Water and the Web of Life

By Joyce White

We did not weave the web of life,
We are merely a strand in it.
Whatever we do to the web,
We do to ourselves.
– Attributed to Chief Seattle of the Dwamish tribe

We in Maine have such an abundance of water that we tend to take it for granted, seldom questioning that it will always be here for us; but by 2005, an ongoing struggle had begun in Maine to ensure the continuous supply of potable water for all. Now, towns in Maine and worldwide are struggling against giant corporations for control of water.

Somehow we became persuaded that purchased bottled water is better than free tap water. The “spring water” description implied by several bottling companies probably helped convince people that bottled water must be better – although we’ve since learned that most “spring water” comes from the same sources as public drinking water and that all those plastic water bottles are an environmental nightmare.

Jim Wilfong is the person most responsible for publicizing the complex issues of water in Maine. Four years on the Natural Resources Committee in the Maine legislature expanded his long-term interest in environmental issues; and during his stint as President Clinton’s assistant trade secretary, he noted that good drinking water was always among the top three issues in countries he worked with. That led him to think about groundwater – aquifers – differently. In his previous environmental work, Wilfong had focused on cleaning up surface waters – lakes and rivers – and hadn’t thought much about drinking water and water extraction issues.

Close to the Land

The product of a rural farm and a one-room schoolhouse, Wilfong and his wife, Valerie, a schoolteacher, live in the small western Maine town of Stow. He bought his first 30 acres in 1973, before their marriage. Since then, the couple sacrificed luxuries in order to purchase abutting land as it became available. Now they own 500 acres, mostly wooded, with 3,000 feet of brook frontage.

Their log home, which Wilfong built, sits in a clearing with garden areas. He cut logs from his property and stripped them himself. A long driveway marked with a sign, Wilfong Family Tree Farm, approaches the home. Two grown children, Liza and Christian, no longer live at home but remain part of the close-knit family.

Wilfong plans to keep this property in timberland, practicing sustainable forestry for its carbon storage benefits. The family has created a couple of miles of trails, which people in the community can use for hiking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. The trails accommodate the small tractor Wilfong uses to harvest firewood.

Wilfong has worked in various governmental, environmental and entrepreneurial capacities and is now chair and co-founder of a new software engineering firm. He also operates his own consulting and educational company and is asked to speak around the world.

Water Work

In 2004, Gov. Baldacci asked Wilfong to join the Citizens Trade Policy Commission and in 2006 asked him to serve as the citizens’ representative on Maine’s Groundwater Task Force Committee, chartered to review groundwater policies. Recommendations from this Task Force produced new groundwater legislation in the 123rd Maine legislature.

Wilfong is probably best known for his tireless work as founder, organizer and executive director of “H2O for ME,” a citizen’s environmental group active in water resource issues. “As I dug into it,” he says, “it became evident that we in Maine haven’t taken into account how we’re going to control water. Only 1 percent of the world’s water is potable.”

Worldwide Depletion

Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke in their book Blue Gold say that available fresh water amounts to less than 1/2 of 1 percent of all water on earth. Humanity, they say, “is depleting, diverting and polluting the planet’s fresh water resources so quickly and relentlessly that every species on earth – including our own – is in mortal danger.”

Most of the earth’s fresh water, they say, is stored underground and is called groundwater. Underground water reservoirs, known as aquifers, are relatively stable because they are secured in bodies of rock, but to be useful over time, aquifers must be replenished with new water at approximately the same rate as it’s extracted. However, people worldwide are extracting groundwater at rapid, unsustainable rates.

Massive industrialization is unbalancing humans and nature on many continents, especially in rural Latin America and Asia, where export-oriented agribusiness is claiming more and more of the water once used by small farmers.

Barlow and Clarke add that massive groundwater over-pumping and aquifer depletion are now serious problems in most of the world’s most intensive agricultural areas and are reaching critical levels in many large cities. While wells that tap the aquifers have been used for centuries, extensive pump extraction of groundwater is a later 20th century phenomenon. (Wilfong says some 70 percent of Maine people tap directly into aquifers through wells.)

Because we can’t see groundwater, users may not know an aquifer is gone until it suddenly dries up. Massive groundwater extraction not only depletes finite aquifer reserves, it dramatically lowers the water table of the surrounding area. Because groundwater provides the principal source of water for streams, rivers and lakes, these surface waters can also be depleted.

Derrick Jensen says in Orion Magazine (July/Aug. 2009) that we often hear that the world is running out of water, but suggested solutions, such as shorter showers, are always for individuals. He agrees that we should conserve natural resources, but says individual conservation can’t make much of a dent, since more than 90 percent of water used by humans is used for agriculture and industry. The remaining 10 percent is split between municipalities and individuals. “Collectively, municipal golf courses use as much water as municipal human beings. People … aren’t dying because the world is running out of water. They’re dying because the water is being stolen.”

Who Owns the Water?

That brings us back to Wilfong, who suggests that we need to examine all interrelated issues of ownership and control. If corporations are allowed to take too much water, the water table drops, wetlands dry up, lakes and rivers recede, some plants and animals can’t survive. Problems cascade. “For humankind, how do we coexist in a web that we rely on without destroying the web? Since we are all dependent on water, we need to make sure we have a say in how this resource is used,” he says. Without clean water, we would eventually be without food, since 70 percent of water is used to produce food.

When Wilfong realized that whoever controls potable water could control many aspects of life, he became an activist for legally protecting Maine’s water supply, a resource he calls “Maine’s oil.” He implies that just as Texas doesn’t give away its oil, Maine shouldn’t give away its water.

Howard Corwin, M.D., a retired physician who summers on Kezar Lake in western Maine, joined the effort to preserve Maine’s aquifers. His initial activism involved protecting rivers, lakes and streams when he realized that acquiring surrounding land and controlling development would be necessary to protect surface water quality, so he was an early organizer of the Greater Lovell Land Trust (and recently received the 2009 National Service Award for his work in conservation).

Corwin says that Maine’s Saco sand and gravel aquifer filters water, so the aquifer is replenished with clean water. He emphasizes how little is known about the relationship between surface and groundwaters but warns that withdrawing groundwater has many consequences: lowering the water table in the aquifer seasonally or permanently, failing to replenish surface water by interfering with the reverse flow necessary for springs and wells, and permanent contamination by failure of the filtration system.

When Corwin saw what was happening in Fryeburg with Nestlé (see below), he allied himself with H2O for ME. That organization helped get legislation limiting the amount a bottling company can withdraw if it interferes with the health of the aquifer. H2O for ME is pursuing further legislation to protect groundwater.

Corwin says that billions of dollars worth of water will eventually flow out of Maine, and he would like to see Nestlé share that wealth. He foresees a time when both surface and groundwater will be in great demand to meet world needs, and both will be exported in bulk from Maine.

He wants guarantees that Maine’s municipal and agricultural needs will always have priority, and assurances that Maine will receive profits from exporting its natural resources so that it can cover its health, education and social service obligations and dramatically increase conservation investment to maintain the natural environment and rural quality of Maine.

He believes that land trusts are important in this maintenance and that revenues from the sale of water would fund this conservation; so Corwin wants water placed under the public trust and sees Maine government as remiss in failing to change laws that limit protection and control of our waters.

Wilfong explains that Maine’s common law principle of “capture” is still partially in place. In 2007, we changed Maine water law and the absolute dominion common law. Common law had allowed a property owner to take any amount of water without regard to the effects on the aquifer or neighboring landowners. Common law was established when no one was thinking about bulk extraction.

The new law established a public, transparent process, the need for an environmental impact study for major extractors, continuous monitoring of the well with the extractor paying for independent studies and data analysis with recommendations sent to the Department of Environmental Protection and Conservation, and creation of a Watershed Resource Committee. Still Wilfong thinks that perhaps the citizens of Maine need to create a “Maine Water Doctrine” to meet their needs and values.

Most people, he says, have a vague notion that many safeguards exist. The FDA does have a definition of spring water but no regulations dictate how much a corporation can take. The FDA has one person to monitor all U.S. bottled water regulation. At the state level, any company hauling water across town lines needs a bulk water transport permit for amounts above 10,000 gallons a day. These permits are granted routinely. Any wellhead serving the public is licensed by the Department of Health and Human Services under its Drinking Water Program. So, a few hundred dollars in permit fees, some paperwork, and a corporation can pump water for profit with no compensation to the state or community.

Some local ordinances exist but are ineffective against large corporations. Wilfong cites Fryeburg as an example: Its citizens’ water is supplied by a private utility, which also sells to Pure Mountain Springs, a private water company that in turn sells to Nestlé. Two pumps come from the same spring. In the middle of the 2004 winter, one pump broke. Guess who didn’t have water for two days and who was under an order to boil water for four more? Two nursing homes, three schools and all the households and small businesses in the village were hauling water with fire and livestock trucks, while Nestlé’s trucks rolled to their plant in Massachusetts 24/7 without interruption. That’s what’s coming, says Wilfong, if corporations continue to get control of Maine’s water.

Wilfong points out that Maine water is being bought and sold every day by some 25 bottled water companies. In 2006, at least a billion gallons were extracted, with double-digit annual increases. The water cartel is poised to take control and will not willingly relinquish that control.

Put Groundwater in the Public Trust

Both Wilfong and Corwin believe that Maine could prosper from its groundwater if groundwater were in the public trust the way surface water has been for nearly 40 years. However, Nestlé is a powerful, multi-national corporation. Three decades ago, Wilfong says, far-sighted officials in our State Planning Office warned that “someday, trucks, even pipelines might take our water as far away as Boston” and urged legislation while there was still time.

Then in 1980, Wilfong said, Poland Springs Bottling Company, well known in the state and generally respected as a valuable business, was bought by Perrier, the French spring water company. Twelve years later, Swiss mega-corporation Nestlé bought Perrier, so our water was – and is – being pumped by the largest food and bottled water company in the world.

Many people began calling for action in the 1980s, including then-governor John McKernan, who said, “I think we will see growing pressures from outside for use of our water supplies.”

The water giants responded by spreading money around the state, says Wilfong. They gained good will by donating to fire departments, schools, libraries and conservation causes.

In mid-2004, in a mysterious late-night phone call, a hyrdogeologist in the Southwest told Wilfong he had recently traveled to Maine and had read about Wilfong’s water activism. He said he had been hired by giant water companies to acquire land over aquifers in the North Maine Woods. Wilfong realized then that companies were quietly buying our water sources while building local and statewide political alliances as a sort of guarantee against protests.

In 2006, Wilfong discovered that the wording of a ballot initiative he and other volunteers had worked on for months – to ensure that groundwater in Maine had the same protection as surface water – had been drastically altered by the secretary of state in a way that would tend to frighten Maine people into rejecting it. The secretary of state’s office had changed the wording to begin: “Do you want to transfer private ownership of groundwater to the State?”

“It felt like a kick in the gut,” says Wilfong. In the official file on the initiative, he found a letter from Nestlé’s attorneys urging the wording, “Do you want to transfer private ownership of groundwater in Maine to the State?”

The struggle continues. Nestlé has resisted any tax on its profits, Wilfong says, “so why not sell it, within sustainable limits, at market value in an open and competitive process? The funds generated would be placed in a public trust. Part would go to implement the account; part to protect water quality and supply; and another part would come back to Maine’s citizens as a dividend. The state, as trustee and steward, could sell the water for containerized resale on a sustainable basis only, and only after the traditional water users’ needs have been met.”

Sustainability, he says, is key. Defined broadly, it means “no negative impact on the aquifer and groundwater, wetlands, all surface waters, rivers, streams, private wells, farmers and local economic development.” In addition, towns where water is located would have veto power over development that doesn’t fit their community needs. Rural towns often object to tanker trunks rumbling regularly over their two-lane roads.

While Maine’s sand and gravel aquifers are recharged with our abundant rain, Wilfong notes that the glacier-fed Ogallala aquifer took 10,000 years to fill. Barlow and Clarke say it’s the largest single water-bearing unit in North America, spanning 190,000 square miles of the American High Plains. It is believed to have once contained more water than Lake Huron but is now being depleted 14 times faster than nature can restore it.

The Increasing Importance of Maine Water

All across our country, water is being extracted faster than aquifers can recover, and farmland is being bought for water rights. Farmers have learned, Wilfong says, that selling water rights is more remunerative than selling produce. In 25 or 30 years – maybe less – major aquifers will be dry and food production will be drastically reduced. Where will our water come from?

Wilfong believes that Maine, with its reliable water supply, could become increasingly important in food production. Maine, he says, is a prime target for water cartels that see the looming shortage, but it can also be a prime place for an increase in small farms. We could raise most of the food to supply the needs of Maine citizens and have some to ship to cities in the Northeast.

Small, local farms – especially organic – can produce quality food without destroying the environment, but we need to control our water and understand how we all fit into the system, he says.

“The real fight will come over the allocation of the water resource and the competing uses of it, including the needs of the natural environment. We have a responsibility to see that we leave a habitable planet for the children. And how do we get water to the poor who desperately need it? A lot of chemical waste gets dumped in poor countries. How can I not do the best I can as a citizen, not just to vote but to participate. We need civil debate in this state.”

Taking on the world’s water cartel is not easy, Wilfong says, but the struggle for ownership of Maine’s water is critical to all of us. To learn more, see www.waterdividendtrust.com. Wilfong can be contacted at jim@waterdividendtrust.com; and Corwin atHACGLLT@aol.com.

Note: A call to Nestlé through Poland Spring for comment on some points in this article was not returned.

1 thought on “Water and the Web of Life

  1. TO Jim Wilfong —
    There has been an over-abundance of pro-Nestle propaganda in the Portland Press Herald, Lewiston Sun Journal and the Bangor Daily News, not to mention Orlando Delogu’s nonsense in a publication called “Maine Ahead” which was condensed from his three-article extravaganza in the Maine Lawyers Weekly. We need you to help get the truth out there. Could you write a guest editorial for one of the newspapers? I’ve been reading up on your past writing. You are the best, clearest writer on this issue out there. We hope you’ll get back into the discourse!

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