There's a push to protect Maine's abundant groundwater as more places deal with scarcity
The snowstorms that pummel Maine each winter can be a big hassle — they take down trees, make roads slick, and require constant shoveling and plowing.
They’re also essential to one of the state’s greatest assets: its abundance of drinking water. Eventually, that precipitation melts, soaks into the ground and helps replenish the aquifers on which thousands of residents and businesses depend.
But in recent years, Maine’s water resources have come under heightened scrutiny amid climate change, the megadrought threatening the Colorado River, smaller seasonal droughts that have challenged Maine food growers and dried up some wells, and growing awareness of contamination from PFAS and other chemicals.
Officials insist that water is plentiful, but some residents argue Maine has fallen behind in its oversight and should take a more active role in protecting it going forward.
Those concerns prompted the Legislature to convene a commission to study Maine’s water resources last year, and its final report included several recommendations for more oversight that have been proposed as legislation.
“If there is someone extracting water here, is it a benefit?” says Rep. Lori Gramlich, an Old Orchard Beach Democrat who sat on the commission and is sponsoring some of the new legislation. “We need to have more examination of what this means. I’m not prepared to fall back on the fact that many hold, that we hold, that Maine is a water-rich state.”
Limited data on water use
When government scientists describe Maine’s riches of water, they typically point to a few measures. They monitor groundwater levels at sites around the state and have found little change in recent decades. That contrasts with historically declining groundwater in some parts of the West and Great Plains.
Agencies have also used a mix of data and statistical analysis to estimate that Mainers use some 32 billion gallons of groundwater every year, which is a tiny portion — less than 1% — of the 4 trillion gallons of precipitation that soak into the groundwater.
That’s on top of another 110 billion gallons that’s annually removed from Maine’s lakes, rivers and streams for drinking and other purposes.
However, it’s hard for Mainers to get a more complete view of water use by individual communities, factories, golf courses, ski resorts or bottled water plants. That data is stored in different ways across a variety of agencies, and finding it requires time and digging.
For example, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection says that it licenses and collects extraction data from the Poland Spring bottled water company — whose controversial withdrawals account for less than 5% of Maine's estimated groundwater usage.
The agency is still working to fulfill a request that Maine Public filed in mid-January for the company’s last six years of reports, and Poland Spring said it couldn’t provide the data. But Maine DEP did provide older records showing the company’s withdrawals grew from around 500 million gallons in 2006 to nearly 900 million in 2015.
In another case, the Maine Public Utilities Commission posts annual reports of public water utilities on its website. The reports include withdrawal data for many large and medium communities, such as the district serving Greater Portland that withdraws around 7.5 billion gallons annually from Sebago Lake. But it’s harder to access information for some smaller communities.
And in the case of food growers whose irrigation spikes in summer, or homeowners with private wells, the data often isn’t collected at all.
Since the late 1970s, there have been periodic efforts to improve that oversight, but as priorities have shifted, policymakers have not consistently followed through.
When Maine was hit with one of the worst droughts in recent history from 2001-2003, lawmakers created a program for collecting and reporting withdrawal data. But the law exempted many users because they already provided information to the government in other ways, and after a stretch of relatively wet years, the legislative reporting requirement was repealed in 2011.
And a committee that was formed in 2007 to oversee Maine’s water resources was shut down five years later as part of an overhaul of state government by former Gov. Paul LePage, only to be restarted in 2019.
Proposals for more oversight
There are signs that the new push to protect Maine’s groundwater supply could have more momentum than others.
Lawmakers have recently filed more than 20 bills with titles suggesting that they would regulate or study aspects of Maine’s drinking water resources, according to an official list of requested legislation. That’s up from around 10 pieces of drinking water-related bills at the start of other recent Legislatures.
Some of the new legislation stems from the recent commission, including proposals to make water use data more centralized and open to the public, require that bottled water be tested for PFAS contamination, and develop more programs for assisting farmers with drought.
One commission member, Nickie Sekera, a Fryeburg resident involved with various water-related advocacy groups, says that extraction data should be more accessible, particularly when companies such as Poland Spring seek to increase how much water they’re pumping in Maine and sending outside the state.
During last summer’s drought, Poland Spring proposed doubling the amount of water it could pull from one of its wells in Hollis, but ultimately withdrew the application amid local opposition. More recently, a group of residents in the town of Denmark have grown concerned that Poland Spring’s withdrawals are lowering the local aquifer.
“When these things happen, people have a lot of questions and very quickly they see how confusing the system is, to getting data they’re asking for, to understanding the process surrounding these decisions being made,” Sekera says.
Ryan Gordon, a hydrogeologist at the Maine Geological Survey, says that while Maine’s regulations may need small improvements, they’re generally up to the task of protecting the water supply even as the climate heats up.
However, Gordon agrees that residents deserve clear information about water availability, particularly as some communities with less naturally occurring groundwater could face periodic scarcity during times of drought and increased use. In the coming year, he hopes to develop an online portal for sharing some of that data.
“If you’re a homeowner and you’re in the middle of a drought and you’re concerned that climate change is lowering aquifers, I don’t think that’s a crazy concern,” Gordon says. “I don’t think climate change is lowering aquifers overall, but people deserve to have the data in order to make that decision on their own, to kind of alleviate some of that concern.”
Who owns the groundwater?
Despite the recent interest in Maine’s water supply, it’s unclear just how far lawmakers are willing to go to protect it.
Unlike many states, Maine still takes an old — and some would say, outdated — approach to determining how much groundwater businesses and communities can withdraw.
While there are more restrictions around surface water, Maine is one of the few states that still assigns groundwater rights by a principle called “absolute dominion.” That principle generally allows property owners to pump unlimited amounts of groundwater, regardless of how it affects their neighbors’ supply — although Maine has added some exceptions in recent decades, including permitting requirements for bigger users.
Texas and Indiana also use absolute dominion, but as water has become more scarce, many other states have shifted to a more restrictive approach called “reasonable use.”
Some legal experts have argued that Maine lawmakers should follow suit after the state’s highest court declined to overturn absolute dominion in response to a 1999 lawsuit over a gravel pit that dried up a neighbor’s spring.
Now, one of the more controversial recommendations from the recent commission was that lawmakers keep studying how other states assign groundwater rights. Such study could lay the groundwork for a proposal to move away from absolute dominion, and it was opposed by representatives of Poland Spring, municipal water utilities and Republican lawmakers.
If Maine did switch to a reasonable use model, Anthony Moffa, an associate professor focused on environmental law at the University of Maine School of Law, says the most heated debate might concern whether bottled water extraction should be deemed reasonable. Some other states have restricted it on the grounds that it’s not reasonable for water to be removed from a site and sold elsewhere.
“I see the key detail as focusing on that bottling and selling off-site piece of it, because frankly, that’s where the lobbying interests are in terms of money and voices in Augusta on this issue,” Moffa says. “If there is a push towards reasonable use, those industries are likely going to push really hard to try to put language in the statute that makes it clear that it’s still reasonable for them to continue to operate.”
Even if Maine lawmakers don’t immediately take up those larger questions of water ownership, bottling companies could still face more scrutiny.
Sen. Rick Bennett, a Republican from Oxford County, has proposed a few of the new water-related bills, including two that would tighten the rules around PFAS contamination and a third that would require the state to review permits and contracts of any water exporter before it’s sold to another company.
Bennett, whose district includes multiple towns from which Poland Spring collects water, heard a number of questions when the company was sold by Nestle to a pair of private equity companies two years ago. With growing global demand for drinking water, Bennett says that many Mainers have taken clean water “for granted for a long, long time.”
“We need to become very careful about preserving those resources and making sure that Mainers are protected,” he says, “and we know who is extracting water from our aquifers and our watersheds and selling it.”