Collecting Posts on the Public Trust Doctrine in Its American Birthplace

Thank you to my colleague, Professor David A. Strifling, director of Marquette Law School’s Water Law and Policy Initiative, for his generous post a few weeks ago concerning Tom Merrill’s and my new book, Lakefront: Public Trust and Private Rights in Chicago (Cornell University Press). The book ranges over almost two centuries and the different stories that led to the Chicago lakefront’s varied but largely integrated and altogether splendid whole. Given these temporal and geographic variations, “the core insight that…

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Chicago’s Lakefront: The Rise of the Public Trust Doctrine (and Much More)

Urbs in Horto”— city in a garden—is the motto Chicago’s founders chose upon the city’s incorporation on March 4, 1837. At the time, this was more of a vision than a statement of fact, as the city had few public parks then, and preserving its existing open spaces seemed uncertain at best. Given the industrial waterfronts in many other large cities, it is a marvel that Chicagoans made that early vision a reality, at least along the water, by creating the city’s magnificent lakefront parks and protecting open space over nearly two centuries. How did it happen, and what are the lessons for urban development more generally? The definitive account is provided in Lakefront, a remarkable new book twenty years in the making, coauthored by Marquette Law School Dean (and Chicago native) Joseph D. Kearney and Columbia University’s Thomas W. Merrill.

Lakefront is, at its core, a story about Chicago and the development of its world-renowned lakefront. But Kearney and Merrill also make a significant contribution in untangling the American development of the public trust doctrine, which has been called “unquestionably one of the most important elements of U.S. natural resources law.”[1] The Supreme Court has recognized the doctrine’s ancient origin and its roots in Roman law.[2] Scholars have traced it to the Code of Justinian. Today the doctrine is generally thought to protect and preserve certain natural resources of a “special character,” through a perpetual trust intended to prevent the unimpeded exercise of private rights upon them. But clarifying the doctrine’s operational reach has proven difficult, and it has evolved into many different strains of varying strength primarily governed by state common law. However, all agree that Justice Stephen Field’s 1892 opinion for the U.S. Supreme Court in Illinois Central Railroad Co. v. Illinois was the moment at which the doctrine became a prominent feature of American law. Lakefront provides groundbreaking new details and a blow-by-blow account of how the case originated from the battles between public and private rights on the Chicago lakefront.

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Marquette’s presence at the Global Water Center helps Milwaukee lead in Water Innovation

Less than a mile away from the Law School, some of the country’s most important work is taking place at the Global Water Center, led by the Water Council. Water may seem like a basic right to most Americans, but across the globe, it is often a precious commodity. This will soon become a new reality in the water rich Midwest, as the demand on area water resources leads to an increasingly critical supply. The U.S. Geological Survey reported that pumping of groundwater in the Chicago-Milwaukee area from 1864 to 1980, has lowered groundwater levels by as much as 900 feet. Below is a map that illuminates the critical depletion affecting U.S. ground water supplies.Groundwater depletion in the U.S.

From Groundwater Depletion in the United States (1900-2008), USGS Scientific Investigations Report 2013-5079.

Facing the critical groundwater depletion taking place across the country over the last 100 years, Milwaukee non-profit, the Water Council, is rising to meet the challenge. The Water Council is dedicated to solving serious global water challenges by supporting innovation in freshwater technology and driving new solutions to a world that increasingly needs them. The Council has led the way through impressive collaboration—connecting 238 water technology businesses and a leadership network of 200 members from around the world. This expertise has included input from several Marquette University departments, including Marquette University Law School.

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AG Kaul, WDNR Reverse Slide of Wisconsin’s Public Trust Doctrine

An important shift in Wisconsin water policy has taken place in recent weeks, one that will likely have quantitative effects on Wisconsin water quality. It relates to the relative influence of the public trust doctrine in the state. On several occasions, I have written in this space about the doctrine’s apparently declining influence in Wisconsin. The public trust doctrine is generally taken to mean that a state must act as “trustee” of certain natural resources, particularly the navigable waters of the state, and manage them for the trust beneficiaries—its people.

Operationalizing those general terms has been difficult and has proceeded in fits and starts. For present purposes I will focus on the 2011 Wisconsin Supreme Court decision in Lake Beulah Management District v. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, (WNDR) concluding that the public trust doctrine gave WDNR “the authority and a general duty to consider whether a proposed high capacity well may harm [other] waters of the state” via water level drawdown and other potential impacts. In Wisconsin, high capacity wells (HCW) are statutorily defined as wells with the capacity to pump over 100,000 gallons of water per day. The court further held that when considering HCW applications WDNR had the authority to “deny a permit application or include conditions in a well permit” to prevent the harm to other nearby waters.

Around the same time, a new statute arguably undercut that same authority. While the case was before the court the Legislature enacted 2011 Wisconsin Act 21, creating Wisconsin Statute § 227.10(2m). The statute provides that “[n]o agency may implement or enforce any standard, requirement, or threshold, including a term or condition of any license issued by the agency, unless that standard, requirement, or threshold is explicitly required or explicitly permitted by statute or by a rule . . . .” For several years, uncertainty persisted over the tension between the Supreme Court opinion and the statute because the WDNR’s public trust authority is not “explicitly” stated in the statutes or in WDNR’s administrative rules.

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Enforcing Environmental Laws During The Pandemic

According to basic economic theory, regulated entities will comply with the environmental laws when the expected benefits of doing so (most The Environmental Protection Agency logoprominently, avoiding penalties) outweigh the expected costs of compliance. Theoretically, economists say, there is an optimum level of enforcement where expected sanctions equal expected harm, taking into account the probability that violations will be detected.

Yet the actual level of enforcement of the environmental laws is never optimal, even at the best of times. Enforcement agencies such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its state counterparts like the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have imperfect information about ongoing violations. They are not omniscient. And even if they had perfect information, there are often many more potential enforcement targets than can be pursued with limited agency resources. Enforcement, of course, is part of a broad mix of agency responsibilities that also includes rulemaking, standard setting, monitoring, and many other activities. Finally, political leaders may appoint agency heads who drive the pursuit of more or less than the optimal enforcement level.

Enter the pandemic. It adds a new layer of complexity, to understate the matter, in that enforcement agencies must take several new and highly important factors into account, such as the safety of agency personnel and the economic damage some regulated entities are experiencing. Staff who might normally be inspecting permitted facilities or investigating reported violations may be sick, quarantined, or at the very least, working from home. These factors have led some agencies to relax enforcement activities, as discussed in more detail below. Even if they are presumed to be well-meaning, such policies may worsen the situation in communities already disadvantaged by pollution levels that seriously impact public health. In turn, this may expose those communities to additional risks during or following the pandemic. (more…)

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