By Laura Dolce, April 30, 2009, Seacoast Online
Editor’s note: These are the first in a series of articles that will, over the coming weeks, explore the issue of water rights and resources in our local communities, in light of the ongoing debate over whether Poland Spring/Nestlé should be allowed to extract water from the region for bottling.
Groundwater is at the heart of the debate over whether the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Wells Water District should sell its water to Nestlé/Poland Spring, but experts say the issue is far from crystal clear.
The main question may be whether the KKWWD has enough groundwater to spare. The district’s superintendent, Norm Labbe, is adamant the answer is yes, and says he has the facts and figures to back it up.
Through a combination of the Branch Brook, utility interconnections with Biddeford and Saco and a groundwater well on the Merriland River, Labbe said the district can pump up to 12 million gallons a day. In addition, it’s currently in negotiations to secure rights to a second groundwater well that could produce an additional two million gallons a day.
“And we use 2.8 million gallons in a typical day,” Labbe said.
Poland Spring, on the other hand, which is owned by the Nestlé Waters North America, had proposed a deal that would allow the corporation to pump up to 432,000 gallons a day.
According to state geologist Robert Marvinney, director of the Maine Geological Survey, the state of Maine has an “abundant” supply of water, with the trend line moving up over the last 20 years. As for York County, he points to a test well that the U.S. Geological Survey has maintained in Sanford since 1988. That well, located between routes 9A and 99, not far from Kennebunk, shows a steadily increasing trend line since it was first drilled.
Based on that well’s production, Marvinney said, it might be reasonable to assume that the KKWWD has a surplus groundwater supply.
“You could make an argument that it could be done,” he said.
The only way to know for sure, he said, would be for the utility to go through the permitting process with the Department of Environmental Protection and the Land Use Regulation Commission. Marvinney said that process would ensure that sustained pump tests were done.
“It would look at the effect of pumping on wells and groundwater over a period of time,” he said.
Labbe points to a hydrogeologic report done by independent consultant St. Germain and Associates Inc. last year at the request of the water district. Using data gathered by Poland Spring at more than 50 monitoring wells and following extensive pumping tests, the report concluded that “the pumping rate proposed by Poland Spring would have a limited effect on the surrounding water table and it is very unlikely to affect any other wells in the area.”
Not so fast, cautions Martha Nielsen, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. While it may be true that on paper the water district has enough water coming through annually to be able to sell off some excess, those aren’t the only figures to consider.
“It really depends on the time of year,” she said. “In the spring and fall, the rivers are high and yes, you may have excess during those times of the year. But in summer and early fall the stream flow declines to a really low level. That’s when scientists worry about, withdrawals.”
John Pechenham, the director of the Maine Water Rescources Research Institute at the University of Maine, said it would be unlikely that entities like the water district and Poland Spring hadn’t taken all of these factors into account.
“I would be surprised that a water utility or a water bottling company would make an investment or get permits if they thought they would steal their neighbors’ water,” he said. “They wouldn’t want to end up in court.”
According to KKWWD figures, the July to August stretch is the period of the lowest flow in Branch Brook. In 2002 that was a concern, Labbe said, because of drought conditions and the fact the water district was relying so heavily on the brook for its water needs.
“During these periods, prior to the development of our groundwater supplies in 2007, there wasn’t very much flow in the lower half mile of the brook below the dam, probably about half a million gallons per day or less,” Labbe said. “Now, however, as a result of our extensive use of our groundwater supplies, the minimum flow in the lower portion of Branch Brook during the dry summer months averages about two million gallons a day more than it has for the past 50-plus years.”
Of course, as Pechenham at the University of Maine points out, “We could do all the up-front analysis or studies we want and still not have figured it out. It happens.”
“But,” he said, “on the flip side, it could be even better than we thought it was.”
Regardless of whether the water district is able to sell its water, Marvinney said, even after any required permits are issued the final decision on whether water may be pumped at any given time would rest with the state’s Department of Environmental Protection and the Land Use Regulatory Commission.
“There are regular requirements for monitoring,” he said. “You just don’t get a permit and you’re done. There is scrutiny and review.”
Groundwater is …
Groundwater is exactly what it sounds like: water that is found in the ground. It gets there through rainfall and snow melt and is “recharged” via more rain and snow. Of the groundwater found in our watershed system, a certain percentage gets sucked up by the roots of plants, said Martha Nielsen, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, and then evaporates off the plants and into the air. The rest of the water soaks into the ground.
When the soil is fully soaked, Nielsen said, the excess water runs off into local streams, which is why streams and rivers are often running higher after a rainstorm.
While water utilities can draw water from ponds and rivers (such as our own Branch Brook), Nielsen said it is more expensive to treat because of the presence of organic material that must be removed before the water is safe to drink. Groundwater, on the other hand, is cleaner and requires minimum treatment to become potable.
Many more water utilities are beginning to look at groundwater wells as a source of public water for this reason.