Lessons from the Network: Nick Leonard

Nick is Executive Director of Great Lakes Environmental Law Center. GLELC offers community education, policy support, and various legal services to address environmental, resource, and energy issues affecting communities in and around Detroit, all over Michigan, and throughout the Great Lakes region. 

This interview was conducted on 7/28/2021. It has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

River Network (RN): To get started, can you give me a brief introduction to who you are, your role at Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, and how you first got involved with drinking water issues? 

Nick Leonard (NL): My name is Nick Leonard and I’m the Executive Director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center. More specifically, that role involves directing our legal staff and developing our legal and policy strategies for whatever work that we’re doing, and that includes drinking water work. We, as an organization, got involved in drinking water work after the Flint Water Crisis. I wasn’t with the organization at the time, but my understanding is that we weren’t really involved with drinking water work before the Flint Water Crisis and obviously after that sort of reassessed and made it a priority, especially around drinking water quality and affordability issues. 

RN: There are many facets related to clean drinking water, including issues of access, quality, affordability, and safety. Where do you focus your work? Do you primarily work at the local (city/county), state, regional or federal level?

NL: We primarily focus on quality and safety, and specifically mostly making sure that drinking water is being delivered by public watch systems in a manner that’s compliant with federal and state drinking water regulations. That inherently leads us to focus mostly on public water systems rather than private wells or something like that. And we also focus on affordability, and access a little bit, although it’s more so affordability policy—we’re not delivering water to people or stuff like that. Mostly policy advocacy around affordability. A little bit of access—we do a little bit of direct service work with people that have had their water shut off, trying to get their water turned back on through various legal means. 

And in terms of the region, mostly at the local and state level. Very occasionally work at the regional Great Lakes level and very occasionally at the federal level. 

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?

NL: We primarily focused on health and environmental justice and a little bit on the intersection with climate change. I’ll explain each of those a little bit more in depth. In terms of health and environmental justice, our drinking water work really prioritizes communities of color and communities of lower income, primarily that are struggling with lead in drinking water. And that’s where we spend most of our time, in terms of drinking water quality, is advocating for more stringent compliance with the federal and state Lead and Copper Rules. And I think both purposefully and inevitably those issues are more pronounced in communities of color and that typically are called “environmental justice communities”. That’s been the focus of our drinking water work. Obviously, there’s sort of intersections with public health as well there. And then it’s sort of the same with drinking water affordability, I think that’s inherently an environmental justice issue and it’s impacting predominantly people of color and lower income that are being served by public water systems, that are unable to afford their drinking water for whatever reason. When we’re doing that work it’s primarily focused on environmental justice, public health as well. There’s a bit of an intersection with climate change, I think, just because of the connection between drinking water, affordability, and extreme rain events.  

I think there’s a connection there that we’ve been focusing on and it’s basically: extreme rain events are requiring large wastewater treatment systems like the GLWA facility in Southwest Detroit to invest a lot more in their infrastructure to control combined sewage overflow events and things of that nature. And, as a result of those infrastructure investments, we are seeing sewage costs pricing higher and higher in a lot of cities and that’s causing drinking water to become more and more unaffordable for low-income people who are served by those water systems. There’s that intersection and obviously also, the increase in rain events is causing—aside from water affordability issues—drinking water quality issues in places like the western base of Lake Erie where there’s algae blooms that are being driven by nutrient pollution that’s increasingly being caused by these heavy rain events. Those things are connected, I mean, how you sort of get at that issue is something that we’re still sort of thinking through, but it’s something that we have on our radar. 

RN: Great Lakes Environmental Law Center recently published a handbook that dives in the Michigan’s Lead and Copper Rule. Were you all involved in advocating for and shaping the new rule in Michigan at the time of its development?

NL: We were involved in that. We’re generally involved in most drinking water regulations that the state or the EPA is looking at. We commented on Michigan’s development of their Lead and Copper Rule and we also submitted and participated in their process for creating PFAS drinking water standards. And we also participated in the rule-making process the EPA has had for their update to the federal Lead and Copper Rule. We’ve participated in each of those processes.  

RN: I’m curious about your involvement with other organizations, when you are doing this work, whether that’s through formal commenting periods and things like that—are you helping to navigate that process with other organizations that may not have that same expertise?

NL: Typically, we’ll work in partnership with one or more organizations and it could be a really big group of like 10-20 organizations, it could be a small group, a handful or just one other organization. We talk with them about what their priorities are, what they’re concerned about. We also educate them a bit about what the proposal is, what’s going to change? Because, obviously, things like a comprehensive update to the federal or state Lead and Copper Rule is large—it’s a big thing, right? Just helping people understand: this is what’s been happening, these are the risks, and these are some of the improvements, these are some of the things that we think could be stronger. And then trying to get their perspective and convey that. We’ll typically work with a number of organizations to try to inject their voice, and typically there are some smaller, more community-based organizations, and occasionally there’s larger national organizations. That’s generally how we approach those initiatives. 

RN: Passing a bill, resolution, or a ruleset like the revised Lead and Copper Rule is a big accomplishment, but we know it isn’t the end of the story. Are you continuing to work with affected communities and/or state agencies to make sure the Lead and Copper Rule is actually being well implemented?

NL: We’re spending a lot of time doing that. And that was a main focus of the handbook, was just trying to make sure residents were in a position where they could do a little bit more for themselves and feel a little bit better prepared to talk with their water systems or talk with the state about these issues. What we saw was, there were issues that are popping up, there were implementation issues that were pretty widespread. Residents didn’t feel like they could participate or talk to their water system about these issues because they just didn’t have the knowledge that they needed to engage with these technical experts that they were trying to engage with. The handbook was part of that and aside from that, we also generally keep an eye out for implementation issues that we think rise the level where a legal intervention might be warranted, either a lawsuit or some type of formal petition, or whatever the case may be. 

 We spend a lot of time, especially with something as complicated as the Lead and Cooper Rule, implementation isn’t as simple as just putting a monitor and seeing if the levels of the contaminant are below the threshold and then that’s it. There’s a lot more to it, and so we keep a close eye on them.

RN: Obviously, the pandemic has affected a lot of the ways in which we typically might do outreach and communication. How do you mitigate that in terms of sharing the handbook and sharing that information with communities? Do you all host webinars and things like that to share the information that you put together?

NL: We hosted a couple of webinars last fall with some partner organizations. And now we are trying to disseminate it when anybody contacts us and ask us about concerns that they have regarding lead in their drinking water and stuff like that. So, we held a series of webinars last year and it’s just something that we try to get out there, as much as we can. 

Watch Nick’s River Rally 2021 workshop, “How to Be a Lead & Copper Rule Watchdog.”

RN: What have been the biggest hurdles or challenges facing your organization as you work on drinking water issues?

NL: I think there’s just… there’s a lot of drinking water issues and so just the capacity to address them has been a challenge, I would say. Just keeping an eye on the Lead and Copper Rule takes a lot of time and effort. There’re so many drinking water systems that are delivering water that have to comply with the rule, so you can’t keep an eye on all of them, you can just sort of take a look when you see an issue pop up and try to dig into it to see what exactly is going on, and if there might be some serious issue. I think that’s the problem that we’re having with drinking water quality, just capacity to develop and identify implementation issues, to identify things that are going wrong, and then to develop effective policy interventions or legal interventions to address them, given just the number of drinking water systems that we have. 

In terms of water affordability, I think the issue is that we don’t have a legal right to affordable water in Michigan. And in a lot of ways there’s been a lot of coordination to develop that right, and then in other ways there hasn’t been sort of enough coordination to develop that right. There’s been a lot of meetings about water affordability, working to address affordable drinking water in a lot of different spaces, with a lot of different people. But it doesn’t feel like we’re very close, either at a state or local level.

It feels a little bit closer at a local level, but I don’t think there’s been a really effective coalition, that’s necessary, I think, to get us to the place, especially at the state level, where we’re addressing that issue. Which isn’t say there hasn’t been coalitions, there have been. There’s been a lot of coalitions—I think that maybe part of the problem: there’s been so many. But none of them have been very effective, and so I think people are really maybe burnt out on coalition work. Just because it hasn’t really produced the results that we wanted, and it hasn’t really gotten that far. It’s not even like, “Oh, we took our best shot and it didn’t work out.” I’ve been a part of effective coalitions and not effective coalitions, and those ones are definitely on the “not effective” side. 

I think that’s been a big obstacle. For drinking water quality work, we can identify issues on our own and see them, talk with community residents about how to develop strategies for intervention. Coalition work would help, it would help increase our capacity more in that sense, but it’s not necessary to reach the ultimate goal of helping a community address their drinking water quality issues. It’s necessary in the water affordability space because it’s a policy-based project and I don’t think any one group can effectively lead a policy-based project without some sort of coalition behind it. But like I said, there hasn’t been an effective one, and so that’s been the problem. It’s just been jumping from—it feels like I’ve been a part of a number of coalitions that haven’t gotten very far. I think they haven’t been effective and as a result haven’t been successful. 

RN: Based on my research, California is perhaps the closest state to having a statewide affordability plan. It does seem that because of the fragmentation of water systems and figuring out how an affordability policy would function at a statewide level; it seems like there’s a lot of challenges. Do you think that the coalition work has been ineffective because there aren’t strong champions in the state legislature, or is it that creating a plan, with a large diverse group of coalition members is a challenge, or what seems to be the barrier?

NL: I think we have strong champions in the legislature. I don’t know… I think there’s a couple of challenges, more than likely. I don’t think it’s that we don’t have strong champions, I think it’s maybe that they’re limited by the priorities of our state legislature, and being a Republican-majority state legislature, as opposed to in California, where that’s obviously not the case. So, it’s not something incredibly easy to directly move through at the state legislative level, right now. 

In terms of the coalition work, I think the shortcomings there have been—it’s just been a scattershot of coalitions, the trend that I’ve seen is just sort of coming together on a sporadic basis with a large group of people; oftentimes they’re different groups, different people each time, to sort of talk about the issue and develop some strategy, but not really strategy… like nothing permanent and ongoing and oftentimes, I think it’s often too big of a group, it’s too many people, too many voices. Sometimes it’ll be like 40-50 people. I’ve never been a part of an effective coalition that has that many people. Ten is a lot, to try to get capture all those places and move things forward. 

As a result of having those ineffective coalitions, I don’t think we’ve ever developed a strategy to drive at a solution, to furthering the right to affordable water at the local or state level. We’ve talked about local water systems adopting an affordable rate structure and stuff like that. But the basic problem is that we haven’t really laid out the menu of options that we have for pushing forward a right to affordable water at either the local or state level, as well as the strategies for then pursuing the different options that we have. We’ve never even gotten to that point where we know what we want, and we know how we’re going to go about trying to get it done. And so, I think that’s why we’ve sort of been languishing a bit, we haven’t gotten the right people in the room at the right moment to do that work and then push that forward. I think that’s the shortcoming we’ve had. I think there’s a lot of options, and more so at the local level, but it just hasn’t come together.

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

NL: For the drinking water quality side, we’re mostly working on Lead and Copper Rule compliance and we’re mostly furthering our goal there by identifying issues of implementation of the Michigan Lead and Copper Rule that we think are worthy of legal intervention. Really just prioritizing implementation issues and then identifying some way to address them through some legal strategy. I think it’s as simple as that.  

In terms of drinking water affordability, we’re definitely more engaged in campaigns… seeking to develop and promote the idea of adopting an ordinance that would further the right to affordable water through the ballot initiative process. We see, in Michigan at least, I don’t know about other states, but most local charters allow residents to adopt an ordinance through a ballot initiative and usually the requirements to get something on the ballot are pretty easy to meet. We’re trying to develop a model ordinance that communities can then use to essentially try to adopt through a ballot initiative process, trying to advance the right to affordable water through that means. 

RN: Is Proposal P, which is about to be voted on August 3 [in the Detroit primary], does that include this kind of ordinance or a charter revision that addresses water affordability?

NL: Yeah, that’s something that we worked on earlier this spring and the summer, just through developing recommendations for what should be in the Charter, and then in partnership with that, or at the same time I should say, we’re developing ordinance language, so that if that doesn’t make it or that doesn’t do everything we wanted to do, we can then—as well as for communities outside of the city of Detroit—have model ordinance language ready to go for affordable water issues. And they really speak not just to affordable water but protections from water shut offs, protections from drinking water liens, stuff like that. A right to affordable water encompasses all of those all of those things. 

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

NL: Biggest accomplishment to date… I think one of our biggest accomplishments was at the beginning of the pandemic, in the spring of 2020, we partnered with a few groups to develop a petition for a declaratory ruling that we submitted to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, basically urging the Whitmer administration to issue an emergency order to prohibit water shutoffs, given the pandemic. And whether it was a direct result of this petition or not, but either way, before the deadline for responding to our petition was up, Whitmer issued her Executive Order that basically banned the practice of water shutoffs during the course of the pandemic. Which was obviously really important, and I think really moved forward success for water affordability and against water shutoffs. That was, I think, a big one.  

I think the other one was in the winter of 2020 we challenged a practice by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. They were allowing a few communities to continue to conduct partial lead service line replacements, despite that being specifically prohibited by Michigan’s Lead and Copper Rule. We submitted a formal petition to the Department basically saying that we thought their practice was illegal and that they needed to immediately stop it. And they did. Those were, I think, probably are our two biggest accomplishments to date.