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The War Over Water

Written by Matt Kanner, The Wire , 10 July 2008

Grassroots groups battle corporate water bottlers in New Hampshire and Maine

The battle to protect regional groundwater from corporate pumping took a curious turn recently when USA Springs filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Folks at Save Our Groundwater were cautiously optimistic about the development, but they’re not getting their hopes up too high. The grassroots, volunteer organization has been fighting USA Springs for the better part of seven years, and it’s hard to say what will happen next.

“I’m happy about it, but I don’t think we’re gonna pop the champagne corks yet,” said Save Our Groundwater member Bill McCann. “What is the impact of a bankruptcy in all this?” he wondered.

As the saga in Nottingham drags on, a new battle is brewing in York County, Maine, where Nestlé’s Poland Spring is hoping to stick its straws in the soil. The Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Wells Water District is prepared to sign a 30-year deal with Nestlé that would allow the corporation to pump up to 432,000 gallons of water per day (300 gallons per minute) from the Branch Brook aquifer.

Residents in the district quickly mustered an opposition campaign and managed to get a vote on the deal postponed until at least the end of the month. Jamilla El-Shafei and Bob Walter, her husband, have helped put together a steering committee to oppose the Nestlé deal, and they will hold a second public meeting on Sunday, July 13 at 2 p.m. at the Unitarian Church in Kennebunk. The water district board will hold a public meeting on July 30, and a vote on the Nestlé deal could follow that night.

Nestlé proposes to purchase about 139 acres of property owned by Michiel Brown, most of which is in Wells. The company also wants to lease a five-acre parcel of land owned by the water district. Boreholes would be located on this property and pipelines would connect the spring water source to a loading station in Sanford, where the water would be loaded onto trucks and transported to Poland Spring’s nearest bottling plant in Hollis.

As part of the deal, Poland Spring would pay the water district a total of $250,000 before it starts pumping. It would also pay the district roughly half a cent for every gallon of water that it pumps, although the exact amount is subject to change depending on the district’s water rate. When the 30-year contract expires, Poland Spring would have the option of extending it for up to five additional terms of five years each, meaning the contract could last as long as 55 years.

Opponents of the Nestlé deal first gathered publicly on June 22, and dozens of area residents showed up to voice their concerns. The KKW board was expected to vote on the deal during its last monthly meeting on June 25, but the firestorm of opposition convinced board members to table that vote until its July 30 meeting.

Opponents worry that Poland Spring’s pumping will drain the aquifer of a vital resource and damage the environment. Many are also outraged that they did not hear anything about the pending deal until last month, even though the water district has apparently been negotiating with Nestlé for close to a year. Also, they claim that the water district’s charter mandates that any groundwater in the district be used solely for its residents, businesses and fire departments, and not for commercial sale outside the district.

Some opponents question whether groundwater should be bottled and sold commercially at all. El-Shafei and others contend that Nestlé has a poor track record of environmental stewardship. The gigantic corporation only really cares about its bottom line, and not the area’s citizens or the environment, they say.

“Everywhere Nestlé goes to build a wellhead, there’s a lawsuit in the town,” El-Shafei said. “Nestlé’s Poland Spring is a huge multi-national corporation. Poland Spring is now just a label, so let’s not be romanticizing Poland Spring and thinking this is the family-owned business it was years ago. It’s not.”

Nestlé S.A. is headquartered in Switzerland, and the division of Nestlé Waters North America is based in Connecticut. Nestlé USA did $8.25 billion in sales in 2007, according to its Web site. The corporation offers more than 100 brands that range from candy bars to frozen dinners, from baby food to pet food.

Nestlé first got into the bottled water business in 1976, when it acquired Perrier Sparkling Natural Mineral Water. Poland Spring was originally founded in 1845, but Nestlé took over in 1980. The corporation now has a total of 15 bottled water brands, with 23 bottling facilities in the United States and Canada and around 75 springs in the U.S.

Nestlé’s bottling plants and pumping facilities have met with resistence at a number of locations. Earlier this year, Nestlé scaled back plans for what would have been the largest water bottling plant in the country because of opposition from a group of environmentalists and residents in the northern California town of McCloud.

Proponents of the Nestlé deal in York County argue that the revenue it generates would enable the district to keep water rates down, and that Poland Spring’s operation would create hundreds of jobs. Although it is difficult to accurately gauge how much water is available in an aquifer, representatives from the water district and Poland Spring say there will be plenty of water left over to cover the area’s needs.

“We feel comfortable that we will have enough water available to meet our supply demand during the duration of the contract,” said Scott Minor, vice superintendent of the water district.

Mark Dubois, natural resource manager for Poland Spring, said the project is still a long way from becoming a reality. Even if the district approves the contract this month, the company would still have to get building permits and conduct aquifer tests—a process that would likely take two years, Dubois said.

“We’re at a little bit of a disadvantage with all the protesters and some of the misinformation that’s out there,” he said.
Dubois said Poland Spring tentatively plans to pump between 150,000 and 250,000 gallons of water per day from the aquifer.

According to Minor, Branch Brook has a flow rate of approximately 11 million gallons of water per day. The district’s water demands average about 2.9 million gallons per day. That number can dip as low as 1.8 million gallons per day in the winter, and can rise as high as 7 million gallons per day at peak demand in the summer.

Depending on the water rate and how much Nestlé pumps, the deal could result in anywhere from $250,000 to $750,000 of revenue per year for the water district. “We’ve got an aged infrastructure and it needs a lot of attention,” Minor said. “This is certainly a way for us to help stabilize rates in the long-term.” Additional revenue could be used to secure watershed land for conservation, he added.

But opponents think the contract is a one-sided deal that benefits Nestlé too heavily. Each gallon of water that Poland Spring buys from the district for half a cent will ultimately be sold for more than $1. (A gallon of Poland Spring water at Hannaford Supermarket in Portsmouth costs $1.19.)

Opponents also say the water district is already struggling to meet its demands. El-Shafei said the district had to bring in water from outside its borders during periods of high demand last year.

Minor said the district did buy water from Biddeford on two occasions last year to supplement its supply. The first occasion was during the winter, and the second was in April, when floods caused Branch Brook to rise and the treatment plant had to be shut down. Minor noted that they can bring on line an additional 3 million gallons of groundwater per day not related to Branch Brook if they need to.

Asked if Poland Spring’s pumping would threaten the water supply in Branch Brook, Minor answered resolutely that it would not. “That does not appear to have any validation whatsoever. That’s not true at all,” he said.

Under the proposed contract, the district can order Poland Spring to suspend its pumping for 60-day periods if the water supply is threatened, although the district must give the company at least seven days prior notice.

El-Shafei and other opponents of the deal allege that the independent geologist the district hired to assess Branch Brook’s water levels has close connections to Tom Brennan, one of Poland Spring’s resource managers—thus skewing the district’s claims that it had hired an independent consultant. The consultant, hydrogeologist Keith Taylor, represented water districts in Kingfield and Rangely during their pervious water use negotiations with Poland Spring.

A division of Nestlé Waters North America Inc., Poland Spring has a total of nine sites and three bottling plants in Maine, located in Hollis, Kingfield and the company’s namesake, Poland Spring. In addition to the project in York County, Poland Spring is working to build a new pumping operation in Shapleigh.

Dubois believes there is no shortage of water in the state. “We have a rapidly renewable resource with water in Maine here,” he said.

The National Weather Service measures monthly precipitation at sites across Maine. One of those sites is at the wastewater treatment plant in Kennebunkport. Thomas Hawley, a hydrologist with NWS, provided a month by month breakdown of rainfall in Kennebunkport for the last year. According to those numbers, a total of 62.11 inches of rain fell on Kennebunkport between June 1, 2007, and June 30, 2008.

One inch of rainfall spread over one acre of land equates to about 27,154 gallons of water. Kennebunkport is a town of approximately 14,080 acres. That means that in the last year, approximately 23.75 billion gallons of water fell on Kennebunkport alone, which breaks down to about 65 million gallons per day.

Hawley said he did not think extracting 200,000 gallons of water per day would threaten the watershed in York County. “I don’t think it would impact the watershed, no,” Hawley said. “I don’t think that would cause any problems.”

Marc Loiselle, a hydrogeologist with Maine Geological Survey, said it is difficult to predict the sort of impact commercial pumping will have on a particular aquifer. The key, therefore, is to closely monitor water levels once pumping begins, and to cease pumping if private wells are threatened.

“It’s very difficult to predict a priori what the impact will be,” Loiselle said. “Monitoring really is the key issue here.”

According to Loiselle, the Branch Brook aquifer is recharged on an annual basis by snowmelt and rainfall. He said he was not aware of any problems caused by Poland Spring’s existing operations in the state.

While other renewable resources, like trees, take many years to renew, Maine’s water supply is renewed every year by rain and snow. “(Water) really literally is the most renewable resource that the state of Maine has,” Loiselle said.

But will that resource be threatened by global climate change? Opponents of the deal with Nestlé point out that the effects of global climate change over the next 30 years are expected to be significant and largely unpredictable, with some areas experiencing more frequent and longer droughts.

“You can’t talk about this issue without talking about climate change,” said Emily Posner, of Defending Water for Life. “To sign a 30-year contract in times of global climate instability seems a little counter-intuitive.”

Minor said forecasts for climate change in New England predict that the region will become wetter, not drier. Over the last year, rainfall in Kennebunkport was about 12 inches over the annual average, according to numbers at the National Weather Service. But Minor admitted that the effects of climate change would be difficult to predict.

“Unless you can have a crystal ball, we don’t know for sure,” Minor said.

Posner maintains that water should not be sold commercially and that ecosystems should be protected from corporate interests. Defending Water for Life is a national organization with an active chapter in Maine.

“We are a group that has organizers throughout the country, mostly on coasts, working to keep water in the public trust and a part of the commons and prevent the privatization of our water resources,” she said.

Posner warns people not to be fooled by Poland Spring’s recent campaign to improve its environmental image. Poland Spring recently unveiled its “eco-shape bottle,” a half-liter container that is 100 percent recyclable and uses less plastic and paper than previous models. Posner said numerous companies are using eco-friendly rhetoric as a marketing scheme—a practice called “green washing.” The water Poland Spring sells is available directly from people’s faucets in Maine without all the packaging, she said.

“You can get the same water in Maine from your tap, and that water needs to stay in the ecosystem,” she said. “To remove that amount of water is really dangerous at this time.”

Posner fears that as demand for water increases, Nestlé will continue to seek new pumping sites in Maine and New Hampshire. “Nestlé is really moving in very fast and trying to put wells in all over this area,” she said.

Bill McCann, of Save Our Groundwater, is wondering if one of those wells might end up in Nottingham. The USA Springs property off Route 4 is set to be auctioned on Monday, Sept. 29 at 10 a.m. A posting for the auction indicates that it will include 168 acres of land, deep drilled wells and pumps, three industrial buildings and a partially completed 176,000-square-foot bottling plant.

This is the property and facility that USA Springs apparently left behind when it filed for bankruptcy on June 27. But don’t count USA Springs out just yet. Chapter 11 bankruptcy allows the Pelham, N.H.-based company to potentially restructure its debts and emerge again. A meeting of creditors is scheduled for July 29 in Manchester.

The auction was originally scheduled for June 30 but was postponed after USA Springs filed for bankruptcy. The company’s building permit expires on July 26.

Earl D. Munroe, the attorney who filed the bankruptcy claim, could not be reached last week. USA Springs attorneys Armand Hyatt and Scott Bratton did not return calls to The Wire.

McCann said members of Save Our Groundwater are trying to educate themselves as much as possible before the auction in September. Although they welcomed the news that USA Springs had filed for bankruptcy, they worry that the property will simply be sold to another bottling company that will pick up where USA Springs left off.

“Nestlé would appear to be a logical choice to buy it, I just don’t know if it’s something that they would want to get into,” McCann said.

USA Springs had planned to pump around 300,000 gallons of water per day from the site in Nottingham.

Save Our Groundwater and another volunteer group called Neighborhood Guardians have been fighting to keep water in the public trust for years. Although the company has won almost every major court case, its opponents have managed to seriously delay the operation.

In the midst of the struggle, Nottingham passed an ordinance that makes it illegal to extract water for sale outside of town. The ordinance, which passed in March, was modeled after a similar one that Barnstead passed in 2006. Because the law is not retroactive, it was not expected to impact USA Springs, but it could impact a new company that attempts to purchase the property.

McCann said communities in Maine could consider passing similar ordinances to keep out Nestlé. “I think it’s a major development in at least trying to level the playing field between the big corporations and the small towns,” he said. “Nestlé is probably the biggest in the country as far as attempting to expand corporate water rights.”

El-Shafei said she and other Nestlé opponents are already looking into pushing a water extraction ordinance. McCann has been communicating with El-Shafei and offering his assistance.

“We try to use our experience to help other people, and our role has been to try to inform the public and let the public make informed decisions when they can,” McCann said. “It’s an evolving process and we’re part of it.”

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