Activists with Community Water Justice, a group in Maine opposed to the privatization of water. (Community Water Justice/Facebook)
In rural areas of Maine, local activists have long been concerned about resource extraction by bottled water giant Poland Spring, expressing worries about the environmental impacts and arguing that communities should have more control over their own groundwater supply given the escalating climate crisis.
Now, water rights advocates are lining up behind a bill that would significantly limit the contract length that companies like Poland Spring are allowed to sign with municipal utilities to extract groundwater.
The bill, originally introduced earlier this year in the Maine Legislature but carried over to next year’s session, was crafted in part to address worries about the decades-long deals Poland Spring — which obtains water from sources around Maine but is owned by the Connecticut-based corporation BlueTriton — has inked with some water districts.
A 25-year deal (with renewal provisions that could extend it to 45 years) with the town of Fryeburg’s water utility was approved in 2014. That agreement prompted local backlash and a legal appeal alleging that the contract went beyond the authority of the town’s water district. However, in 2016, Maine’s top court ruled in Poland Spring’s favor, allowing the contract to go forward.
Along with Fryeburg, Poland Spring in 2017 signed a 15-year contract (with options to extend it further) with the town of Rumford’s Water District, which permits the company to take 150 million gallons of water per year from several of the district’s wells. The company also has sites in other Maine towns, including Denmark — where that agreement is controversial — and in Hollis, where the company last year asked to double the amount it was withdrawing from a well before backtracking after significant opposition from community members worried about drought conditions.
Furthermore, in Lincoln, the local water district is finalizing a deal with Poland Spring that could run for up to 45 years despite some local opposition.
It is those types of long-term accords that LD 1111, sponsored by Rep. Maggie O’Neil (D-Saco), is seeking to address. O’Neil’s bill would require contracts for “large-scale extraction and transportation of water” to be approved through a vote of a municipality’s governing body before moving forward and would limit the length of such agreements to a maximum of three years.
The bill was backed by local residents and environmental advocates during a public hearing earlier this year but was opposed by Poland Spring. The legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee did not advance the measure, instead opting to consider the bill during the upcoming session.
In an interview, O’Neil said the proposed law is needed as a safeguard.
“We [need] a maximum contract length, just to really act as an interruption and an opportunity to negotiate so that more utilities don’t get locked into these long-term contracts because I think they’re really risky and not protective of ratepayers, let alone Maine people and other people who are impacted,” she said.
Although Maine is seen as a water rich area, it was only last year that large swaths of the state were experiencing drought or abnormally dry conditions. In addition, a recent New York Times investigation found that the U.S. as a whole is using up its groundwater supply at an alarming rate.
With the continued escalation of climate change in Maine and around the country, O’Neil and other proponents of LD 1111 say it isn’t wise for town water districts to have decades-long contracts with Poland Spring, especially given the uncertainty of where water levels will be in the future.
“We just have to hit pause, because once these contracts are signed, they [can be] 40 years,” O’Neil said. “That’s a whole generation.”
Water districts point to possible financial benefits
Despite those potential problems, some water utilities are determined to move forward with long-term deals with Poland Spring. An official from the Lincoln Water District, whose contract with the company will go forward if approved by the Maine Public Utilities Commission, told Maine Public earlier this year that he believes Poland Spring has treated the town well so far and that the infusion of money from the deal will reduce costs for residents, despite environmental and water protection concerns brought up by some locals. Because the proposed deal is a continuation of a 2018 accord with Poland Spring, the Lincoln Water District did not have to hold a public hearing on the plan.
“The water district and our ratepayers come first,” district superintendent Jeffrey Day said. “Poland Spring comes second when it comes to water. They are benefiting us monetary-wise to keep our rates down.”
In testimony during a public hearing in March, Day said LD 1111 would impose a burden by making it more difficult to obtain “a great revenue source for the District.”
Both the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and the Office of the Public Advocate argued against LD1111 during that hearing, as well.
In addition, Poland Spring said in an emailed statement to the Maine Morning Star that its existing water contracts benefit ratepayers by providing long-term funds that stabilize costs and allow for investments in water infrastructure. The company claimed that limiting contracts to three years would eliminate this upside for local residents and make infrastructure investments impractical.
“The current proposal LD 1111 would circumvent the management of local water resources from consumer-owned utilities and cede it to non-ratepayers,” Poland Spring said. “This devalues the water district’s professional expertise in water stewardship, suppresses the voice of ratepayers, and eliminates a long-term stable revenue stream to the district.”
More data needed
Still, although some towns may stand to benefit financially from an agreement with Poland Spring, there have been complaints by residents where the company has extraction deals that the water level on their property has fallen over the years. Poland Spring has pushed back against arguments that it is responsible for such issues and pointed to testimony from the Public Utilities Commission during the March hearing stating that extraction contracts signed with utilities typically contain provisions in which the agreement can only be renewed if there are no adverse impacts to the aquifer or other natural resources.
But given the potential for these types of problems, O’Neil said getting a better handle on exactly how Poland Spring’s activities impact local communities in Maine is a key goal of LD 1111. To that end, she hopes to add an amendment that would allow people living near withdrawal sites to access more data about the effects the company has on surrounding ecosystems so they can “weigh in on whether an extraction contract is the right decision for their community.”
Nickie Sekera, co-founder of Community Water Justice, which fights water privatization in Maine, said O’Neil’s bill would be a crucial first step to checking Poland Spring’s power in the state — a difficult task, she said, given the company’s significant lobbying power in the State House.
“So I think [this bill] is hugely important because at least it would give our local communities a chance to review water contracts and review all the data and environmental impacts,” Sekera, a Fryeburg resident, said.
Becky Bartovics, a member of the Sierra Club Maine executive committee, also supports the bill, arguing that long-term extraction deals between local water districts and Poland Spring represent a “really cavalier” approach to water usage and management.
The bottom line, Bartovics said, is that town residents need to know that water will be accessible decades down the line.
“Water should be a right. And clean water should be a right,” she said.
Environmental concerns and legal questions
Along with limiting the length of extraction contracts, Bartovics said more needs to be done to combat the environmental impacts of the bottled water industry.
Sekera agreed, arguing that the problem is multifaceted. One glaring issue, she said, is the amount of plastic generated, which is extremely harmful, particularly because it is replacing more environmentally-friendly tap water consumption.
Furthermore, Sekera said bottled water companies also send their products across the country, adding to the environmental footprint of the industry.
On its website, Poland Spring emphasizes its commitment to sustainability. The company points out that its bottles are made to be 100% recyclable but also acknowledges that despite such efforts, many plastics still end up in the waste stream.
In addition, in a court filing last year, attorneys for Poland Spring parent company BlueTriton stated that the company’s own claims of sustainability are “vague and hyperbolic.” And earlier this month, environmentalists concerned about the impact of water extraction on wildlife and wildfire protection won a battle in California when regulators ordered BlueTriton to significantly cut back the amount of water it was taking from an area in the San Bernardino Mountains.
Along with sustainability, another water-related issue that needs to be addressed, Sekera said, is that Maine — unlike many other states — follows a legal principle known as “absolute dominion,” allowing an entity that owns a property to take unchecked amounts of water without having to consider how it impacts adjacent properties.
A commission set up to study water in Maine has recommended that lawmakers examine how other states approach debates over water rights. That has the potential to be significant, as moving away from absolute dominion could pave the way for restrictions on extraction by bottled water companies, Maine Public reported.
Given these added issues, O’Neil said more action will likely be needed beyond LD 1111 to ensure that water is appropriately conserved and protected.
“There are a lot of different ways that we have to look at water in Maine and how we steward that resource and protect it,” she said. “And this is just one aspect: making sure our local utilities don’t get locked into excessive, very long-term contracts that don’t benefit ratepayers.”
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