One of Maine’s most essential resources is its clean freshwater; it is critical for supporting public health and key local economic sectors such as farming, fishing and tourism. When bottled water companies like Nestlé tap groundwater sources for profit, they don’t do states like Maine any favors.
Unlike local irrigation and agricultural water users who do return water to aquifers, bottled water companies do not replenish what they pump out. Groundwater sources are often connected to surface waters, and when an aquifer is over-pumped, the water levels of a connected surface water body can fall and water flows can change. As stated in a U.S. Geological Survey report, “changes in the natural interaction of ground water and surface water caused by human activities can potentially have a significant effect on aquatic environments.” Case in point: after Nestlé groundwater pumping from a Michigan aquifer, water flows in connected surface waters fell to the point that mud flats developed.
Since 1997, Nestlé has been buying water from the Fryeburg Water Co., after the Maine Public Utilities Commission (MPUC) approved the lease of one of the Company’s wells to Pure Mountain Springs—a middleman company that purchases water then resells the water to third parties, including Nestlé, at higher prices. According to an estimate in an ECONorthwest study, Pure Mountain Springs sold approximately 450 million gallons of water to Nestlé between 2003 and 2007 alone, which comes out to an average of 90 million gallons of water a year and roughly 1.3 billion gallons of Fryeburg’s water over the past 15 years.
Now the Fryeburg Water Co. and Nestlé are seeking to enter into a new 25 to 45 year water contract. Despite their claims that this would benefit the public at large by generating substantial revenue, there is no certainty that this plan would keep water rates down. An attorney from the state public advocate’s office stated recently that the MPUC “does not have sufficient information and data” to determine whether this agreement could sufficiently supplement Fryeburg’s general revenues and offset the need to increase the cost of services and sustain water rates.
The fact that after 15 years of water sales to Nestlé the Freyburg Water Co. is more than $1 million in debt would further debunk any suggestion that the continued sell-off of billions of gallons more will make economic sense for Freyburg. The State Public Utilities Commission is investigating this contract and we hope it will make a decision that is best for the people of Maine. A year-to-year contract would certainly make more sense than a long-term sell-off.
According to the plan, Nestlé would be granted the right to extract as much water as it desires so long as pumping did not exceed the annual, sustainable capacity that Emery & Garret Groundwater, Inc. established in an August 2005 report. Unfortunately, what was considered a “sustainable” amount of water extraction in 2005 is likely to differ greatly by 2058, which is when the proposed 45-year contract would end.
Maine should not allow the interests of a multinational bottled water company to take precedence over the interests of the public, and our water sources should be protected from for-profit exploitation. After all, water is a public resource and should always remain so.