Great Lakes Blue Communities

Client Organization: 
FLOW (For Love of Water)
Project Location : 
Traverse City, MI, USA
Summary of Project Idea: 

Goals & Objectives:

This project will promote tangible protection of waters across the Great Lakes Basin by creating a model Blue Communities initiative and ground-truthing it in the Grand Traverse region of northwest Lower Michigan.

The premise of the project is that communities across the Basin are ready to take leadership on water protection matters in a time when federal and state governments are stepping back. But many communities lack a useful template for proceeding in ways that deliver environmental, community and taxpayer benefits. Existing templates stress philosophical commitments to public water. FLOW intends to embrace and go beyond such commitments into policies and practices with measurable water quality benefits.

FLOW proposes to engage the SNRE student team in researching best policy and practice models for community stewardship of water resources and using one or more communities in the Grand Traverse region for ground-truthing. This means students will work collaboratively with interested municipal officials and community residents to:

  • Inventory existing and emerging threats to critical community water resources where a meaningful local response is feasible;
  • Research initiatives undertaken by communities across the nation to address the same or similar threats;
  • Solicit and evaluate ideas for initiatives proposed by community members and officials;
  • Conduct scientific, engineering and policy analyses of the range of initiatives;
  • Prepare a draft Blue Communities plan including model ordinances for review by community members and officials;
  • Prepare a final Blue Communities plan reflecting comments received; and
  • Prepare a Blue Communities template that can lead to replication of the host community’s plan, practices and policies across the Basin.

Among practices and policies that could be evaluated are:

  • Protection of source waters used for public drinking water;
  • Protection of critical aquifers;
  • Wetland conservation;
  • Management of stormwater in a time of changing climate;
  • Green infrastructure;
  • Water conservation and efficiency;
  • Promotion of energy conservation through improved water management;
  • Formal adoption of public trust principles as the basis of community water stewardship;
  • Efficacy of public-private partnerships to foster sustainable development and resiliency; and
  • Local policy decision criteria that promote triple-bottom-line analysis of plans and outcomes.
Founded in 2011 by renowned environmental attorney Jim Olson, FLOW offers a unique perspective to Great Lakes policy work, advancing the public trust doctrine as a managing stewardship framework to govern 20 percent of the planet’s fresh surface water. In 2016, FLOW’s work directly influenced the International Joint Commission (IJC) to address public trust principles as a backstop to the complex systemic challenges threatening our region. In addition to Jim Olson’s 40 years of water and environmental law expertise, FLOW’s team includes Senior Advisor, Dave Dempsey, who is a leading Great Lakes writer, historian, and policy expert; Executive Director, Liz Kirkwood, who has 17-years-experience as an environmental lawyer, and Board of Director Chair, Skip Pruss, Former director of the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth and lecturer at the Erb Institute.

Theoretical Justification, Social Benefit, or Significance: 

The Great Lakes are a globally unique resource consisting of 20% of the world’s fresh surface water, 84% of North America’s fresh surface water and 95% of U.S. freshwater resources. Future increased demand for water resources and related water scarcity issues are likely to intensify interest in the Great Lakes and impacts to related aquatic and water-dependent resources.

Enhancing community water stewardship in the Great Lakes Basin is a vital frontier of natural resource protection for two reasons. First, federal and some state governments no longer exercise collaborative and effective leadership on many environmental opportunities and challenges, increasing the need for leadership at the local level – fortuitously, the level of government at which people feel they can make the greatest impact. Second, as communities in the Great Lakes Basin become increasingly aware of systemic threats to their natural resources and cultural heritage, local and regional decision making in the public and private sectors will be increasingly driven by a water agenda.

Some existing templates tend to emphasize low-effort, low-impact symbolic actions; these have some value, but FLOW believes many communities in the Great Lakes Basin, and certainly Michigan, are ready to do more, particularly with the dramatic impacts of climate change. While many citizens are not informed about where their water comes from and where it goes, many communities are unable to answer fundamental questions about our water systems in a timely way, such as how much water is there? What is the quality of the water? How is the water used (i.e., withdrawn outside of the watershed, consumed entirely or returned in part for groundwater recharge)?

FLOW’s unique public trust approach to water stewardship constitutes vital, third-party assistance that emphasizes legal foundations for conservation decisions, sound science, technical and cultural risk assessments, community cooperation, cross-community collaboration, and public transparency. The major value of the project proposed here is to foster shareable and shared water conservation data, technical and legal terms of analysis,agreed upon standards for evaluating risk to local and regional water resources, recognized certification protocols that cooperating stakeholders and communities can use to address common stewardship interests and to coordinate effective water-focused stewardship. Scientific data, best practices, risk assessment protocols, and a collaborative public trust framework for water policy decisions are core elements of what can become a cross-disciplinary and intra-community template for a water-focused stewardship across communities and jurisdictions in the Great Lakes Basin.

In the end, this project will result in everything from reduced stormwater runoff to cleaner drinking water sources. It will also inform and augment public interest and awareness about the role water plays in local community decisions, illuminate current threats and opportunities for improved water protection and management, create new collaborations among diverse stakeholders, and elevate public discourse and attention on Great Lakes protection. Finally, the project will further augment the public trust status of Great Lakes resources and government’s fiduciary responsibility to protect public trust resources for the benefit of future generations.

Specific Activities & Duration:

Students participating in this project will enhance knowledge and understanding in:

  • Current and emerging domains of water and conservation policy: Research and analyze innovative water-related policies undertaken by communities across the country and especially within the Great Lakes Basin;
  • Engineering: Research and analyze innovative water-related designs (including green infrastructure) and practices undertaken within and between communities that address local and regional ecological and economic imperatives.
  • Science: Survey and categorize extant research on the environmental impacts of integrated water resource management systems and practices; communicating and interacting with MDEQ and MDNR scientists and staff; and
  • Public engagement: Work with diverse constituencies, tribal scientists, academic water research institutes, environmental organizations, and public officials in at least one northwest Michigan community to define areas of interest, gauge and respond to public concerns, develop environmental risk communication tools and messages, and facilitate effective stakeholder, intra-community, and cross-cultural processes for interaction, understanding, and collaborative decision making.
Integrative Approach:

Water issues encompass every area of human activity related to human health, food and political security, present and future prosperity, mobility, energy development, transportation, and recreation. FLOW, like its counterparts in the environmental nongovernmental sector, well understands that technical expertise alone is not sufficient to effect social change; nor is policy expertise; nor is communications or public engagement expertise. Expertise in all areas is required when working with communities. This project is truly integrative in that students with an array of competencies will be essential to its success.

The project lends itself to creating separate areas of research, outreach, and planning while necessitating collaboration both among the students and with stakeholders. An integrative approach drawing on science, data, modeling, legal protections, innovative land-use planning, and community engagement are fundamental to the success of this work. Finally, the project provides an opportunity to substantively inform public policy, work with diverse stakeholders, and set a new precedent in Great Lakes protection.

SEAS Program Areas: 
Conservation Ecology (Aquatic Sciences, Terrestrial Ecosystems, and Conservation Biology)
Environmental Policy and Planning
Behavior, Education, and Communication
Environmental Informatics
Sustainable Systems
Landscape Architecture
SEAS Faculty Advisor: 
Paul Seelbach
Master Students Involved in Project: 
  • Adam Arend
  • Lingzi Liu 
  • Kaitlin Vapenik 
  • Nancy Ye 
  • Kangyu Yu 


Project Status: 
In Progress