Traverse City Record-Eagle

Record-Eagle 150th Anniversary

October 5, 2009

Water Wars: Advocating for 'public trust'

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second of a two-part series on the history of water issues in Traverse City and the Great Lakes. Part one can be read here »

TRAVERSE CITY -- It was a busy summer on the water front for Great Lakes advocates in what environmentalists and others are calling "The Water Wars."

Traverse City environmental attorney Jim Olson, west Michigan citizens groups and various organizations are in the thick of it, working to plug holes they see in laws and agreements designed to protect the lakes from water withdrawals, sale, privatization and export outside the basin.

Their activism is based on two words -- public trust -- a legal concept that's becoming increasingly important in Great Lakes water diversion issues.

"This fight isn't about bottled water," said Olson, attorney for Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation in its nine-year battle with Nestle Waters North America in Mecosta County. "It's about who owns the water, who controls it and whether water is to be viewed as a commodity or a public commons to be held in a public trust by Great Lakes governments for the benefit of all."

For Olson and other Great Lakes advocates, the battle won't be over until loopholes are fixed in the Great Lakes Compact and Michigan adopts a law, either by legislative action or referendum, that clearly defines Michigan's lakes, rivers, streams and groundwater as a "public trust" to give them the same protection against privatization as the Great Lakes and its surface water.

Public trust

Generally, "public trust" refers to a common-law principle dating to Roman times that says government owns title to submerged land under navigable waters and holds them in trust for the public. Traditionally, any use or sale of submerged lands must be in the public interest.

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