Drinkable water is becoming scarce in many parts of the world. Although here the water supply sufficiently serves our communities, this supply can be easily taken from our control. I attended a hearing in one of our neighboring towns where a multi-national company is seeking to enlarge its control over the local aquifer. This is my observation of the meeting.
The Maine Public Utilities Commission held a meeting on March 7th in Fryeburg, Maine. The intent was to hear public comment regarding a proposed agreement between the Fryeburg Water Company and the parent company of Poland Springs, Nestle Waters North America, Inc. The agreement would allow Nestle to lease land and to extract massive quantities of water from an aquifer that serves Fryeburg and surrounding towns. The agreement spans 25 years with four five-year extensions, a total of 45 years. It specifies a minimum of 75 million gallons of water to be extracted annually. Nestle and the Fryeburg Water Company claim that the agreement will provide rate stability and a consistent revenue stream for Fryeburg Water Company’s customers.
The meeting hall was packed to overflowing with residents and interested parties. most of whom were in objection to the agreement. Reasons for the objections varied. A major concern was with the length of the agreement. It would be the longest such agreement for water extraction in the nation. Although, for now there is plenty of water in this aquifer, droughts could possibly happen during that span of time, and cannot be predicted. Suggestions were made to have a much shorter time frame in order to monitor and revise, or even curtail the plan if necessary. A nine-year-old resident expressed his concern that he would be 54 before he may have the opportunity to vote on the next extraction agreement.
Sustainability issues were raised by many residents. Water used by residents, and local businesses and farms goes back into the ground. Water that is extracted and shipped away depletes the local water supply. Extracting massive quantities will change the flow of waters toward the ocean as well as the nutrient levels of the water. This will impact fish habitats and breeding areas, affecting areas far beyond Fryeburg.
The size of the Nestle company, a large multi-national, was brought into question. Objections were made as to how a small town can effectively deal with this huge corporate entity. Reference was also made to a previous citizen vote to not allow expansion of Nestle's procurement. For this, Nestle sued the town. And winning the case got what it wanted in spite of voter objections.
The history of Fryeburg Water Company was also questioned in regards to its debt issues and monitoring procedures. Examples were cited of failures to test all of the three wells it manages. Currently, monitoring is done jointly by Nestle and the Fryeburg Water Company. It was suggested that an independent monitoring agency would better assure that information is transparently shared with the community.
The proposed agreement addresses potential water shortages resulting from extracting and other causes, but reduction rates are the same for Nestle as they are for residents. Citizens cited this as unfair, since Nestle could make up differences from their other extraction sites, while Fryeburg residents could not.
Citizens from Shapleigh, Newfield and Kennebunk testified about their communities having rejected offers from Nestle to extract their water. These and other towns in both Maine and New Hampshire have successfully voted to prohibit massive water extraction in their communities.
Even though Fryeburg has very low water rates and Nestle contributes $56,000 to the property tax base, residents overwhelmingly pleaded with the PUC commissioners to reject the agreement. There will be a Public Utilities Commission hearing in May and the final decision may come this summer. -G.H.