New fronts in water extraction battles

By David Harry, Sanford-Springvale Register 1/22/2009

Although temperatures have rarely been warm enough to thaw it, water remains a hot topic in the New Year in York County. Specifically, questions on how to regulate commercial water extraction are the basis of a bill submitted by freshman legislator Ed Legg (D-Kennebunk), and the subject of a workshop scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 28, by Shapleigh selectmen to consider creating a town ordinance.
Legg would like consumer-owned water utilities to host public hearings and get voter approval to sell water commercially. His bill was introduced in response to the proposed agreement made last summer by the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Wells Water District to allow Poland Spring Water Company to extract as much as 432,000 gallons of water a day for bottling.

In Shapleigh, the workshop expected to be attended by selectmen Ruth Ham, Michael Perro and Bill Hayes; town attorney Ron Bourque and hydrogeologist John Tewhey; and five members of Protecting Our Water and Wildlife Resources (POWWR) will try to find compromise for two competing ordinances for commercial water extraction.

POWWR is a group of approximately 20 Shapleigh and Newfield residents seeking to protect water sources in those towns, according to its Web site, www.defendingwater.net/maine/POWWR.

A town ordinance written by Tewhey and Bourque would regulate commercial withdrawal of more than 5,000 gallons of water a day. The ordinance submitted by POWWR with a petition containing 195 signatures would prohibit water extraction for sale to non-Shapleigh residents.

Although legal opinions from Bourque and attorneys for the Maine Municipal Association call the ordinance banning water extraction unconstitutional, the opposing sides have promised to attend the workshop with open minds.

Perro said because members of POWWR feel selectmen are ignoring them, it will be a chance to review and discuss the position the group has taken.

“We’re going with good faith, but the ordinance we are bringing forward is the right ordinance,” said Eileen Hennessey, a POWWR member from Newfield.

Hennessey said the five members of the organization to participate in the workshop had not been chosen, but were expected to be Shapleigh residents.

At the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Wells Water District, Scott Minor, assistant superintendent for the utility that serves seven towns in York County, said plans to sell water to Poland Spring are on hold indefinitely.

Minor said should the idea to sell water from Branch Brook or any other source owned by the utility be considered again, the utility would follow the provisions of Legg’s bill no matter its fate.

However, the risk that a the four-person board of directors serving the water district would make a decision with such effects on the consumers it serves is reason enough to pass the bill, Legg said.

“The people who own the rights should have the say,” he said.

Minor and Thomas Brennan, a senior natural resources manager for Nestlé, which owns Poland Spring, welcomed the concept that Mainers need to determine what role water plays in the state economy.

“Is it a commodity to be sold like timber or lobsters or a resource to be protected?” asked Minor.

Legg took no position except to say wider input is needed when a utility considers selling water. Because utilities are state-chartered, the Legislature has every right to require the hearing and votes, Legg said.

Brennan said the company was still evaluating the samples from test wells on the Vernon Walker Management Area in Newfield, a state-owned parcel across from a town-owned site in Shapleigh the company is interested in developing.

Should the water be to the company’s liking, Brennan said it would not “bully its way into town,” but added the noise of the opposition to Poland Spring’s presence was not indicative of the number of company foes.

“I don’t think it is a lot of people, but they are very vocal and active,” Brennan said.