Featured Advocate: Bentley Johnson, Michigan League of Conservation Voters

Headshot of Bentley JohnsonAnn Arbor, MI

Michigan League of Conservation Voters is a nonpartisan political organization protecting land, air, and water. Their priorities include safe drinking water, healthy Great Lakes, clean air, good government, and parks and public land. 

This interview was conducted on August 19, 2021. It has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.  

River Network (RN): To get started, can you give me a brief introduction to who you are, your role at Michigan League of Conservation Voters (Michigan LCV), and how you first got involved with drinking water issues?  

Bentley Johnson (BJ): My name is Bentley Johnson and I’m the Federal Government Affairs Director, a new role to me and a new role at Michigan LCV. I was formerly the Senior Partnerships Manager. Michigan LCV is currently finalizing our next strategic plan, looking at the next few years. Given the importance of connecting local, state, and federal decisions by elected officials, by governments, it was clear to us that even though we are a statewide organization, that we need to have a presence, both at the local level in key communities as well as at the federal level. I was already handling some of the federal and national issues given my personal background, and so we just did a slight staffing readjustment to reflect that. Michigan LCV is a statewide organization so we’re mainly focused on decision makers at the state level from the governor to the Attorney General to the Secretary of State to all the executive branch agencies and of course the state legislature. We’re nonpartisan, but a political voice for Michigan’s land, air, and water, working on climate change, working on water issues. But we’ve seen in Michigan, water issues are very potent because of the amazing assets that we have, of course, and just the love that people from Michigan have for water, but also because of the crises we’ve had and that are ongoing and bring that into sharp focus for people and really make it a kitchen table issue. When you can’t trust the water that you have coming out of your tap or you have your water shut off or you are getting sick because of your water, that becomes more important than pretty much everything else and we’ve seen that. 

We’ve really in the past few years doubled and tripled down on drinking water issues, even leading with that and meeting people where they are and where their concerns are and where their priorities are, and that opens up a lot of other issues. Water is so interwoven between climate change and land conservation and then even source water, and surface water, groundwater issues; drinking water is a great place to start, because we all need it, it’s a basic human need. 

I would just say for me personally, I’ve worked for National Wildlife Federation, I’ve worked for Senator Gary Peters in DC, I’ve had a long history of working on water issues. I was the Great Lakes and Water Resources intern for National Wildlife Federation, helping to get registrations for the Healing Our Waters Great Lakes Conference and the lobby days and so that’s kind of where I got my start. 

What really got me wanting to focus on drinking water issues in Michigan was working for Senator Peters during the Flint water crisis. He became a senator in 2015 and that’s when I joined the staff and that’s when the Flint water crisis really came into more of the public eye, a little later that year. That’s really what still, in many ways, drives me today, is working on the Flint water crisis and wanting to address that problem and then prevent it from happening in other communities. 

RN: There are many facets related to clean drinking water, including issues of access, quality, affordability, and safety. Where do you focus your work? 

BJ: For Michigan LCV and our sister organization⁠—I should say that Michigan LCV is the main organization, a 501 C4, we have a sister organization Michigan LCV Education Fund. Those are two separate organizations, but they work closely together and most staff work for both organizations. 

[At these organizations,] we really take the focus of, you have to create the overall public demand for clean drinking water in order to get decision makers to act, that drives a lot of it. Related to that, I think, of course, we are the ‘conservation voters’ and so elections and getting the right decision makers in office and holding them accountable, really drives a lot of our work. While we have considerable policy expertise on staff, in a lot of ways we do look to partners and we love to work with partners who are those experts or who are those community members on the ground experiencing impacts and know oftentimes what the best solutions are. 

We’re trying to work together with them. But using our power in lots of different ways to find candidates to run for office, educating them on the issues, helping elect our champions and our strongest candidates, and then, once they’re in office, really holding all candidates accountable and explaining to the public their voting record and their actions and who’s doing a great job, who’s not, and when there are key moments to make your voice heard, for a vote or another type of action. That’s kind of our philosophy of change.  

In terms of drinking water and the issues around that of access, quality, affordability, and safety, I think we try to be in all those areas. I would definitely say that, increasingly, affordability and access are really related and it’s also another good frame and it goes for energy too, energy bills. People are spending more and more percentage of their paycheck on their utility bills and they’re having a hard time paying them and as a result it’s creating other types of crises. Not to mention what’s driving up those rates and why is it getting more expensive? Because we’ve not invested in our infrastructure in a long time and they’re falling apart and becoming more expensive to maintain and upgrade. And for a lot of reasons, but climate change is one of them, we’re seeing more stress and our systems being overwhelmed in their infrastructure, through aging too. I think those areas are definitely some of the root causes that I think we’re trying to address, and then access, quality, and affordability flow from there.  

RN: Michigan LCV is a statewide organization, but as you were mentioning you’re expanding to focus also more locally and then at the federal level, maybe regionally as well, can you talk a little bit about how you approach all those different levels? 

BJ: Our mission, first and foremost, is the state, and so a big percentage of our time is focused on the state and state decision makers. But we’re part of what we call the conservation voter movement, which is the network of all the LCVs and the LCV affiliates around the country, with the parent affiliate being the National League of Conservation Voters… there’s pretty much an LCV affiliate in every state; that is an incredible network to have. We work very closely with LCV and it’s a two-way street, a lot of times we have really good relationships with the federal lawmakers because they’ve come up through the state. Or they want to hear from us because we’re the constituents and we’re theoretically closest to the issues that other constituents are dealing with every day. 

And that goes back to why we want to invest more in that and work together and have someone who was at least kind of tracking everything and working really closely with the LCV team in DC. 

But then we also have all the other state affiliates that we learn from, share lessons learned with, and then I would say, in particular, we always have a lot in common with the Great Lakes regional affiliates because of the shared thread of water and the Great Lakes, but also because we’re in the industrial heartland and so a lot of the drinking water issues are the same. Often urban centers that are often Black and brown communities that have been disenfranchised and disinvested in and are dealing with outdated infrastructure. We also have rural areas that depend on the water, often from groundwater, and there are not as many standards for groundwater. A lot of the Great Lakes states, of course, are our agriculture states as well. There are a lot of important factors around how we grow our food and our food system, not the least of which is agricultural runoff impacting water quality.  

I would say our regional affiliates and our regional work in general with folks like River Network, Alliance for the Great Lakes, Healing Our Waters, is really important to us as well. We’ve always had a footprint locally, because we’ve had staff locally. We have offices in different locations and so naturally you kind of get pulled into city and county issues, but we’re making that more and more of a focus as we realize… sometimes we can have⁠—with our members, with our volunteers⁠—great access at the local level, and you can change, you can influence decisions, just as much, if not better than at the state level and really that’s where the rubber meets the road anyway. We are investing definitely more into local elections, finding candidates, supporting candidates. These last couple election cycles,have been some of the first that we’ve endorsed candidates and we’ve run operations to help support them and engage on local decisions related to water, to energy. State is still the lead level, but these issues don’t stop at different government bodies.  

RN: Access to clean drinking water intersects with public health, environmental justice, climate resiliency, and other issues tied to our health and well-being, like housing. How does your work fit into these broader systems?

BJ: I think this is a trend in general, the need to take a systems approach and be holistic and look at those intersections between different issues, because they’re so related. That’s been a journey and a process for us but we’ve really tried to make it a priority. Like environmental justice, the combination of health and pollution and infrastructure and economics, race, gender, sexual orientation. And [we’ve] just tried to center justice and equity more in our work. But water is a perfect way where that shows itself, whether it’s overt or passive racism. Look no further than Detroit for how the water system has reflected racism and disinvestment in Detroit as it’s expanded, as the Detroit water system has expanded to serve the outer suburbs⁠—and that’s a lot of value and that value has been taken away in a lot of ways from Detroiters over the years because of other economic conditions. But it’s resulted in a huge system that’s hard to maintain, that presents a lot of challenges, just to provide water quality. And that goes back to the affordability problem and the economic opportunity or lack of economic opportunity, where people struggle paying their bills and they get their water shut off and that’s just… that’s really something that we’ve tried to push and it’s also been highlighted by the Covid pandemic, the intersection between health and who was feeling the impacts first and worst from the kind of overlying health issues, where you see a lot of the same patterns and a lot of the same trends. So doing things like pushing for moratoriums on water shut offs has been a big priority through the pandemic and after the moratorium expired at the state level, trying to make sure that utilities don’t shut people off shut water off because it’s just a violation of human rights, in our view. So that’s an example, where we have to take a systems approach to our work. 

RN: Part of our desire to build a Great Lakes directory is to foster connections across organizations so they can work together on shared goals. Are there other organizations that you’ve partnered with and built effective coalitions with? If so, what work do you do to build trust, designate roles and responsibilities, and successfully come together? 

BJ: I would say it’s more of an art than a science, but in my mind there’s no substitution for just needing, out of necessity, groups coming together to advocate, to stop a harmful policy or to advance beneficial policy. And so doing the work together and needing to react to changing situations, I think, is a great way to earn trust, but we’ve also been active in a lot of different formal or informal coalitions over the years, some of which have been around for a long time, some of which have been new ones, recognizing a gap or a need. We really try to play in a lot of different coalitions but also, I think, as one of the larger statewide organizations, also be sensitive to the fact that we don’t want to come in and just carve out our space and throw elbows and say, “this is how it should be done.” I think we strive to really come into coalitions or to approach partnerships with, “how can we offer something that we’re strong at?” Or, if you have gaps, “can we help fill those to advance the issue?” I think that’s the goal; it’s hard to do that, coalition work can be hard. Partnerships can be hard because there can be different goals or can be different perspectives, different theories on change. Of course, competition over funding and resources can a lot of times get in the way, as groups are always trying to find ways to raise money and pay the bills. But I think everyone agrees that we’re all stronger when we unite together.  

Just to list some, I think there’s a Michigan Water Unity Table that’s been recently started as kind of an information sharing hub and coordination. We’ve been very active in the Line 5 coalition, our PFAS work lately, our lead and drinking water, in particular, the filtration first coalition of getting filtration stations into schools to filter out lead. We’ve been active in an algae blooms project, preventing out harmful algae blooms and working with other groups on agricultural policy. We try to cover a lot of ground and we’re fortunate enough to be able to cover a lot of ground, but we also stretch ourselves thin sometimes, as I think a lot of groups do in this space, because it’s all so important. 

RN:What have been the biggest hurdles or challenges facing Michigan LCV as you work on clean drinking water issues?  

BJ: One that immediately comes to mind is the state legislature can be a challenge on a lot of our issues. I think there’s a lot of laws that we’d like to see improved, a lot of new laws to be passed, we’ve tried to stop some laws from going through… This was a little more pre-Governor Whitmer. We had to do a lot more defense and preventing bad stuff from happening. And so that’s been a challenge. But it’s amazing to see how elections do matter, because then, that posture changed somewhat after Governor Whitman comes in, and after Attorney General Nessel comes in, and so on and so forth. 

I would say that’s one factor, that is tough, I would say, up until recently, just the lack of public dollars and the competition over public dollars is fierce and there’s lots of deserving priorities and so not funding water infrastructure and continuing to see it degrade is another one, and makes them more expensive, and you have to spend more money, and you secure funding but that doesn’t solve your problems. It’s like an ongoing challenge every year to secure money. But we’ve had, thanks in part to federal funding, that is definitely changing and we could see that change in a big way, to the point where our next problem would be making sure the dollars are spent in an effective way that gets to the problem areas first, the most vulnerable communities first, and is spent in a way that really has an eye toward sustainability for the future. I think that’s going to be a phase that we’ll be entering in. I would say there are systems that are just outdated, and also legal precedents, it goes back to changing the laws, but legal precedents that hurt as well, like the utility model of getting their funds from ratepayers for infrastructure, and then, if you lose a lot of money from the ratepayers, that really impacts the services that can be delivered and as a result, those other factors like historical segregation… you can live in one community and go a few blocks and another community and the outcomes for health and water quality can be very different. So, utility models, and I was mentioning legal precedents, like income-based rates that are fair and just, are prevented by legal precedents that are hurting us. 

The last thing I would say, sometimes the political will and not willing to go against some stakeholders, and kind of preserving the status quo and not wanting to rock the boat, so to speak, meanwhile, water quality is harmed, as a result, even though everyone agrees that water quality is important. But when decision makers feel like different key stakeholders are pitted against each other, they feel like they have to make a choice, sometimes between the stakeholders. 

RN: What are the major campaigns or policy priorities that you’re currently working on? What kind of strategies are you using to advance your goals? 

BJ: Water affordability and preventing water shut offs, preventing lead contamination in our water, particularly right now in our school water, is a big one, securing funding at all levels for water infrastructure, particularly to build resilience to current and future climate impacts, such as storm water upgrades, nature-based infrastructure, and certainly advancing more stringent PFAS protections, and cleaning up toxic contamination, particularly PFAS, and reducing runoff, especially agricultural runoff, that’s leading to contamination of our source water. All under an umbrella of needing to address climate change, because we know climate change will only make a lot of these problems worse. I would throw in Line 5 as well, which is, I think, first and foremost a water issue, but it’s also an energy related issue as well. 

I think our strategies are playing a leadership and partnership role with groups and tables and coalitions in the climate and water space and supporting those tables with I think particularly communications, I think we have a larger than average communications shop for a statewide group and we can bring a lot of capacity in that area. I think the other place we can bring capacity for partners is activist development programs, like organizing trainings and engaging volunteers. 

I mentioned the communications in the context of partnerships, but I think just for our own organization, increasing sophistication in our communications, providing different types of content online, earned paid media, and tailoring those materials based on targets and based on partners and based on issues. And then putting together with partners the next few years of policies, so doing some policy development alongside partners in order to educate policymakers, candidates, and newly elected legislators and I would say in particular candidate engagement and, in some ways, recruitment, will play a major role in that, especially heading into next year. 

RN: What’s your biggest accomplishment to date? What aspect of your work are you most proud of? 

BJ: I would say two big ones that come to mind because they’re kind of “on the books,” are the state Lead and Copper Rule. While not perfect, arguably the strongest in the country.  Then also the PFAS drinking water standards, I think, are big ones. 

But underneath that, Governor Whitmer winning the election kind of unlocked some key wins or potential wins, coming up. I think, without Governor Whitmer being elected, and we had a huge hand in that, you’re not going to see a lawsuit from the state to shut down Line 5, you potentially might not have seen even a moratorium on drinking water shut offs at the state level. State government can always improve and I haven’t seen a perfect governor yet, and certainly Governor Whitmer can improve. We deploy different strategies to do that, but the alternative of her not winning is scary to think about even just outside of water issues, thinking about COVID and where other governors are in the country, their stances on COVID-related health policies, it’s really scary to think about Michigan being in that same boat. 

RN: How were you all involved in the lead and copper rule revision, what you did you do to help make that happen? 

BJ: I think we were particularly proud of kind of blending our communications and organizing, taking the lead and putting together a really, an across the community, shared toolkit for making comments, at hearings, submitting written comments, doing social media with a number of other organizations, being at the center of that and turning out people to hearings, offering technical comments… And that was similar to PFAS, they were similar processes, it was a similar game plan. Really pushing for the strongest rule possible and going through the process and making some hard lines, “Okay, this is what we’re going to shoot for.” Or, “this is what science really tells us and so we’re going to have as united a message as possible, we’re going to focus on these three improvements.” Once we see a draft rule, we’re going to focus on these three improvements, having everyone on message, and then recruiting lots of different voices, lots of different storytellers, and flooding the zone. And then going through the tricky nuances of that, the JCAR [Joint Committee on Administrative Rules], the committee in the state legislature that has a role in reviewing rules and regulations, they can actually play a role in killing and stopping rules and regulations. Making sure that we got those members of the committee in good places. 

But these bodies that were created that we unfortunately couldn’t stop, these environmental rules review committees, we call them the “fox guarding the hen house” committees. The Governor can appoint people so that’s where elections matter as well, you can have a committee of folks that are pretty reasonable, or you can have a committee that’s stacked with people who don’t want to see rules and regulations and kind of kill them, so making sure that we made recommendations on those. On who sits on those committees and pushing for different candidates and then also educating those committee members about why they shouldn’t hold up key rules like the Lead and Copper Rule and the PFAS rule.  

Those were big ones, but I’m hoping I would add two things [in the near future], the federal bipartisan infrastructure bill but, even more importantly, the $3.5 trillion budget resolution that we hope the House will pass next week, that that could really be transformational for the climate, for water, and all sorts of things, we’ve been doing a lot on that and I think that will be, hopefully, another win we can celebrate.