Drought conditions raise questions about Maine’s corporate water profiteers

Drought conditions raise questions about Maine’s corporate water profiteers

Selling off a precious resource is never a good idea. But what happens when a drought hits, and a multinational corporation has made deals to pump your water for its own profit? Mainers are beginning to find out.

Maine is in the midst of the worst drought in over a dozen years. Many parts of the state are experiencing severe or extreme drought, with groundwater and surface water levels at or near record lows.

On its own, this is already cause for concern. Climate change is bringing unsettling and dangerously chaotic weather. The future is, to put it mildly, uncertain– all the more reason to be mindful about how we use Maine’s fresh water. How does the state effectively deal with drought conditions when nearly 800 million gallons of water is pumped from our state every year, to be bottled and sold around the world?

That is exactly where we find ourselves. The Nestlé corporation has aggressively pushed through long-term deals to pump out water from small communities around the state under its “Poland Springs” brand. Even though these contracts were crafted to be enormously beneficial to Nestlé, the drought is already affecting the company’s bottom line. Nestlé is bumping up against pumping limits at some locations, so the company pumps water from other wells and trucks it to bottling plants.

That’s how the environment takes a double-hit from the bottled water industry: Companies pump out an essential resource that should be treated as a public good, and then produce wasteful plastic bottles so the water can be shipped around in emissions-spewing trucks.

To hear Nestlé tell it, they’re following the rules.  When water levels are low, the company pumps out less. But aquifers can take decades to be replenished, and we shouldn’t count on profit-seeking corporations to be good citizens. In California, Nestlé is pumping millions of gallons of water out of public land, thanks to the company’s interpretation of a legal document from 1865. They pay nothing for the water and keep all the profits, even though the company’s permit with the US Forest Service expired nearly 30 years ago.

Sometimes taking corporations like Nestlé to court is the only option left to stop this kind of profiteering. That’s what environmentalists did in California and why we challenged Nestlé long-term sweetheart deal in Fryeburg. The company won in court, but the fight isn’t over.

The current drought might lead some in Maine to question the wisdom of such deals. Responding to the current water crisis, one Nestlé official told a Maine newspaper, “We’ve got a business to run… The demand for our brand is increasing.”

When corporations speak of our water as their ‘brand,’ we should see the threat clearly. Bottled water contracts are bad for our communities and the environment. Instead of feeding their profits, we need to tell them that these precious resources belong to all of us.

Photo via Flickr/Mike Mozart.

About author

Nisha Swinton
Nisha Swinton 1 posts

Nisha Swinton is the Senior Organizer for Food & Water Watch, covering the New England states. She holds a master’s degree in environmental law and policy from Vermont Law School and a bachelor’s in international policy with an emphasis in environmental studies and economics from the University of Iowa.

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