The town of Rumford spreads lazily out from the banks of the Androscoggin and Ellis Rivers, in the foothills of the White Mountain National forest. A path meanders along the riverbank, past the stately brick town hall with a white cupola. On an overcast day in January, the towering stacks of the Catalyst Paper Mill belch white smoke into grey skies.
Brian Gagnon, superintendent of the Rumford Water District, has slate blue eyes and a sturdy build. Gagnon has been at this job, one that he loves, for 17 years. He was born here, married his wife and raised his family here.
In 2014, Poland Springs came to Gagnon with a proposal: the company wanted to tap an aquifer in the nearby Ellis River, close to where Rumford has one of its two municipal wells. Mark Dubois, Natural Resource Manager for Poland Springs, said that the company is constantly looking for new spring sites that meet their demands--sustainability, taste, purity--and that they had identified Rumford as a place that might be able to handle the kind of large-volume extraction the company was proposing. How much? About 100 million gallons each year, enough to give every resident of Maine a bath, and a few people in New Hampshire too.
It’s hard to talk small when talking about water. The average American uses 100 gallons a day, most of it in flushing the toilet. Faucets and showerheads are getting more efficient, but in many areas of the country water use--particularly in the agricultural sector--is simply unsustainable. And warmer, drier summers are only making the problem worse.
But in Maine, despite recent droughts, the problem is less dire. On average, 24 trillion gallons of precipitation fall on the state each year, and 2-5 trillion of that seeps through the soil to recharge groundwater supplies. A presentation by geologist Carol White tried to put it in perspective: with a trillion gallons of water, you could shower nonstop for 300,000 years, or provide three million people with a lifetime of drinking water. Or brew 20 billion bottles of beer, depending on where your priorities lie.
But these figures have done little to assuage some residents, who worry about the future of Maine’s precious resource in the face of climate change; increased truck traffic and pollution in a town where logging trucks already ply the roads. Arianna and Colin Smorawski, who own a farm in the Ellis River valley, worry that once Poland Spring is in town, it will be impossible to get them out. They say the thought of potable water being trucked out of state in a place where wells have recently run dry is an affront.
“A lot of...us on the outskirts of Rumford in the Ellis River valley where this is happening, feel like our land and water are about to get raped.”
But Supt. Gagnon and others say the town’s infrastructure is aging and in dire need of replacement. Geologists hired by the town and by Poland Springs have provided figures saying Nestlé’s extraction would be sustainable, and officials have assured residents that the water needs of the town would come first. Besides, says Gagnon, without an influx of cash, the District would be forced to raise rates to pay for improvements.
Gagnon says that when Nestle came to him they tried to prepare him for the clash it would likely set off, something they’d dealt with elsewhere in the state. “They warned us that there would be a firestorm,” he said. “But we never expected anything like this.”
Head northwest out of Portland, away from the coffee roasters and craft breweries, and you will find another Maine. Instead of lobster pots, logging trucks bring spruce and fir harvested from the North Woods. Ribbons of narrow roads wind through dense pine forests and rolling hills, more austere than they are gentle. Occasionally a town materializes--a clapboard church, a gas station, a smattering of houses--and then is gone again.
Maine’s natural resources have always been central to the state’s economy. Acres of pine forests and miles of craggy coastline draw visitors from around the globe. Fishermen ply the waters offshore for lobster and mussels. And companies draw from aquifers like Rumford’s for their pure, sparkling water.
These waters have not always been so idyllic. The Ellis and Androscoggin River basins were once the primary dumping ground for waste from the mills that lined the riverbanks in the mid 20th century. The Frontier Group wrote in a report that the Androscoggin was covered with “a layer of toxic foam” that a Maine farmer called “too thick to paddle, too thin to plow.” The Androscoggin is often cited alongside Ohio’s Cuyahoga River (once so full of chemicals it repeatedly caught fire) as one of the inspirations for the 1972 Clean Water Act, a watershed moment for environmental protection in the United States.
Decades later the layer of toxic foam is long gone, and the Androscoggin and Ellis bubble up from the bedrock, where drilled wells provide potable water for thousands that requires little treatment. Anglers have good luck with brook trout, and rare species of freshwater mussels and wood turtles make their homes in the shallow springs.
Five years ago, Arianna and Colin Smorawski bought a parcel along those riverbanks with dreams of starting a family farm and living off the land. Originally from Rhode Island and Massachusetts, both had fallen in love with Maine, its unblemished landscapes and small towns that seem a vestige of another era.
The Smorawskis slowly began building their dream. They now raise Mulefoot pigs, Scottish Blackface sheep, Huacaya alpacas and poultry for sale around New England. They recently had a son, Otto, and a barnraising this past summer. Far from Maine’s crowded coast and on the outskirts of town, the couple never imagined that one of the world’s largest companies would soon land directly on their doorstep.
But land they did. Poland Springs, a subsidiary of Nestle Waters North America since 1992, has been operating in Maine in one form or another since the 1845, when Hiram Ricker cured his indigestion by drinking from the family’s spring, according to company lore. The Ricker family allowed neighbors to fill their own containers on the property, and first started commercially selling glass bottles of fresh spring water in 1859.
But by 1980 fortunes had turned. The company was nearly bankrupt and down to a handful of employees when they were rescued by French giant Perrier. Nestle bought Perrier 12 years later, acquiring Poland Springs along with it. And in just a quarter of a century, the company has turned Poland Springs into a giant, the number one selling bottled water brand in North America.
And Poland Springs is part of a big market that is getting bigger. Global bottled water sales officially overtook soda early this year, and show no signs of slowing. The company is riding the wave--always on the lookout for new spring sites to add to its nine around the state. And in 2014 they hoped they’d found their tenth--directly across the street from the Smorawskis’ farm.
The Ellis River aquifer, like many in Maine, is a giant underground water deposit--although it’s more big gritty sponge than sparkling crystal pool. Aquifers like the Ellis are recharged by the 42 inches of precipitation that falls on the state each year. The sand and gravel they’re made of acts as a natural filter, requiring little treatment
at the surface, making them very attractive to municipalities--and companies--looking for a water source.
Rumford relies on two wells drilled into the bedrock of the Ellis River aquifer to supply its ratepayers. The primary one, Milligan’s, can produce 1,000 gallons a minute (with a separate well--Milligan’s back up--that can handle 700 gallons). There are two more wells capturing water from an aquifer in the nearby Swift River, that have about half the capacity of the town’s primary wells. Supt. Gagnon says that even with the historic drought this fall, the town did not have to dip into the Swift River aquifer.
But, like 40 percent of Maine citizens, many area residents get their water from a private well and are not ratepayers. Most private wells bedrock wells, drilled deep into the earth and relatively resistant to drought because they reach into cracks in the rock below, where water has pooled. Dug wells are shallower, some just a few feet below the surface, and are often the first to run dry in times of drought.
Towns and cities might use a combination of bedrock wells and surface water--lakes and rivers--to supply their citizens. Sebago Lake, one of Maine’s largest surface water reservoirs, provides water for 15 percent of the state’s population. The top inch of the lake alone contains 800 million gallons, with another 994 billion gallons below that. Every single day, an average of 554 million gallons flows in, either from precipitation or tributaries, and 49 millions a day simply evaporate. Portland area residents consume about half that, a rate of a million gallons every hour.
Drought is unusual in Maine, but recent warm, lingering summers have brought it to the forefront. Conditions this past summer resulted in many private wells running dry, some for the first time in decades, and some near where Nestle is proposing its new borehole. Maine’s groundwater levels were lower this year than they’ve been in up to 35 years, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. In these kinds of conditions, the thought of Poland Springs extracting millions of gallons worries some residents.
“The drought has really taken a toll on everyone,” says Arianna Gosetti Smorawski. “Our neighbor’s well ran dry for the first time he could remember, and he’s been living here for over 60 years. And Nestlé keeps telling us they’ll just be ‘sipping’ from the spring--that’s the word they use.”
But groundwater levels fluctuate with the seasons, and despite these recent lows, levels in Maine have overall held steady throughout the decades. Aquifers are reliably refilled each year, including the Ellis. And, unlike many areas of the world that are drying up due to climate change, the Northeastern United States is projected to get even wetter in the future. Warmer temperatures mean more rain instead of snow, and more intense rainfall at that.
Residents aren’t breathing sighs of relief just yet. Although winters are likely to be wetter, rising temperatures will likely make for drier summers that could increase the possibility of droughts. Much of Maine is still considered “abnormally dry” by the National Drought Mitigation Center and groundwater levels will likely not be replenished until the spring thaw.
But Maine still has an advantage over places like California, says Roger Crouse, head of the Maine Drinking Water Program. “Geologically and hydrologically, California and a lot of the western U.S. is a desert.” Crouse thinks that, while the state should monitor its use carefully, concerns about aquifer depletion in the region are largely unfounded.
“If we ever get to the point in Maine where we’re rationing water in the way that other states have had to,” Crouse says, “the rest of the country is already on fire.”
...Gagnon’s office is a spare room in the modest Rumford Water District building close to the center of town. One wall is covered with pictures of his two children and beloved pugs. A scenic lookout nearby provides a view of
Rumford Falls, where the Androscoggin River plunges 177 feet over solid granite, the highest drop east of Niagara.
When the Lewiston Sun Journal began reporting on Nestlé/Poland Springs proposal, so many people showed up for the water district meeting that the board had to hold it in the garage.
“We never had anyone come to our meetings. There was no reason to, if people are happy and there’s no concern and they trust their board. We’ve made a number of major decisions over the years and no one paid attention.”
People are now. To accommodate concerned citizens, the Rumford Water District began holding their meetings in the town hall down the street. A group organized themselves into what became the Western Maine Water Alliance, and circulated a petition to revise amendments made to the charter that the group argued made it easier for the District to sell water to Nestlé with impunity.
As a water-rich place, Maine holds a somewhat unique position in a world where states and countries are grappling with how best to manage water use that, in its current form, is unsustainable. But although bottled water plays a part, it is overall a small one: according to the Department of Agriculture, the vast majority of water--approximately 80 percent (90 in some western states)--is allocated to growing things.
And not only growing things for Americans. As water crises have intensified around the globe, companies and countries (the United States among them) are scrambling to make sure their future citizens have enough food to eat and water to drink. Saudi Arabia, facing projections that predict the complete depletion of the country’s water resources over the next 13 years, is looking to grow their food elsewhere and save the water at home for drinking and showering. Water is more cumbersome to export than things like hay and green fodder, and usually subject to more stringent regulations, especially in the United States. So instead, Saudi dairy giant Almarai recently purchased tens of thousands of acres of land along the Colorado River in California and in La Paz County, Ariz., a rural region known for its massive alfalfa farms. Almarai also owns thousands of acres of farmland in Argentina, Jordan and Ukraine, and is meeting with the governments of Uganda and Tanzania to discuss investments there. Other companies from the United Arab Emirates like Al Dahra ACX Global Inc. also farm extensively in the western United States and export crops back home.
The Gulf States are not the only ones scrambling to safeguard water for their citizens. The government and companies from the United States are also buying arable land abroad, much of it in Africa, where regulations are looser. And closer to home, water rights issues are rippling through cities across the country--eight states surrounding the Great Lakes Basin recently approved a contentious proposal from Waukesha, Wisc., to pipe water from Lake Michigan to the city, which is running out of potable water. California’s aquifers have been largely recharged after recent rainfall, but states across the West still face historic shortages. And Mexico City, long struggling with providing water to its 20 million inhabitants, is literally sinking into the earth as it drains the aquifers below it.
The philosopher Seneca, who lived while Romans were busily constructing aqueducts around the city to supply their own citizens, wrote that "where a spring rises or a water flows, there ought we to build altars and offer sacrifices.” Spring water has long been hailed for its supposed medicinal properties, once thought to cure everything from kidney stones to depression.
Heather Printup began working with Poland Springs when she was 19, in the cafe of the old bottling plant. She grew up in nearby, and now lives with her family in Poland. On her first day at the plant, she says she was in awe of everything--particularly the original bottling plant, made of imported Italian marble mosaic and weathered brick, which is now a museum.
“I remember my first day, just thinking wow. I had no idea anything like this existed around here.”
The shower room, where workers bathed and change to avoid contamination, is Printup’s favorite. Framed sepia photos of employees in crisp white suits and ties--the official uniform--dot the walls. Fred the mannequin models the uniform and watches over things.“We bring local schools on tours here, and the kids named him,” she explains.
It’s hard to imagine the building as any sort of industrial plant. Next door, the original Poland Spring gurgles up from the earth. It’s under a glass case now; the company takes water from a site down the hill (this one couldn’t keep up with the company’s growth). Posters of old ads adorn the walls. “Cures liver complaint of long standing. Drives out all Humors and Purifies the blood,” they claim, in bold black letters.
Printup chafes at the accusation that the company isn’t acting responsibly and protecting the resource. Her family gets their water from a private well, and she knows the stress drought can cause. But Poland Springs, she says, has no interest in overdrawing their sources.
“People say, ‘oh, you’re exploring other sources because you’ve sucked everything else dry.’ That just isn’t the case. The business is growing, so we’re looking into other areas. It’s in the company’s best interest to protect this resource, because without it there wouldn’t be a business.”
Infrastructure spending often focuses on crumbling bridges and potholed roads, but one of the least visible, and most important, projects often gets little or no attention: old pipes. Many of the municipal water systems in the United States have seen few upgrades since they were installed in the early 19th century. In the coastal village of Castine, pipes were recently dug up that were discovered to be bored out trees.
“Most of the water infrastructure in this town was built before the Great Depression,” says Rumford Water District Superintendent Brian Gagnon. “The life span of a pipe is 75 years. Everybody’s facing the same issues. You don’t think about things you can’t see. And the sad thing is it’s everywhere across the state and country.”
Gagnon says that without the contract with Nestlé/Poland Springs, the town would be forced to raise rates to pay for infrastructure improvements. In a place with a per capita income of $16,701 and 16 percent of residents living in poverty, this is something few residents would be able to afford.
“It’s already expensive, and then you have people on fixed incomes....we try as hard as we can not to raise rates. If we can come up with a sustainable situation proven by geologists and create extra revenue to go toward capital investment projects and improving utilities that would be great.”
Nestlé is not the only bottled water company in the state, although it is by far the largest. But numerous smaller bottlers--including those selling “raw” water (untreated, bottled directly from the source)--have sprung up in recent years, hoping to cash in. Occasionally reports surface that bottlers are draining wells.
“Nestlé’s the one that’s the lightning rod,” says Roger Crouse. Crouse is head of Maine’s Drinking Water Program, one of several agencies tasked with overseeing both bottled and drinking water in the state. He says that the agency takes dry wells very seriously.
“I know when a well runs dry it can be traumatic--it’s very detrimental if you have livestock to feed and crops to water.”
But Crouse couldn’t think of any case where Poland Springs was proven to have been the cause. He sent agents out last year to investigate an allegation that the company had drained a well in Denmark, but they came up empty: “we went out and did testing and examined the site, but it was geologically impossible for that to have been the case. She was five miles away and there was a lake between her and their spring site.”
Crouse is sympathetic to concerns of residents, but worries that there’s a lot of misinformation and confusion among the public. And when the numbers are so large, the thought of “sustainable extraction” seems like a misnomer. So what does sustainable mean?
“It means forever,” says Crouse.
Crouse doesn’t deal with the impact on ecosystems or what happens after the water is in the bottle. “We deal with everything before it goes in the bottle. After that it’s out of our hands, and that’s the way we like it,” says Crouse. Two other departments--Environmental Protection and Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation--look after the areas around water sources and the environmental impact on ecosystems. But Crouse notes that big companies like Poland Spring have resources that municipalities usually don’t, and their testing reflects often this.
“Most municipalities don’t have the testing resources that Nestlé does, and we often see more testing than a community system. I can’t say whether the quality is as good or better, but the testing regimen is as good or better. If every public water system operated like Nestlé does your rates would be really high.”
Numbers in the millions of gallons sound daunting. In December, the Rumford Water District sent out 1,500 copies of a letter that tried to put things in perspective: Nestlé’s proposed daily extraction, said geologist Ricky Pershken, would be “the equivalent of a 2 ounce shot glass” from a 5 gallon bucket that is continuously refilling each day.
Pershken was hired by the town to double-check the reports that Nestlé’s company geologist put forward. After extensive testing, Pershken wrote that “the aquifer is sufficiently robust to allow for the sale of spring water to Poland Spring without harm to the sustainable or natural yield of the Ellis river aquifer.”
But others believe Nestlé’s extraction is having a significant effect on groundwater levels, despite what officials say. Nisha Swinton, senior organizer for Food and Water Watch and Portland Water Board trustee, worries that ties to Nestlé/Poland Springs in Maine run too deep to get a truly independent analysis of water levels and aquifers.
“They’ve got their fingers everywhere,” she says of Nestlé. Food and Water Watch, which opposes Nestlé’s expansion in Maine, is hoping to hire a geologist from out of state to analyze whether water extraction is truly as sustainable as the company claims.
But Supt. Gagnon sees no reason not to trust them, especially Pershken’s.
“It’s insulting,” he says, shaking his head a little, “to people who have been working here their whole lives, to say that they’re not doing their jobs. Their careers are on the line. They’re not making up numbers just because it’s Poland Spring. A lot of this is outside interest groups coming in and stirring things up.”
As the fight for fresh water intensifies, states often find themselves reviewing laws that haven’t been touched since the mid-1800s. Riparian rights are the law for surface water ownership in much of the country. This means that the person who owns the land owns the water flowing through that land, and that the water cannot be diverted away from the watershed.
In California and much of the west, however, Appropriative Rights are the law of the land, and have created lots of headaches for just about everyone. These laws, dating back to Gold Rush days, mean that a person does not need to own the land next to a river in order to stake a claim to it. They need only have laid claim to a spot on the river and divert the water to their own land for “beneficial use.” And it’s a use-it-or-lose it scenario: those who don’t use their allocated amount may find it given away to someone else.
In Maine, lakes and rivers are a state resource, but groundwater water rights fall under what is known as Absolute Dominion, meaning that whoever owns the land owns the water below it. These kinds of laws have come under fire in some areas. One of the central arguments made against Absolute Dominion is that it doesn’t take into account an individual’s water use impact on neighbors, and some fear that one user could monopolize the water supply.
Nisha Swinton of Food and Water Watch is hoping to change this. “We believe that water should be held in the Public Trust. It’s a public resource and should be publicly owned, not owned by private citizens or corporations.”
Food and Water Watch has helped introduced a bill to the Maine legislature to transfer groundwater from the hands of private citizens to a Public Trust. Nearby New Hampshire and Vermont have already passed laws to this effect, and it is already true for surface water--lakes and rivers--in Maine. Under the proposal, groundwater would be transferred from private landowners into the hands of the state.
“Surface water in Maine is already held in the public trust, so this would really just be aligning the two laws,” Swinton says. Advocates say such a law would recognize the hydrological connection between groundwater and surface water and ensure greater public control over a finite resource, while also protecting groundwater from environmental destruction.
But some disagree. “We have no dog in the fight,” says Roger Crouse. “But what problem are we trying to solve with this law?” He worries about the potential effect on private homeowners, who might have limitations placed on what is currently a private resource.
Crouse envisions a scenario in which a private homeowner might be required to go through the same sort of extensive testing as a commercial bottler or municipal water system, regulations that could be time consuming and onerous. Right now, homeowners can dig as many wells as they want on their property. Wells must be dug by a certified welldigger, and while they’re evaluated for safety and contamination (proximity to sewage, for instance), testing requirements are far less stringent than those for commercial use.
“Would it happen that way?” Crouse wonders aloud. “I don’t know. But it could.”
Crouse points to a bright blue poster on his wall showing the water cycle and a map of groundwater supplies-- wells and aquifers--in Maine. It’s a simple graphic, with figures on water usage in the state on the bottom. The numbers are measured in billions of gallons. Bottled water comes in between 2 and 3 billion; snowmaking is next, around 5 billion. Public water usage clocks in at about 30 billion gallons a year. The figures come from the Maine Geological Survey and the Maine Drinking Water Program.
“There are plenty of resources leaving--lobsters, trees--that aren’t as rapidly renewable as water. We can’t stop the water--if Nestlé doesn’t capture it, it goes to the ocean.” Crouse paused.
“Either way it’s leaving the state.”