Water Wars

I’ve been spending some time reading online materials on the question of the water supply here in Maine because water has become a controversial topic not only here in Maine but throughout the world. It seems there is an awesome international company with the innocuous sounding name of Nestlé — think hot cocoa and chockies — based in Switzerland with sales of around $60 billion. Nestlé just happens to be the largest food company in the world and through it’s subsidiary, Nestlé Waters North America, it’s sucking Maine’s delicious water out of our ground — Maine’s drinking water has been ranked number one in the nation — at a rate of well over 500,000,000 gallons per year and putting it in little plastic bottles, Poland Spring brand, with revenues of $845,000,000 last year. Not bad!

Back in 2004, Jim Wilfong, a business leader and former state legislator from Fryeburg, Maine, got the idea of slapping a little tax of 3¢— yikes, not a tax! — on each of these little Poland Spring plastic bottles of water (20 fluid ounces) which he figured would raise about $100,000,000 yearly. (There are 128 fluid ounces in a gallon or 6.4 bottles in a gallon, so that’s 6.4X3¢=19.2¢ per gallon, times 500 million gallons comes close to the $100 million.) His plan was to create a Maine Water Dividend Trust and a Water Resources Conservation Board with the Trust supporting small businesses and property tax reduction, and the Board monitoring quality and ensuring sustainability of the water aquifer. Sounded reasonable to me.

Oh, but what a storm was created by this well thought out and detailed proposal. Profits would be hit (3¢ doesn’t seem to me that bad a tax on one of those bottles), jobs would be lost, chaos would ensue, and Nestlé would probably withdraw from Maine! Who cares if $100 million might be raised for the state of Maine? Heavy hitting lawyers from Nestlé as well as politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, including the governor, swung into action and it didn’t take long before the bill, and also a follow on citizen’s initiative petition, were shot down. Nestlé, their lawyers and spinmeisters, aided by the anti-tax crowd, had prevailed with ease. So much for that bottle tax.

But Jim Wilfong didn’t give up. This time he scaled back his proposal with the objective of monitoring water quality and sustainability. This would ensure that water coming out of the aquifer in Maine is subject to the same degree of protection as surface waters, i.e. lakes and ponds. But a snag developed here because of the old “absolute dominion” rule: the landowner has exclusive rights to all the water under his land. By the time his petition got back to him from the Secretary of State, its first sentence read, “Do you want to transfer private ownership of groundwater to the State?” He later found that Nestlé’s lawyers had actually suggested this wording. But Wilfong and his group did succeed in passing legislation last year to give groundwater the same protection as surface water under the Natural Resource Protection Act, and now he is promoting a referendum that would change the law and put all groundwater into a public trust. This would at last do away with the absolute dominion rule.

In 2006, the town of Denmark, Maine, passed a water extraction ordinance which was another good step forward in giving ground water the same protection as surface water. This ordinance should serve as a good model for other towns, and it’s possible that the ordinance could be extended to actually obtain some revenue. This came up in a Candidates Night on Oct. 23, 2008, in which Republican Ralph Sarty, the current State Rep for District 99, appeared with Lee Goldsberry, the Democratic challenger. Ralph was in favor of revenues staying in the municipality whereas Lee would like to see revenues go to the State of Maine. The public trust proposed by Jim Wilfong in his referendum would appear to be the best place for these revenues so that the whole State of Maine could benefit.

UPDATE: Check the excellent blog of TC near McCloud, CA, which is devoted to stopping Nestlé water. There’s a lot of good information there.

GeologyJoe has an excellent post on this subject. As a geologist he has a unique and knowledgeable viewpoint on the whole situation. It’s time I started filling the Poland Spring bottles with our own tap water, and keeping a few on hand for our various needs.

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  1. Harriet’s avatar

    How would putting water into a public trust affect the 40% of Maine households who have a private well for water? Would that mean the state could come and take my water? Could they charge me for using the water?

  2. Dragonstar’s avatar

    Nestlé’s huge profits obviously depend on getting the raw materials for next to nothing.

  3. Mardé’s avatar

    Thanks for your message, Harriet, but all private wells would be exceptions. This has been the case with all previous bills and petitions involving water. Don’t let Nestlé scare you! In no way would your or anybody else’s private wells be affected by the public trust, if it ever gets set up. You should be far far more concerned about the actions of that monster named Nestlé than that Jim Wilfong would ever take your private water away from you. I have a private well and in no way am I concerned. I would like to have improved services in this state and have these mega-organizations under some kind of control and regulation. How do you think this country got into the financial mess we’re in now? Through lack of regulation!

    That’s absolutely right, Dragonstar, Nestlé is getting our water here in Maine out of the ground for next to nothing and making enormous profits!

  4. TC’s avatar

    Great article. I write the StopNestleWaters.org Web site (based near McCloud, CA – site of a sizable battle over a proposed Nestle bottling plant).

    When I started researching Nestle, it quickly became clear they’re not shy about creating misinformation campaigns.

    Often, they’re denigrating the quality of tap water and promoting their bottled water as a replacement. In our town, their battle cry revolves around splitting the town in half, and firing up resentment about “outside agitators” – as if a Swiss-based multinational corporation was a friendly, local company.

    In Florida, they actually get their water from the state for free, but only delivered about half the promised jobs to the state.

    And of course, we’ve all seen what happens when they don’t get their way; the small town of Fryeburg’s been sued (and appealed) a total of five times for their decision to deny Nestle a truck loading station in a residentially zoned area.

    Trying to win a losing legal battle by bankrupting your opponent is hardly the stuff of a good corporate neighbor.

    Good luck in Maine!

  5. Mardé’s avatar

    Thanks for that message, TC. I’ll be checking your website soon. Yes, that battle in Fryeburg has been going on for some time, and we know who has the most expensive lawyers! I was going to get into that in my post, but it would have taken too long — should have a separate post all by itself.

    It’s amazing how some people still scream “socialism” when anyone questions Nestlé’s behavior, even though that company is certainly a foreign presence. It turns out socialism is always OK for the rich.

  6. GeologyJoe’s avatar

    A serious topic. It’s liquid gold for Nestle and the residents of Maine should not only get their cut, but require more investigation and monitoring prior to and during water extraction.

    I’ve done a post on this topic in the past as well:


  7. Mardé’s avatar

    Thanks, Joe! You have a great post on these issues. The YouTube video of Al Davis of East Fryeburg, Maine, is excellent. He says it all! Also the diagram of the extraction processes you show is very instructive.

  8. Armen Shirvanian’s avatar

    That concept of micropayments of 3 cents that would add up to a large sum for the state does bring up some points. When the process of taking away a few cents starts, the next step might be to take a few more cents here and there. People are generally opposed to the beginning of a trend that doesn’t appear to have benefits that match their interests. When we let someone have a piece of our sandwich, even though we have given it to them, they will remember that it is possible that they could receive a piece of future sandwiches for free.

  9. Mardé’s avatar

    How about that earth’s water reservoir under the ground is not the property of an international corporation but belongs to the earth’s people and should be extracted with that in mind? In other words, the sandwich is already free except for the cost of its distribution. Nestlé should be fairly reimbursed for the cost of water extraction and delivery, while at the same time the process is carefully monitored by the people for sustainability and quality. Naturally, Nestlé doesn’t want to operate in this way because it greatly restricts profit. I’m sure a feudal lord of the middle ages would agree that offering free sandwich pieces to the peasants might encourage them to expect more free pieces in the future. Better to keep them under servitude and not “let them eat cake”. That was Marie Antoinette’s big mistake!

  10. Erik’s avatar

    Do you know anyone who is doing any specific research on the interests who are buying up the water rights all over the world? (Not just corporate interests) I have been able to get bits and pieces, but I was hoping that someone would have a bunch of it already documented.

  11. Armen Shirvanian’s avatar

    That is good point that the water is able to be used by the Earth’s people(and other organisms). Any other interpretation of how the water should be divided would need to be defended with strong support. That “free sandwich” concept is used in many locations and types of companies to spread a message more quickly since a free item is involved.

  12. Mardé’s avatar

    Erik: Interesting idea. I don’t know of anyone who is doing the specific research you mention. Certainly, we know that Nestlé Water is hard at it buying up water rights. What other interests beside corporate? Perhaps some countries are nationalizing water rights.

    Armen: Yes, since a free item — namely, water — is involved, profit making companies are certainly interested and are taking advantage of the large underground aquifers. So, the question is, how are these companies to be regulated, or are they just to be allowed to “run free”? The electromagnetic spectrum may be a possible analogy. Many companies, including governments, use this but they are usually regulated. We have the FCC in this country. Perhaps it is too accommodating to the companies. At any rate, water ought to be regulated a lot more than it is. I believe it is a right — people have a right to use the earth’s water, yes?

  13. Mark Dubois’s avatar

    I agree that water conservation is a topic of critical importance. In fact, as a natural resource manager for Poland Spring, my job depends on it. I’m a certified geologist, and my number one responsibility is ensuring that the operations of my employer do not disrupt or harm the eco-system of the area from which we harvest water. At Poland Spring, we only harvest what nature can replenish, and we rely on ongoing monitoring and testing to manage springs for sustainability.

    Since 1845 here in Maine, Poland Spring (which is owned by Nestlé Waters North America) has been committed to operating in a manner that will not adversely impact the wells or water supplies of local communities. In addition, the state of Maine has very strict laws to make sure that water withdrawal cannot have a negative impact on the environment, including rivers, streams or wetlands, or water supplies. In fact, when we apply for permits to withdraw water in a town like Denmark we do so under both a very protective local ordinance and the Natural Resource Protection Act with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

    Absolute dominion describes a basic property right of landowners. The State of Maine can’t simply take away that property right, but Maine does have the right to regulate its use, which is just what Maine has done. In fact, Maine is now much closer to a reasonable use state than an absolute dominion state because of the extensive local, state and federal regulations which control the use of groundwater. Poland Spring supports regulations based on science, because our withdrawals are carefully monitored to avoid environmental impact. What we object to are rules that are proposed to stop our business even when we show that we don’t have an environmental impact on the resource.

    Poland Spring uses a relatively small amount of water, actually less than 1% of reported groundwater use in Maine each year. Learn more about Poland Spring in Maine by going here: http://www.polandspringme.com I’d be interested to hear your feedback.

    Mark Dubois, C.G.
    Natural Resource Manager
    Poland Spring Water Company

  14. TC’s avatar

    Mr Dubois;

    You state: “Poland Spring (which is owned by Nestlé Waters North America) has been committed to operating in a manner that will not adversely impact the wells or water supplies of local communities.”

    Unfortunately, I’m compelled to point out that Nestle has a habit of NOT protecting local water supplies when it conflicts with bottom line profits – a habit unlikely to engender much confidence among those whose water you’d like to extract.

    For example, in McCloud, CA, Nestle was happy to enter into a contract with McCloud for 1,250 gallons of water per minute prior to conducting even a single flow monitoring study, and even the California Attorney General found Nestle’s EIR so laughable it threatened to intervene. (Downstream of Nestle’s proposed plant was the McCloud River, an internationally renowned trout fishery).

    In Michigan, a judge ordered a Mecosta County Nestle plant to cease pumping due to the damage being done to the watershed (Nestle ultimately cut its pumping in half to maintain some production at the plant).

    In Florida, Nestle lobbyists convinced political appointees to allow the company to extract 1.47-million gallons per day from drought-stricken Blue Springs instead of the 400,000 gallons per day wanted by state scientests, who wanted to protect the spring, which was running at the lowest flows ever recorded.

    Worse, sir, is Nestle/Poland’s Spring’s handling of those who oppose – for a variety of reasons – your water bottling business, including the tiny town of Fryeburg.

    Fryeburg’s repeatedly said “no” to the truck loading station your multinational wants to site in a residential area, and yet Nestle/Poland Spring has sued/appealed the town five times, including a trip to the State Supreme Court.

    That hardly seems like the act of benign corporate neighbor, and after hearing of Fryeburg’s predicament – including the fact that a small citizens group finds itself $21,000 in debt after fighting Nestle’s steady stream of briefs – small towns are rightfully concerned about protecting their water and local economies from an entity that seems to care more about profits than the well-being of local communities and watersheds.

    Suggesting you’re doing the bare minimum required by Maine to extract water doesn’t answer the many other questions people have about Nestle Waters’ carbon footprint, loss of local control of water supplies, truck traffic, pollution, predatory behavior and other issues.

    This is simply a small handful of reasons why small towns are mistrustful of Poland Spring/Nestle (I cover a lot more of them in an article titled: The Top Six Reasons Why Small Communities Can’t Trust Nestle Waters ).

    In other words, suggesting you only “harvest what nature can replenish” isn’t a statement borne out by the facts.

  15. GeologyJoe’s avatar

    Wow Marde you really got the pot stirred, pulling in a comment from the Poland Spring geologist.
    I think parts of what he says there is true, thou some of it come across as company b.s.
    What might be nice to know is how the state regulates the water extraction volumes and groundwater tables. is it with state hydrogeologists? third party, or perhaps even USGS? or is it only in house? Whats the oversight?

    That’s a job I wouldn’t mind pulling in for the company I work for…monitoring groundwater levels. Shoot that’d be sweet.

    This reminds me I should up date that post of mine, or perhaps write a whole new one.

  16. Mardé’s avatar

    Yes, Joe, I’ve stirred the pot, haven’t I! That would be great if you could update your post, or even write a whole new one. As a geologist you have a unique opportunity to add insight, and whats more you’re independent of Nestlé. I liked your previous post on the subject, and that great video by Al Davis of East Fryeburg, Maine, is certainly worth a view.

    Thank you, TC, for responding to Mark Dubois. I need to do more research on this before I dare put down a response. I believe there was an incident in Fryeburg, Maine, involving Lovewell Pond which I wanted to refresh myself about.

  17. TC’s avatar

    It is an interesting thread, and living in the West – where water is scarce commodity – enforces a perspective not shared everywhere else.

    I’ll keep reading.

  18. Mark Dubois’s avatar

    It seems like there is some misinformation about Poland Spring’s history and operation in Maine generally and Fryeburg specifically.

    Poland Spring has been bottling Maine spring water since 1845, and today we’re the most popular spring water brand in the Unites States. We’re proud of that accomplishment. Our commitment to Maine is longstanding and our contribution to Maine’s economy, environment, and people has been virtually constant.

    Maine is our home too. We employ more than 800 local workers within our three bottling plants in the state. Since 1992, we’ve invested $439 million in capital here in Maine. In addition to paying local taxes, just like any other business or landowner, Poland Spring also provides substantial support for municipal needs, education, fire and rescue, and environmental protection. We strive to be a good corporate partner because this is not just where we do business – it’s where our employees build their homes, go to school, and live their lives.

    In Fryeburg, for example, where we purchase spring water from the Fryeburg Water Company in the same way that any of its other 800 customers purchases water, we provided a $100,000 grant to assist with the Fryeburg Academy gym reconstruction after a devastating fire. Just this year, we purchased a portable classroom for the local elementary school that was faced with very inadequate resources for the kids. Statewide, Poland Spring contributed more than $2.5 million since 2000 to environmental and educational organizations like The Nature Conservancy, Katahdin Forest Project, and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.

    When it comes to water resources, we, like local communities, want to ensure they’re around for generations to come. That’s why we have pledged to leave water resources in the same or better condition than they were when we began using the water.

    In some recent examples ( see http://www.polandspringme.com ), Poland Spring has asked communities for permission to harvest regulated amounts of water, where the town oversees how Poland Spring operates, continuously monitors the company’s performance, and where we work to preserve, protect, and sustain local water resources. Every community in Maine has a process in place to solicit, evaluate, and make decisions that take into account public input, community emotions, and the facts. That’s the process that Poland Spring supports.

    If questions about water levels do arise, we will review water levels, share data, hold meetings and, if appropriate, support a review by an independent third party. For example, a resident recently blamed Nestlé Waters’ water withdrawals for decreasing water quality and increasing plant growth in Lovewell Pond in Fryeburg. The town hired an environmental consultant selected by the residents to investigate the claim. The third-party analysis concluded that the decline in water quality and plant growth was due to increased phosphate run-off in the Saco River from lawn and agricultural fertilizers, rather than Nestlé Waters’ operations.

    Any suggestion that Fryeburg has repeatedly said no to a truck loading station ignores the fact that the planning board approved our application in 2005 after a lengthy process and thoroughly written decision after numerous public hearings. The appeal of that decision by a small number of opponents in town is what has triggered the series of appeals since that time. The matter is now pending in the Maine Law Court and everyone is hoping that the Court’s decision will put this matter to rest.

    We have never suggested that we do “the bare minimum required by Maine.” Rather, our monitoring goes well beyond any requirements imposed by us by a municipality or the State of Maine. We want to stay in business and simply can’t afford to have an adverse impact on a water supply. Nowhere in Maine has there been a “loss of local control of water supplies.” Wherever we purchase water, we purchase it in the same manner that anyone else purchases water. Where we withdraw water from beneath the land we own, the withdrawal is carefully regulated through a permit process with the State and the local municipality. We have never harmed natural resources such as wetlands or surface water and we have never adversely impacted any individual’s well. We are a very careful steward of water in Maine. Even a cursory review of State websites in Maine will give you an idea of how much water exists in our State.

    Anyone producing a product in Maine has a carbon footprint because we all transport products by truck. Poland Spring is working hard to reduce our footprint. Our truck traffic is a very small percent of the truck traffic in Maine. Company-wide, in the last five years, we’ve reduced CO2 emissions by 30 percent for every liter we produce. Poland Spring also has the largest biodiesel fuel truck fleet in Maine, which will reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent, or over 21 tons, per year. All of our new construction, including the new Kingfield Plant and Hollis Plant warehouse expansion and landscaping, has been built to achieve LEED certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – see http://www.usgbc.org/ ). These are only a few examples of our environmental commitment.

    Company-wide, our Eco-Shape half-liter bottle uses 30 percent less plastic than the average half-liter plastic beverage container on store shelves. In addition to lightweighting our bottles, we’ve also made concrete environmental commitments for the future around recycling, packaging and greenhouse gas emissions. In our Maine plants, we achieve a 91% waste-stream recycling rate. You can read more about our commitments in our Corporate Citizenship Report ( http://www.nestle-watersna.com/Menu/Corporate-Citizenship/Corporate-Citizenship.htm ).

    Thanks for the opportunity to provide additional information, and hopefully clear up some misconceptions.

    Mark Dubois, C.G.
    Natural Resource Manager
    Poland Spring Water Company

  19. TC’s avatar

    While we’re on the subject of clearing up “misconceptions,” I’d like to avail myself of the opportunity to correct a few of Mr. Dubois’ “misconceptions,” and begin by offering up a timeline of Nestle’s lawsuit (and four subsequent legal appeals) against the town of Fryeburg – an event Dubois hints was the catalyst for:

    The appeal of that decision by a small number of opponents in town is what has triggered the series of appeals since that time. The matter is now pending in the Maine Law Court and everyone is hoping that the Court’s decision will put this matter to rest.

    First, the original permit was issued in a way that suggests poor public process (which follows Nestle around like a shadow). It was written by one person on the planning commission – the same person who later secretly advised Nestle what was happening in the town via email – a relationship Nestle/Poland Spring (wasn’t it you, sir?) denied even existed before a reporter produced the emails.

    The original appeal was hardly the work of a “small number of opponents” (the same characterization used by Nestle elsewhere to minimize opposition). Those opponents “won” that appeal because a truck loading station doesn’t belong in a residentially zoned area, and further, that victory didn’t somehow “trigger” a string of appeals – Nestle/Poland Springs filed a lawsuit and four subsequent appeals (the fourth is being heard right now).

    And yes, Nestle has lost every one.

    If anyone wishes to see YouTube video of Nestle/Poland Spring’s lawyers arguing before the Maine Supreme Court that their right to grow market share superceded the town’s right of local control, then simply go here.

    Finally, Mr. Dubois, as for your statement that: “The matter is now pending in the Maine Law Court and everyone is hoping that the Court’s decision will put this matter to rest.”

    This could have been put to rest a long time ago if Nestle hadn’t tried bully the town of Fryeburg through legal means, and yet you act as if your multinational corporation somehow has no choice in the matter.

    This could all end right now, Mr. Dubois – if only Nestle/Poland Spring would drop its lawsuit. Nobody’s forcing your multinational to continue it lawsuit, and what’s clear is that Nestle is willing to use extraordinary legal means to deny Fryeburg the right to say “no” to a truck loading station in residentially zoned areas.

    I could continue to pick apart the rest of your response, and also point out how your argument that Nestle/Poland Spring doesn’t respect local control (the original McCloud contract gave Nestle exclusive rights to the town’s water for 100 years, and actually gave your multinational corporation first right to the water over the town’s users).

    Unfortunately, I’m not a multinational corporation with the resources to hire dozens of lawyers, PR people and on-the-ground operatives to get my message out (or distort the position of my opponents). Nor am I some kind of raving environmentalist.

    I’m just someone whose close friends had their personal, private financial records subpoenaed by your company, and that clear attempt to intimidate opposition to your plant in McCloud led to my researching Nestle’s long (and documented) history of usurping local control of water supplies by rural towns, who often received little in return.

    You can paint however rosy a picture you want (or perhaps your PR folks did), but a few things remain clear.

    First, Poland Spring hasn’t been a Maine company since Nestle bought it. It’s now simply a Nestle “brand” and the template it attempts to impose on rural towns is the exact same one used all over the rest of North America.

    Second, Nestle’s lack of watershed stewardship is well documented at the places I mentioned in my second comment in this thread, and while Mr. Dubois would love to pretend they don’t exist, they’re a good indicator of what happens when Nestle isn’t compelled to do “the right thing” by ordinances and legislation (which was actively opposed by Nestle).

    Finally, Nestle’s repeated legal abuse of Fryeburg has probably cost it more than it’s worth; they’ve created what amounts to bottled water’s equivalent of the Alamo, and small towns need look no further to see what happens when the world’s largest food & beverage corporation doesn’t get what it wants.


  20. Ilene’s avatar

    Okey, Mark, you are also running bio-diesel in those trucks. But only 5%! Could it be that you are running with such low percentage because the tax break on running with bio-diesel comes at 4%? So with “the largest bio-diesel fleet in the state”, who is picking up the shortfall for that tax revenue loss? Not Nestle. Sounds to me like the people of the State of Maine are picking up that. Don’t you want to pay your fair share to the state?

    Mark, you state: “Any suggestion that Fryeburg has repeatedly said no to a truck loading station ignores the fact that the planning board approved our application in 2005 after a lengthy process and thoroughly written decision after numerous public hearings. The appeal of that decision by a small number of opponents in town is what has triggered the series of appeals since that time.” I think you have your facts incorrect. The appeal was ruled to deny the trucking facility in a rural residential zone. Nestle Waters North America filed the appeal to the court system at that point. Should you need a copy of the appeals that Nestle has filed, they are public record so I am sure you can obtain a copy of them from Superior Court in South Paris or the Maine Supreme Court in Portland.


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