Clean Water in Maine – Who Owns It?

Empty Rain GaugeClean water is important. I recently took a business trip to Tucson, Arizona, and I have to report that I was absolutely shocked by the poor quality of the tap water. It tasted like it had ground-up chalk in it. I’m sure the water was “potable” and therefore OK to drink, and I did arrive home in Maine alive and well, so my family was happy about that. But I could not bring myself to drink that water, and I could not get to the store fast enough to buy a case of good bottled water from Maine. That’s how bad it was.

People everywhere take for granted certain great things about where they live. We’re no different. In Maine, it occurs to me that one of the things we take for granted is the abundance and the natural good quality of our state’s fresh water resources.

Never has the topic of drinking water been in the news quite as often as in the last few years. Right now in Augusta, several bills are making their way through committee, bills that focus on groundwater extraction. Companies like Poland Spring, owned by Nestle, are in the crosshairs of environmental and other advocacy groups. That’s because they extract water from wells and springs here, and then ship their product all over the country, including to Arizona. That scares some people, and I understand that, but we also have water to share. We should at least explore the economic opportunities that are unique to Maine, just as we do with other natural resources like wood and lobster.

Last summer, we all experienced one of the worst droughts in many years, and York County where I live was particularly hard hit. One of the effects of the water shortage was that the drinking water in South Berwick, at least for a short period of time, exceeded federal standards for the level of arsenic by almost 20%. Not good, and I understand that the treatment system needed to deal with that is expensive. One recent news report even said that after all the rain and snow we’ve recently had, southern New Hampshire is still struggling to overcome the effects of that drought.

In addition to Mother Nature, human activity can be just as dangerous, if not more so. In Charleston, West Virginia in January of 2014, a chemical company released thousands of gallons of “4-methylcyclohexanemethanol” into the fresh water supply. About 300,000 people in nine counties were suddenly without water that was safe to drink. And nearly everyone has heard about the recent problems in Flint, Michigan, where government officials dabbled in water supply decisions, and made some very bad ones. The cost to Michigan taxpayers will be in the billions.

Back in Maine, I think we’re in much better shape than other locations across this country and around the world. And I suggest that such a good thing doesn’t just happen. I believe good decision-making by the people of Maine plays a large part in securing our good fortune.

Many times “government regulation” is a phrase that carries severely negative connotations. But as that phrase relates to the Saco River, government regulation has been a spectacular success.

The Maine Legislature created the Saco River Corridor Commission in 1973. Since then, the Commission has thoughtfully reviewed every land use plan within the river corridor, and it has applied appropriate standards to eliminate or minimize pollution threats to the river. Along the course of the entire river, from New Hampshire all the way to Biddeford Pool and Camp Ellis, our legislators had the foresight to anticipate how important the river would be many decades into the future. The majority of the river’s 1,600 square mile watershed remains undeveloped, and that’s why the Saco River is one of the cleanest in the United States. Are we just lucky? No, we’re lucky and we are blessed, by some very wise thinking way back in 1973.

Conserving water is also important. In Biddeford, Maine Water Company has been a leader, with conservation efforts that saved 100 million gallons of water in 2016. In other words, the company was able to draw that much less water from its source rivers, wells, springs and reservoirs, by fixing leaks and addressing inefficiencies. In fact, even during the 2016 drought, Maine Water only drew one percent of the river’s volume. And as demand for clean water grows, the company also announced a new $50 million facility which will be capable of making water from the Saco River available to water systems from Portland to Kittery, yet do so more efficiently than the current system.

That shows the kind of investment that can be spurred by smart water policy. As the Legislature mulls water-related legislation in the next several weeks, we should keep in mind a logical balance between economic development and resource preservation.

I know I will. We’ve got good examples before us, and I believe that done right, Maine can both preserve the jewel that is our clean water resource and remain a leader in supplying clean drinking water – both at home and to the rest of the country – all while growing our economic base.