May 26, 2019


When he was governor, Angus King often lamented the lack of value-added components in Maine’s economy. Wood chips and pulp should not be exported, he argued; instead, Maine should lead in paper, lumber and furniture making. A favorite line was that no fish should leave the state with its head still on.

Clean, drinkable water, a resource Maine has in abundance, may soon become more valuable than fish and wood combined. But without adequate state oversight, that resource will be tapped and sold around the world, leaving residents of small towns to fight among themselves over whether the subsidies they get are enough.

This summer, residents of Kennebunk, Kennebunkport, Wells and other small towns in York County have gone to battle with Nestle Waters, the parent company of Poland Spring, over its plan to extract and export water from the regional aquifer. To date, there is no apparent winner. The Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Wells Water District, which was negotiating with Nestle, has tabled indefinitely a proposed agreement.

The extraction of water for sale elsewhere seems like a good deal for Maine. There are no smokestack emissions, and most studies of the aquifer suggest it contains more water than needed by users in the towns.

But opponents, who have turned out in the hundreds for noisy protests at water district board meetings, say the pollution is there, it’s just not obvious.

Maude Barlow, a Canadian activist and author of “Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Fight for the Right to Water,” spoke earlier this summer at York County Community College. An opponent of the “privatization of water,” she said the bottled water business may seem clean and green but the 50 billion gallons of water bottled and sold each year creates 400 billion plastic containers, a petroleum-reliant product.

Of companies that sell bottled water, Ms. Barlow said: “They’re water hunters. They don’t care about your community.” As demand in emerging industrial nations such as China and India grows, they become more urgent in their pursuit of the resource, she said.

The rhetoric among opponents is probably over the top. State geologists say Maine has plenty of water, and it makes sense to consider selling what is not being used locally.

But residents of these small towns are right to be wary of corporate promises and assurances. The agreements call for long-term extraction; if local wells dry up or contaminants leach into the aquifer, towns may have little leverage. The people are represented in these negotiations by water districts, which are quasi-municipal entities whose members are usually appointed by elected town officials. The water district members do not answer to residents, or, often, to town officials.

This is where state government should intervene and raise the bar in reviewing such deals. With a broader and longer-term perspective, the state can better find out whether water sales are a good deal.

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