A bill would give towns more say over the water that Poland Spring buys from local utilities
Maine is often described as a "water-rich state," with an abundant supply for business, agriculture, and residential use. But the same can’t be said of many other states, particularly in the West, which faces serious drought, development and other threats.
In short, water has become a hot commodity across the country and world — and that's fueling concerns that Maine could be vulnerable if companies ramp up the amount of water they’re pumping in Maine, then selling outside the state.
A state lawmaker recently gave voice to some of those concerns during a recent hearing of the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee. “I have friends in Colorado who are running out of water, and firmly believe that their situation will be fixed by running a pipe from states with lots of water,” said Rep. Valli Geiger of Rockland,
Geiger was reacting to a piece of legislation, LD 1111, that aims to give communities more control over the water that’s being removed from their communities for export.
It targets the bottled water industry, which accounts for just a sliver of Maine’s overall water use, but has come under fire because of the way it extracts, markets and sells water, as well as its reliance on plastic.
In particular, the legislation would add new restrictions on a type of deal that Poland Spring — the biggest water bottling operation in Maine, which pumps roughly 1 billion gallons a year — has struck to buy water directly from some local utilities.
In Fryeburg, for example, Poland Spring has a contract to buy water from the privately-owned Fryeburg Water Company for 25 years, with the option to extend the contract for up to 20 more. The deal is contentious, having survived years of local opposition and a legal challenge before Maine’s highest court.
“Currently, there are no guardrails in place around the length of contracts,” said Rep. Maggie O'Neil, a Democrat of Saco who sponsored the bill. "That means communities can be locked into decades-long agreements with little-to-no recourse in the face of changing conditions.”
O’Neil’s legislation would do two major things: limit the lengths of those contracts to three years, and require every community in a watershed to vote on them. If passed, it would mark a dramatic shift in how Maine regulates groundwater, essentially handing communities veto power over water extraction that could be happening many miles away.
That’s earned it the support of some residents, lawmakers and advocacy groups, who say towns deserve more control over their local aquifers as the climate warms and droughts intensify. Chris Buchanan of Searsport was among the bill’s supporters who called for more regulation of bottled water companies.
"Water is being polluted. Climate change is causing water insecurity around the entire world. Maine is where it’s at. This is definitely the battleground state for water, and they’re going to be here and they’re going to make a killing whether or not we have a little more protection for our citizens or not,” Buchanan said.
Previous efforts to regulate water exports haven’t generally advanced far in Augusta or other state capitals. In Maine, the current proposal is fiercely opposed by Poland Spring, business groups and local water utilities, who say that the bottled water industry already is well-regulated, with numerous agencies guarding against unsustainable pumping.
Mark Dubois, of Poland Spring, told lawmakers that communities already have the opportunity to weigh in on deals such as the one in Fryeburg and that three years is too short of a time to recoup the investment required of such projects.
Superintendents from the Lincoln and Rumford water districts said that the bill would do the opposite of what it intends, by removing their ability to enter long-term sale agreements that can help lower costs for ratepayers.
John Halacy, superintendent of the Rumford district, said that Poland Spring provides almost a quarter of the district’s revenue. That's helped it replace old infrastructure and seek loans for future projects.
“If we entered into these loans and a bill like this was to pass and we lost this revenue, that would cripple us,” Halacy said.
The bill is also facing opposition from state agencies. Judy East, from the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, shared several concerns with lawmakers, including that it would be hard to determine which communities should vote on a project because they’re in the same watershed.
”For example it could mean the watershed delineated at the point of withdrawal, which could be very tiny, or a large river watershed like the entire Penobscot, which could include a significant percentage of the entire state,” East said.
After the public hearing, LD 1111 must now undergo a work session before the legislative committee can vote on it. Even if it doesn’t make it to the full Legislature, it’s unlikely to be the last attempt to restrict the activities of companies like Poland Spring.
There's been growing scrutiny of Maine's water resources in recent years.
A commission that studied them last fall has recommended some more modest reforms, including legislation to require testing of bottled water for PFAS contamination and to make water use data more accessible to the public.
Last week, the bill expanding access to water use data, LD 1441, was endorsed by a majority of lawmakers on the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee. And a bill that would mandate PFAS testing of bottled water, LD 1248, will be discussed in the Health and Human Services Committee on Friday.