The Public Trust Doctrine and the Future of Water in Alberta

March 23, 2011 - 1:00am

Featuring Michigan-based attorney and public trust doctrine advocate Jim Olson and University of Alberta water expert Dr. David Schindler

It is a critical time for water in Alberta, with over-allocated rivers in the south of the province, increasing concerns about the impact of tarsands operations on water quality and quantity in the north, and increasingly dire predictions that climate change, increased population and other pressures are driving Alberta towards a water crisis. Since 2008 the Alberta government has been reviewing the provincial water allocation system, with indications that it intends to introduce a province-wide, largely deregulated water market when it updates the 1999 Water Act. Despite widespread concerns about leaving decisions about who will be able to access water up to the open market, the provincial government has over the past two years almost completely ignored non-market alternatives.

Many jurisdictions around the world — from India to Vermont, Hawaii to South Africa — are taking an alternate path in water management, basing their water allocation systems on a concept called the public trust doctrine. The public trust doctrine focuses on the protection of ecological values and on ensuring water for future generations by striking a balance between the public interest and private use of our collective water resources. Michigan-based Jim Olson, one of the world’s foremost experts in the public trust doctrine, will explore the concept and how it could be applied in Alberta to ensure an effective, efficient and just water allocation system in the province.

About the speakers

Jim Olson has been practicing and writing about environmental, water, and public trust law for over 35 years. He is a principal in the Olson, Bzdok & Howard, P.C. law firm in Traverse City, Michigan. He and his firm have been involved in a variety of state and federal court decisions, including over 30 appellate court decisions that have protected land, water, public access, parklands, wetlands, wilderness, rivers and lakes, the Great Lakes, and public trust, and that have prevented or remedied sprawl and toxic pollution.

Mr. Olson has pioneered citizen suits under Michigan’s environmental protection laws, and represented clients on numerous land use, municipal, environmental, natural resource, and toxic tort disputes. Many of his cases have resulted in landmark trial and state supreme court decisions on environmental citizen suits, land use, and water law, most recently the nine-year water case by Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation against Nestlé to protect Michigan and Great Lakes’ streams and tributary groundwater from harm and private export.

He recently co-founded, and chairs, the Flow for Water Coalition, formed by several national, international, state, and regional non-profit corporations to correct the export loophole in the Great Lakes Compact’s diversion ban and incorporate the public trust doctrine as a primary principle for decisions affecting the water commons that belong to the public. He has authored numerous articles and essays and three books on environmental, land use, water and public trust law and two fictional works. He was featured in two recent documentary films, “FLOW: For Love of Water” and “Blue Gold.”

David Schindler, the Killam Memorial Professor of Ecology at the University of Alberta, is internationally recognized for his research on the harmful effects that acid rain and phosphorous-rich detergents have on fresh water. For the past decade, he and his students have been examining the effects of anthropogenic disturbance on alpine lakes. His current research interests include the study of fisheries management in mountain lakes, the biomagnification of organochlorines in food chains, effects of climate change and UV radiation on lakes, and global carbon and nitrogen budgets. He is particularly interested in the restoration of lakes suffering damage due to the introduction of alien species. In recent years he has earned significant accolades, including the Stockholm Water Prize, the Volvo International Environment Prize, the International Society of Limnology’s Naumann-Thienemann Medal, the American Association of Limnology and Oceanography’s Hutchinson Medal, and most recently, the NSERC Gerhard Herzberg Gold Medal for Science and Engineering.

Organized by the Our Water is Not For Sale network, the Council of Canadians,Parkland Institute and Public Interest Alberta, with support from the Council of Canadians Edmonton ChapterCanadian Union of Public Employees-BCWilderness Committee and Sierra Club-BC (Jim Olson will also be speaking in Victoria and Vancouver).


Engineering Teaching and Learning Complex (ETLC) Room 1-003
University of Alberta (East of 116 St between 91 & 92 Avenues)
Edmonton , AB