To donate to FLOW in honor of Gov. Milliken, please click on our Donate page, fill out all required fields, and write “Governor Milliken” in the bottom field. Thank you.