Subject of the Month: 2023

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May's Subject of the Month

Great Lakes Water Law

Selectors: Rachael Monroe and Michelle LaLonde

As residents of the Great Lakes region, we are used to water being all around us. The Great Lakes make up the largest freshwater system in the world, and is the primary water source for over 40 million people. What many people do not know is the considerable number of laws governing this water and its uses. Laws govern water in many different ways. Some water laws are based on treaties and cooperation, while others were created because of tragedy. It is important to understand the basics of the laws governing one of the few resources we can not live without.

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Water covers 70% of our planet, which can lead to the idea that this vital resource is plentiful and freely available. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Only 3% of the world's water is freshwater, and only 1% is accessible to people. The rest is either salt water that is not drinkable, or freshwater locked away in glaciers. Water is not equally distributed throughout the Earth and it can become very scarce in some areas, which can lead to conflict. 

As a result of this scarcity, many different laws and practices have sprung up worldwide around water. This can range from laws governing water usage and extraction rights, to preventing pollution, and determining how much can be used for agricultural purposes. Understanding the legal framework of water law is important for lawyers, but it is also important for anyone who needs water, which is all of us.

For more information, check out these resources:

As residents of the Great Lakes region, we are used to water being all around us. The Great Lakes make up the largest freshwater system in the world, and is the primary water source for over 40 million people. What many people do not know is the considerable number of laws governing these lakes. Not only do the Great Lakes share a border with eights US States, but four of the five lakes also share a border with Canada. This means that there are many international laws and treaties in effect. 

For more information, check out these resources:

In 2014, the city of Flint made the decision to stop purchasing their water supply from the city of Detroit, and start drawing from the Flint River, instead. Residents immediately began to complain of foul taste, smell and appearance. It was eventually discovered that the water was contaminated not only with lead from the pipes, but with Legionella bacteria and cancer causing chemicals. 

The city switched back to water from the City of Detroit in 2015, but the damage had already been done. 87 people were sickened and 12 people died after an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease, the largest outbreak in the country's history. Additionally, it is estimated that between 6,000 and 12,000 children were exposed to lead. In the aftermath, several government officials at the city and state level resigned over the mishandling of the crisis. In 2021, nine officials, including former Governor Rick Snyder, were brought up on criminal charges, though most eventually were dropped. 

While the water in Flint is now ostensibly safe to drink (after being filtered), most Flint residents still do not trust it. To this day, many people are still completing day to day tasks with bottled water.

For more information, check out these resources:

In 1938, Dr. Roy J. Plunkett discovered the PFAS chemical. This toxic, slippery, non-stick chemical was used for everything from military applications to non-stick pans. Another aspect that made this chemical so unique is the fact that it is nearly impossible to break down in nature. Today, PFAS can be found in the blood of almost 99% of Americans, and countless animals that are part of the food chain. Even worse, people are still being exposed to it through the groundwater. 

In Michigan alone, there are 46 sites where groundwater contamination exceeds the EPA advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion. While this may not seem terrible at its face, these 46 sites cover most of the state of Michigan. This is in addition to the estimates from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy that PFAS can be found at more than 11,300 sites across the state. This has resulted in orders not to consume fish from the lakes and rivers, as well Michigan becoming the first state to issue a "do not eat" advisory for deer.

PFAS and other groundwater contaminants are things we are going to have to deal with for a long time.

For more information, check out these resources:

In 2018, the water bottling branch of the Nestlé company applied for a permit to extract water from Osceola Country, Michigan at the rate of 400 gallons per minute. The total amount withdrawn would be 567,000 gallons per year. In exchange for extracting this much water, Nestlé would pay the state of Michigan only $200.00 per year in fees.

During the public comment process prior to permit approval, more than 80,000 comments were submitted to the state of Michigan, with only 75 of them being in favor of the permit's approval. Despite this, the permit was approved, and Nestlé was allowed to extract the water from Osceola County.

In September of 2021, Nestlé announced that they would not make use of this controversial permit. According Nestlé, they no longer needed it because they had access to sufficient water from other existing sources. However, a spokesman from the Michigan Department of Environment said that Nestlé had never used the permit because they never completed the required monitoring plan. 

For more information, check out these resources:


This video from Fox explains how water traveling from the Detroit River to our homes is filtered and purified.

This video from the University of Michigan explains how the rise and fall of the Great Lakes water supply can affect many industries around it. 

This video explains general water usage rights, and how water law can be different based on location.

This webinar from Case Western Reserve University explains the some of the complex laws governing the use of the Great Lakes.

This video from Great Lakes Now explains the concerns over an oil pipeline that travels through the Mackinac Strait, and how it became an international issue.

This webinar from the Canadian Environmental Law Association explained the details of the Canada-Ontario Agreement on Great Lakes Water Quality and Ecosystem Health.

This video gives a very general overview of the flint water crisis and how it was handled.

This report from CNN explains more about how the Flint Water crisis started, and how the government tried to cover it up.

This more recent report from Al Jazeera explains the continuing fallout of the Flint Water crisis, and what legal repercussions the citizens want to see.

This video explains more about how groundwater can become contaminated, and how we can help prevent it.

This video from VICE explains how groundwater contamination can profoundly impact communities, and how not enough resources are being put towards solving the problem.

This video explains the details of the Nestle water extraction plan in Michigan

This report from CBS explains more about the permitting process for water extraction, as well as the record-breaking number of comments about the Nestle extraction.

This video from M Live explains more about the laws allowing corporations to extract water, as well as how Michigan laws compare to other states.

This video explains the arguments for an against a water pipeline from the Great Lakes to the American Southwest.

This video from Motherboard explains this history of oil pipelines in the Great Lakes Region, and why residents are worried about Line 5 in particular.

This video from Vice explains more about the desire for pipelines to the southwestern United States.

Water Law Resources & Water Rights Organizations

Journal Articles & Library Databases