This is this story of Liz Kirkwood, executive director of the nonprofit FLOW and a protector of the Great Lakes.
First told at the October 2018 Fulfillament Storytelling event in Traverse City and featured in the August 2019 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
Chapter 1: My Journey Begins
Rain pitter-patters on the glass ceiling above me. Now it’s getting louder. It’s getting so loud that I have to raise my voice to talk to my lunch companion, Henry Little, the vice president of The Conservation Fund. We’ve never had a conversation before. This one lasts for over two hours, in part because we’re having a great dialogue and in part because we are trapped inside this restaurant by the rainstorm. We talk about the Amazon in Brazil where I spent a semester in college, we talk about his Cuban wife, and we talk about his life work as a conservationist saving wilderness out West.
Henry wants to know what I want to do with the rest of my life. I’m 22. I’m armed with a Bachelor in Environmental Studies and History from Williams College, and still I can’t find the perfect environmental job. I thought it would be relatively easy. But I was wrong. Way wrong. It’s the fall of 1994 in Washington, D.C. and no one is hiring. Ph.D. candidates are volunteering at World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International. I’m never going to get a job at this rate.
But something special happens under the glass ceiling that protects us from the rain. Henry sees a spark for this work in me, he sees the grit in me, and he sees that I’m never giving up. He tells me about this conservation group called the Sonoran Institute in Tucson, Arizona, that is working with communities across the Rocky Mountain West as they struggle to address rapid population growth and limited water.
I want to know more about the Tohono O’dom or Pima Indians and neighboring Mexicans. And I want to escape this concrete jungle to go back out West. It was in the wilds of Wyoming and Montana as a teenager that I started on this journey as an environmentalist. I have no idea if the desert is the right place for me but I’m ready for an adventure, and this sounds a whole lot better than being trapped here working behind a desk and living with my parents. Besides, one day, I might return to D.C. as an environmental lawyer.
Chapter 2: Igniting the Spark
I never thought I was that kind of kid who knew what she wanted to do at an early age. But looking back, I was. It happened for me when I was 15 years old, on a 30-day trekking adventure in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness in Wyoming. This is where I experienced my first solo, alone in the wilderness for 24 hours. And this is where I read the seminal environmental book—Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee—which opened my eyes to the philosophical divide between development and the modern conservation movement and humanized the battles necessary to save public park lands and wild rivers across our country.
As McPhee explained, conservation battles often become intractable because the stakeholders “have lived in the problem they are solving, and they have a deep sense of mission.”
Common strategies to overcome these challenges included a coordinated public campaign with compelling scientific and legal facts, a common cause, a united and broad coalition, and public messaging that tugged at the heartstrings.
Even still, McPhee noted, “There are no victories in conservation . . . [David] Brower [of the Sierra Club] feels that he can win nothing.” At 15, I had no idea what all this meant but it sounded important. My summer travels out West nurtured my soul and gave me meaning and purpose as a teenager. In wilderness, I became humble. I recognized the raw beauty and epic scale of nature. I thought of myself as a tiny star in a vast universe illuminated by billions and billions of other stars, planets, and other matter.
In wilderness, I grew up.
When I returned home to Brooklyn every August, I felt like a fish out of water. I am forever grateful to my mother, who shooed me and my siblings out of the house every hot East Coast summer and encouraged us to take great adventures, and let nature stir our souls. I was the kid who especially gravitated to the wonders of nature, the patterns of light and movement on the water, the sounds of birds and wildlife, the movement of trees, and the geology of landscapes. I feel a deep calm and rootedness when I am in nature.
Chapter 3: My Connection to Water
I always gravitated toward places with open waters, rivers, lakes, oceans. I spent most of my childhood weekends on the Sassafras River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, but I didn’t realize my connection to water until I moved to the Sonoran Desert. During most of the year, my desert hikes crossed scorched-looking earth scattered with low shrubby plants and prickly cacti, occasionally accented by grand saguaros or fountain-shaped acacia trees. When the rains come to the desert, however, it is one of the most magical sights to behold with its brilliant colors of magenta cacti flowers in bloom and verdant green leaves of the occotio plant reaching skyward toward the sun. The desert smells like rain and I am so thankful to see this water choking up and coursing through the arroyos that have been barren, dry, desiccated for months. A river is reborn.
This natural cycle has been broken in this strange arid landscape. The ephemeral vibrant colors of the desert are unnaturally green all year round on golf course after golf course. The urban sprawl of Tucson and Phoenix in particular made my heart sink. I was living what McPhee had described—learning about the importance of building community by partnering with diverse stakeholders. It wasn’t just talk. It was about crafting solutions based on community needs, desires, and dreams…Dreams I learned from ranchers like Kaia Barnes who wanted to keep places like the San Rafael valley open for cattle and wildlife and free of suburban development.
Westerners sometimes can be suspicious, especially of East Coasters from New York, but I was good at not only listening, sympathizing, but also laying out different points of view about conservation, development, and finding balance between the two. Over those three years, I worked in small Rocky Mountain communities to help build innovative partnerships between ranchers, miners, public land managers, and newcomers who honored the past but also tackled new development pressures in this fragile ecosystem.
The time had come for me to go back to school to do more. Going to law school was the logical step for me given my interests in systems thinking, my love of writing, and my grandfather—a Yale lawyer—who had encouraged me to pursue a career in law.
Chapter 4: More Lessons from the Archdruid
My journey to law school brought me from the deserts of the American Southwest to the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. At the time, the biggest environmental battles were still playing out with environmentalists defending spotted owls against logging companies and communities who depended on these natural resources. These protracted battles epitomized why the environmental movement continued to fail time and time again.
The environmentalists forgot about the people.
Focusing only on land conservation didn’t quite square with my broader interests in water, collaboration, community, and sustainable development. So I set off and was determined to find an engaging law practice where I also could feel ethically proud of my clients; and in those days, San Francisco was the best place for me. At Farella, Braun + Martel, I learned how to marshal the evidence, make sense of complex science and law, and build and argue a persuasive case; this was the grit required of a young attorney. But ultimately, it was not the life I was looking for. I was solving other people’s problems. I wanted to be part of a larger mission that changed people’s lives and protected the places they loved.
Working overseas in Thailand opened my eyes to our cultural differences as well as our common human behavior. As an environmental lawyer for USAID Eco-Asia, I worked to bridge the gap and strengthen environmental compliance and enforcement in seven Southeast Asian countries. Great laws on the books, but weak enforcement. We’d bring in the experts from U.S. EPA, and the Asian environmental agencies politely nodded their heads. It wasn’t until we brought environmental inspectorate peers from Asia to share their best practices that our work started to stick, started to matter. Messengers matter in this complex dance to find balance between protection of our natural world and sustainable living.
Chapter 5: Coming Home to the Great Lakes
I first came to the Great Lakes because of my sweetheart’s Michigan roots 21 years ago. I loved those lakes the minute I stood at their shore, gazing into the vast and mesmerizing blue/green/ turquoise water that seemed to have no end. The sandy beaches and the serenity of this place reminded me of my own childhood summers with cousins on Nantucket. Pete and I had been charting our journey together from Portland, Oregon forward, but we always came back to Michigan every summer. It was the one constant as we made big moves from San Francisco to Thailand and then to Pennsylvania.
I was in search of aligning my passion and legal skills and I had no idea what it would look like until one gray November day on my reconnaissance trip to Traverse City when I met Jim Olson by chance, and who I soon realized was one of the most prominent environmental attorneys and thinkers in the country. He drew me in immediately, as he explained his vision for launching this new nonprofit, For Love of Water. We would be thinking about some of the most important issues in the 21st century: how to protect and steward our water in the face of climate change, extraordinary population growth, increasing water scarcity, competition, and pollution. I was in 150%. The global significance of the Great Lakes hit me hard. Representing 95% of our nation’s fresh water, these inland seas would average 9.5 feet deep if they were spread over the contiguous 48 states.
Over the six years I’ve been here in the Great Lakes, I think back to the lessons from the Archdruid: Victories are hard won. And the corollary is also true. Defeat hurts. In early April this year I felt that loss. The state had approved Nestle’s permit for bottled water despite our compelling scientific and legal arguments, despite 500 citizens at the public hearing, despite 80,000 opposing public comments. Only 75 comments favored Nestle. I remember coming home that night utterly depressed. All that hard scientific and legal work coupled with intense public opinion and support and it fell on deaf ears. For a fleeting moment, I pondered the unthinkable: giving up.
And then I thought a little more. I thought about Jim Olson as lead attorney for the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation and how they together had spent nine years of their lives fighting Nestle. They hadn’t won everything but their fight mattered and they had persevered even when times were tough. And then I started thinking more about the hundreds of thousands of people of Flint and Detroit and the suffering and loss that they continue to experience, and it helped me remember why we must continue to fight.
These difficult moments also serve to reframe my life-work balance. I try hard to place my husband and my family first, recognizing the fleeting nature of our existence. And sometimes I know it doesn’t seem like this especially for my children, Ella and Miles, who are dragged to countless events, protests, marches, film screenings, and more. But they let me know that they are proud of my work to protect water. Only several years ago, my son, Miles, at age six reflected on this and asked me point blank: “Mom, what are you going to do after you save the water?” I laughed, and just smiled at my son’s sweet innocence and faith that I could single-handedly accomplish this heroic work!
I am grateful to countless people who I know and who I don’t know. I am touched when people come up to me and thank me for my work. But honestly, I don’t know what else I could do but this life work that helps people restore their connection to water and nature. A love for nature translates into a love for ourselves, for others, and for our community. Nature teaches us beauty, inspiration, patience, respect, and most of all the interconnectedness of life. There is no beginning or end; it is one cycle. And protecting water as one cycle will bring water security, resilience, and prosperity to both our natural and human communities.
My story is still writing itself, finding new questions, new answers as I explore, connect, and learn from amazing people and places here in the Great Lakes where some 20 percent of the planet’s fresh surface water exists. How can that really be? I am in awe. I am in wonder as I contemplate the vastness and extraordinary nature of these inland seas. I have finally found a place I can call home. And I can dream of no better place.
6 Water Issues to Care About Now (And How to Protect the Great Lakes!)
Our Great Lakes have a way of arousing a true spirit of protection and pride in each of us. They are crucial to our wellbeing and to our spirits (think of that last walk or swim you took at a Great Lake). Liz Kirkwood, executive director at FLOW shares ways you can defend and protect these magnificent bodies of water. In her words…
WATER JUSTICE FOR ALL
It makes no sense that a corporation like Nestle is free to extract millions of gallons of Michigan spring water every year, pay virtually nothing to compensate the public, and sell it in plastic bottles for annual profits in the hundreds of millions of dollars. At the same time, drinking water utility customers in Detroit, Flint and elsewhere are socked with huge bills for water service and have their water shut off. FLOW is partnering with diverse nonprofits across the state to ensure everyone has access to safe, affordable drinking water by tackling Michigan’s water infrastructure crisis. Part of this work includes FLOW’s proposed water justice legislation to right this imbalance, capturing royalties from spring water extraction and devoting the revenue to low-income service assistance in impacted communities, investments in modernized and upgraded public water systems, replacement of existing lead service lines, and more.
Climate change and its profound disruptions to the water cycle is arguably the greatest existential threat of our time. Climate change is warming the Great Lakes region faster than the U.S. average, according to a 2019 report commissioned by Environmental Law and Policy Center. Climate-related impacts (seen and unseen) in our water-rich region include increased algal blooms, declining drinking water quality, heavy precipitation and flooding, extreme weather, increased air temperatures, shoreline erosion, decreased crop yields, and loss of habitat for aquatic species.
To address these climate risks, leadership across all sectors in business and government is vital alongside a commitment and stewardship ethic from the 35 million people who call the Great Lakes home. Small changes in our daily routines, for example, can add up to big collective impacts when it comes to offsetting our carbon and freshwater footprint. Here are just a few ways you can do your part:
- Commit to walking or biking at least one day a week. If distance or weather does not permit, choose public transportation or carpool with friends and coworkers.
- Invest in green technology. This can be as simple as switching to energy efficient light bulbs or even more impactful by purchasing an electric car. This not only decreases greenhouse gas emissions, but reduces your total energy consumption, which can often require intensive amounts of freshwater resources to produce.
- Contact your elected officials. Our elected representatives need to hear regularly from you as their constituent. Write or call to let them know your concerns about climate change impacts, and encourage them to vote for green and blue initiatives.
GROUNDWATER PROTECTION: THE SIXTH GREAT LAKE
Water beneath Michigan’s land surface supplies drinking water to 45% of Michigan’s population and as much as 40% of the volume of the Great Lakes. But everything from toxic chemicals like PFAS, to human waste from failing septic systems, to nitrate pollution from fertilizer and animal waste, has fouled our groundwater and threatens human health. FLOW has released a report calling for laws and rules that better protect this precious, life-giving resource and is working to implement its report policy recommendations. You can help care for our groundwater resources by eliminating toxic lawn fertilizers, planting native and bee-friendly plants, building a rain garden, or maintaining your septic system by regular inspections.
GREAT LAKES COMPACT
Concerned about the threat of water raids by states to the west, the Great Lakes states enacted a compact in 2008 that banned most exports and diversions out of the Lakes. But the potential exists for large diversions due to Compact loopholes. FLOW is working to close these loopholes and to win permanent protections for the Lakes.
The 66-year-old twin petroleum pipes that cross the Straits of Mackinac underwater pose an imminent threat to the Great Lakes. A spill from these antiquated pipelines would have a catastrophic impact on the ecology of the lakes and an estimated $6.3 billion impact on Michigan’s economy. FLOW’s legal and policy expertise is critical in this, working to shut down the pipelines with Oil & Water Don’t Mix Partners, by marshaling its legal and policy expertise.
PLASTIC POLLUTION AND BEACH CLEANUPS
If some of these issues seem too massive for an individual to affect, (they’re not!) there’s also direct action. Great Lakes beaches are afflicted by pollution and debris such as balloons, cigarette butts, and microplastics. FLOW invites interested persons to drop by our offices and pick up your do-it-yourself Beach Cleanup kits and our Get Off the Bottle gear. Eliminating single-use plastics is good for you and good for the planet. For 100 ways to eliminate plastic from your daily life and prevent plastic from entering into our Great Lakes check out myplasticfreelife.com.
Get involved! Find out more about FLOW (For Love of Water) and how you can support their mission of empowering communities and leaders to protect the Great Lakes at flowforwater.org.