With snow piling up outside, it is hard to get people to worry about water. But, as the drought of 2001 and 2002 brought home, even a wet state like Maine can experience water shortages. That’s why the state is wise to quantify and regulate water use now and not only when there is a crisis.
This issue came to a head in the 1990s when concerns were raised that too much water was being taken out of some streams by farmers in Aroostook County. One stream was left so shallow that many fish died.
To remedy the situation both the Department of Agriculture and the state’s natural resource agencies came up with water withdrawal standards. Agriculture said that water could be taken until a stream was reduced to the summer low flow level. The resources agencies, on the other hand, said enough water needed to be left so that fish and aquatic life was not harmed throughout the year.
The Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee, citing the Clean Water Act, sided with the aquatic life standard and directed the Department of Environmental Protection to develop regulations for water withdrawals that maintained adequate stream flows.
Those regulations were supposed to be finalized this month. DEP now expects to have draft rules ready in March.
Developing rules that say when and how much water can be taken out of a specific water body is an important first step. The hard work, however, comes when uses need to be prioritized. Say, for example, three users take water from the same stream. If withdrawals were to be limited, who should get first dibs – the farmer, the public utility or the ski area? Such prioritization will not be included in the DEP rules.
These tough questions must be addressed by the Legislature as this process moves forward.
The DEP was also required beginning in 2002 to keep track of major water withdrawals from lakes, rivers and aquifers. What they found was that farms used 861 million gallons, mostly in Aroostook, Washington, Cumberland and York counties, in 2002. Ski areas used 590 million gallons, bottled water companies 365 million gallons. Paper mills used 40 billion gallons, but most of this was returned to the waterway from which it was taken. Water utilities, systems that provide water to residential and business users, used 43 billion gallons.
For now, these entities don’t typically compete with one another for water. But with growth expected in all of these sectors, it is prudent to plan now for potential conflicts among users and between users and wildlife. It also makes sense to plan now, not only while water is scarce or federal regulations require it.