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Enough water? Let’s figure it out

Portland Press Herald, Bill Nemitz, April 9, 2009

REBUTTAL #1 by David Gibson follows below
REBUTTALS #2 & #3 by Tim Copeland and Steve Carroll were printed by the Portland Press Herald here.
Floyd Folsom and Jamilla El-Shafei were later printed by the Portland Press Herald here.

Listening to my basement sump pump hard at work the other day, I got to thinking. How many gallons a day, I wondered, flow into and out of my basement during these waterlogged days of early spring? Which in turn made me wonder: How much water falls on our 1.86-acre yard in a given year?

Which in turn made me wonder: How much water falls on, say, York County in a given year?

Which in turn made me wonder: How much water does Poland Spring, the multinationally owned Darth Vader to the growing anti-bottled-water movement, extract from Maine’s underground each year?

Fire up your calculators, folks. This could get mind-boggling.

First, I called Tom Hawley, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Gray. Asked in general how much water falls from the sky in these parts each year, he replied, “A lot. So much so I don’t think it will ever dry out.”

To be more specific, Hawley referred me to a “rainfall calculator” that he found at www.VirtualSecrets.com. (Go to the search box and type in “rainfall.”)

I started with my yard in Buxton, where Hawley tells me the annual precipitation is 46.5 inches. That translates to 2,348,376 gallons of water falling on my property every 12 months.


I moved on to all of Buxton, which has a total area of 41.1 square miles – or 26,304 acres. That adds up to just more than 3.32 billion gallons of water a year.

Double wow.

Time for York County, with its land area of 991 square miles (634,240 acres) and a normal annual rainfall of 47.7 inches. Run that through the rainfall calculator (1,295,150 gallons-per-acre times 634,240 acres) and you get, gulp, 821,435,936,000 gallons per year.

That, for the decimally challenged, is 821 billion, 435 million, 936 thousand gallons of precipitation for York County – alone – in a normal year.

Somebody throw me a life ring. I’m drowning in wows.

Onward to Poland Spring, which in recent months has been on the receiving end of water extraction bans in Newfield and Shapleigh. (Selectmen in Wells, worried about the constitutionality of such a measure, wisely voted 3-2 Tuesday against putting a proposed ban before voters at their town meeting in June.)

According to Mark Dubois, natural resource manager for Poland Spring in Maine, the company pulled a total of 679 million gallons of water last year from all of its Maine sites. That equals 7/8 of an inch off the surface of Sebago Lake, Dubois said, noting that Sebago loses a full 2 feet of water each year just from normal evaporation.

Poland Spring had hoped to expand its capacity by buying 157 million gallons of water per year from the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Wells Water District. But the district pulled out of the proposed 30-year contract last summer after the Kennebunk-based group Save Our Water galvanized widespread opposition to the deal.

Had it gone through, based on rainfall figures provided by Hawley at the weather service, the water purchased for $900,000 annually by Poland Spring would have represented 0.14 percent of the 109.3 billion gallons of water that falls in a normal year on Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Wells.

In short, as Dubois put it this week, Poland Spring’s impact on Maine’s water supply is, at best, a “drop in the bucket.”

So why all the fuss?

Check out Save Our Water’s Web site (www.soh2o.org) and you’ll find a lot of talk about “multinational corporations” – most notably Nestle Waters North America Inc., owner of Poland Spring.

“Clean and available water is essential to life,” the group states. “And it should not be a commodity that people are required to purchase from profit driven corporations.”

(I agree. But I’ve never been “required” to buy a bottle of water from anyone.)

You’ll also see that Save Our Water’s mission is to “maintain control of surface and ground water,” to “recognize water as a public trust” and to “prevent large-scale water extraction for commercial use for resale by multinational corporations.”

(Again, noble intentions all, although I wouldn’t mind a definition of “large-scale.” In relation to what?)

Finally, you’ll see a photo slide show, complete with ethereal music by the Irish singer Enya, showing a heartbreaking panorama of parched people, places and things – one frame even shows an entire fleet of ships stranded somewhere in a desert.

(I watched the entire show – twice – and saw nothing that even resembled a picture from Maine.)

Jamilla El Shafei, a co-founder of Save Our Water, said Tuesday that the fight against Nestle’s Poland Spring is not so much about the present as it is the future. “There’s plenty of water now – we don’t contest that,” El Shafei said.

But by establishing a foothold in southern Maine’s small towns today, she said, Nestle is positioning itself to cash in big-time decades from now, should global warming lead to ever-worsening water shortages around the planet.

“They want their straws in the well for down the road,” El Shafei said. “That’s what we’re worried about.”

Only time can tell, of course, if such fears are justified. But back at the weather service, hydrologist Hawley doesn’t sound worried about anything.

“I think these people don’t like big business,” Hawley said. Beyond that, “I don’t know what all the hubbub is about, myself.”

Neither does my sump pump.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: bnemitz@pressherald.com


RE: “Enough water? Let’s figure it out”

Mr. Nemitz,

I read your column in the Portland Press Herald today with great interest. As a 24 year-old born and raised in Fryeburg, I try to follow Poland Spring / Nestle’s activities closely. I have several comments I’d like to share with you regarding your column today.

First and foremost, I strongly encourage you to read Plan B 3.0 by Lester Brown. Specifically, “Chapter 4: Emerging Water Shortages”, covers in great detail the global water crisis that we are facing. It is available (for free!) online at: http://www.earth-policy.org/Books/PB3/Contents.htm. It provides an incredibly in-depth view of the water problems that must be addressed by our civilization in the very near future. When I read this book for my Environmental Management class at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, I was both amazed and stunned at the depth of information that we have available but have not heard about on the news or in typical media sources. I think you will find it enlightening as well.

A few notes on your column in particular:

Water doesn’t fall evenly throughout the year – most of that rainfall comes during a few shorter periods, and quickly washes through our sump pumps, streams and rivers out to the ocean. What happens during dry summers or extended periods of drought? Your numbers reflect “average rainfall” which is exactly that – an average of over one hundred years of data. In actuality, the numbers range from more than double to less than half of the average. One of the main concerns we have in Fryeburg is “what happens during a prolonged drought when the water table drops?”

Poland Spring claims that they will monitor the water table and react accordingly. They also say that if they are asked to reduce pumping due to local water shortages (wells running dry), they will only do so if local residents can prove that Poland Springs is responsible for the wells going dry. This is incredibly alarming, because it lays the onus of making the assessment on the international corporation that is making enormous profits from the water, and it makes it virtually impossible to lay blame on their pumping activities and reduce their amount of removal. This is why I and many others feel that the people of Fryeburg need to have the control to reduce or stop Poland Spring’s removal of water as necessary.

Poland Spring will only reduce their pumping if it can be proved that they are responsible for others’ well levels dropping. If that doesn’t scare you, it certainly should, given the variability of weather and rainfall in Maine.

The second main concern that I have is the unbelievable profits being made by Nestle and their shareholders, compared to the minute or non-existent financial gains of the people of Maine. Poland Spring pays far less than a penny per gallon for their water, yet charges $1.648/gallon for home delivery of water (you can verify this on their web page, where they charge $32.96 for 20 gallons of water delivered). Why is it that we pay road taxes to fix the roads their trucks destroy? Why is it that state road funding is widening and changing an intersection on 302 in East Fryeburg to accomodate their latest pumping station plans? From the rumors I’ve heard, Poland Spring makes $1 million in profits every day – from Fryeburg’s water alone! Does this seem like a fair system to you? I encourage you to write a similar article relating the costs of the water to Poland Spring’s profit level. In my opinion, Maine needs to implement a tax on commodified water for export (I’d suggest $0.10 per gallon) to cover the costs marginilized onto the state, to ensure that their removal practices are sustainable, and to help cover some of the existing state budget gaps. Based on your statistic that “the company pulled 679 million gallons of water last year from all its Maine sites”, this would add approximately $67.9 million in additional funding to the State of Maine. Assuming Poland Springs adds this to the cost for their customers, home delivery for 20 gallons would only go up $2 a month, from $32.96 to $34.96, a cost that certainly won’t break the bank for well-heeled bottled water consumers in NJ, NY and CT.

If you accept my request to write an inquisitive article on the corporate profits for Nestle, please let the following line of questions guide you:

How much of the $1.642268 difference between their cost of water and the cost to the consumer is net profit for Nestle? ($1.648 – $0.005732 = $1.642268) {the cost to Poland Spring of $0.005732 is based on the statistics of $900,000 for 157 million gallons in your article; they actually pay far less to Fryeburg and other towns they pump from)

If most of the $1.642268 difference does not equal profit for Nestle, where does it go?

Does it become greenhouse gases contributing to climate change due to the fuel required to truck water for hundreds of miles?

They only pay ~$12/hour to the (not very many) employees at their bottling plants, so it doesn’t go toward the local Maine economy.

Does it go towards lobbying state and local officials, to continue the arguably corrupt practice of subverting the usual law-making processes?

Does it all go towards advertising, continuing to sell the idea that New York City or CT tap water is unsafe (although it is actually very good), so that they can continue to profit from their corporate scare-tactics?

I would be fascinated to know where all the money goes, and if my hunch that Nestle is making hundreds of millions of dollars in profits off the state of Maine every year is correct. As an investigative journalist with years of experience, I beg you to investigate further and find out for me. Isn’t that the purpose of newspapers and the freedom of the press? To dig deeper and expose to the American people and Maine residents when we’ve had wool pulled over our eyes?

Food and Water Watch has recently published a report on Nestle’s pursuit of local water nationwide. It is available to download for free from: http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/water/pubs/reports/all-bottled-up. You’ll find a lot of interesting information in it.

I look forward to reading your response, and seeing additional columns exploring the other facets of Poland Spring / Nestle’s influence on the State of Maine.

Thank you,

David Gibson, Fryeburg, ME

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