This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.
In the small town of Denmark, near the New Hampshire border, some residents are calling for more accountability from bottled water giant Poland Spring. The company extracts water from land it owns in Denmark and then sells it to consumers. The town isn’t compensated for what is withdrawn. And climate change is fueling concerns about protecting the local water supply.
Last November, on the north end of Long Pond, Jim Metivier stood on his backyard dock and explained how water levels on his property have gradually receded. At first, he said the dock needed two platforms to access the pond from the shore.
“And then, probably about seven years ago, I had — one, two, three, four five,” he said pointing to dock several dock extensions. “Plus, there’s a floating one at the end that’s all still in the mud.”
Metivier’s family has had a home here for 30 years. As ponds go, this one is small, about four miles long and 19 feet deep. In the spring, he said the water is high enough to launch his canoe from the dock. But for the past two summers and into the fall, the dock has literally been stuck in the mud.
“I haven’t been able to get my canoe out since July,” Metivier said.
While Poland Spring does not withdraw water from the pond, a state permit for “large-scale pumping or extraction of groundwater, spring water and water from aquifers” was first approved in Denmark in 2005. That year, and again in 2008, several pumping tests were conducted as surface and groundwater levels in the vicinity were monitored.
The results were reviewed by a hydrogeologist at the Department of Environmental Protection. Department staff also visited the site. Ultimately, they determined that the proposed pumping operation would not “have an undue unreasonable effect on waters of the State” or violate any state water quality law.
Records show there has been less precipitation since 2005, but those same pumping tests have been referenced each time Poland Spring’s permit has been renewed.
The company is allowed to withdraw up to 432,000 gallons of water per day and no more than 105.1 million gallons in any 365-day period. That’s a fraction of the water that’s available, according to estimates from a Portland engineering firm that helped with the application.
In return for the extraction, Poland Spring pays about $34,000 in annual property taxes and has donated money to several local causes, including the Denmark Fire Department, a local culvert project and installation of lights on the town ballfield. Critics say it’s hardly an equitable exchange.
“When the property was purchased, I think the conception was that having Poland Springs as a neighbor was going to be a good thing,” said Michael Fitzgibbons, who owns a vacation home with his partner on Long Pond.
Poland Spring pumps water from two bore holes on its land near the pond. One is less than half a mile from Fitzgibbons’ house. The water is then piped to a loading dock and trucked to bottling plants about 30 miles away. Last summer, Fitzgibbons said his backyard was more suited to a golf course than it was for launching a boat.
“My water receded 15 feet,” he said. “We’ve seen several years of drought now. That’s why it’s absolutely critical that we pay attention to what we have. And if we’re going to basically give that prized commodity away, we better do it knowingly and it should be controlled by the state.”
“We’re not causing it to be low. It’s naturally low,” said Mark Dubois, the natural resource manager for Poland Spring, whose parent company, Blue Triton Brands, was formerly known as Nestle Waters North America.
“When it rains, the pond will fill up. When it doesn’t rain, the pond does get low,” Dubois said. “But it’s not involved with our operation.”
Asked whether the pond is spring fed, Dubois answered, “Not to my knowledge.”
But a 1952 study by the U.S. Geological Survey describes Long Pond as a “small, spring-fed trout pond.” John Mullaney, a hydrologist with the USGS New England Water Science Center, said that’s the same as being “groundwater fed,” which means it likely does have some connection to the aquifer.
And, while he hasn’t studied the pond, Mullaney said if that’s the case, pumping operations could affect water levels, along with drought and other factors.
“Changes can be rather subtle from pumping,” he said. “When groundwater is extracted, there’s ultimately going to be less water coming out somewhere. And that’s the question is always where and to what degree is that allowable?”
Over the next year, Mullaney will be taking a closer look at Denmark’s water supply as part of a national study on bottled water extraction in several parts of the country. The headwaters of the upper Saco River is one of the areas being reviewed. The study will include modeling for climate change factors such warmer temperatures and less snowfall.
Last summer, during a widespread drought, Poland Spring proposed to double its water withdrawals from one of its bore holes in Hollis. The proposal received DEP approval. But local residents, including some whose wells had run dry, turned out in force at two public meetings to object. The company later pulled its application, telling the Maine Monitor, “Consistent with our principle and longstanding practice of being a good neighbor, we have determined it is in the best interest of everyone not to proceed at this time.”
Meanwhile, in the town of Denmark, Dubois said Poland Spring tries to be responsive to drier conditions, cutting back pumping operations when necessary. Monthly water summaries, however, show that more water was extracted in July and especially August than in the month of April during spring runoff.
As part of the company’s permit, surface water, springs and more than two dozen wells, including domestic ones, are regularly monitored. The data are reviewed by outside experts, including the Maine DEP and by a geologist hired by the town of Denmark. They are also shared on the town’s website.
“We can ensure that we have no adverse impact on area water supplies. But also, we can see that things are pretty stable here in Denmark,” Dubois said.
Some residents are skeptical. Given what’s happening out West, they say there should be more regulation of the water resource. They also question the independence of the town geologist, whose costs are reimbursed by Poland Spring and whose predecessor was recently hired by an engineering firm that works closely with the company.
“It’s hard for us not to feel sometimes like there is a conflict of interest,” said Laurie LaMountain, who serves on the town planning board and on a committee that is currently reviewing the town’s water extraction ordinance.
During an October workshop on the aquifer, LaMountain asked the town’s current geologist, Brian Bachmann of the St. Germain environmental consulting firm, about his allegiance to the town of Denmark.
“Our obligation is based on our code of ethics,” Bachmann said. “We’re obligated to represent the best interest of our client.”
“And the client being?” LaMountain asked.
“In this instance it would be the town,” Bachmann said.
But over the past few months, Bachmann has been absent from meetings to discuss strengthening the town’s water extraction ordinance, which is now more than a decade old. Meanwhile, Dubois and other representatives for Poland Spring are regular, active participants.
Denmark Town Manager Betty LeGoff said in an email that only a small amount of money was budgeted for the committee’s work. So, she said it was determined that Bachmann should not attend. She also declined to allow him to be interviewed for this story, calling it an “unnecessary expense” for a contractor for the town.
Not far from Long Pond, Chris Doyle of Denmark has a small, energy efficient house and a shallow well that was dug two years ago. It’s just outside what’s known as the “zone of influence” — the area of groundwater affected by pumping. There’s just one problem. Doyle said at certain times of the year it runs dry.
“This (past) spring it was full. And then we realized it wasn’t coming back after about a week or so. So, we stopped using it completely,” she said.
Doyle can tell how much Poland Spring is pumping by looking at the town’s website. She’s convinced that her water level drops when extraction rates increase. But the company stands by its monitoring of other wells that shows groundwater levels are adequate. Bachmann said at his workshop that it would be helpful to have even more data to understand what’s going on in the aquifer.
“Just more information around the pond to help you guys make your decisions here is really kind of the ultimate goal,” he said.
The town’s ordinance includes action and alert levels. If water drops to a certain point in Poland Spring’s monitoring wells, pumping can be reduced or halted. But LaMountain said that hasn’t happened in more than a decade, not since the town select board agreed to relax the threshold at the company’s request.
That’s why she and others are hopeful that the Water Ordinance Review Committee can strengthen protections in the coming months.
“We’re living in a changing climate, LaMountain said. “And it’s just a lot of water to be taking from this aquifer.”
A final decision on the ordinance will be left to the town select board. Dubois said he hopes what emerges will be based on science. Denmark residents, meanwhile, say they’re just looking for some additional control.