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.