Water Power

Minutes earlier, Tom Brennan ’83 had been inside a highly automated bottling plant in Hollis, Maine, giving a PowerPoint presentation on the science of finding and managing water sources for the Poland Spring brand.

From left, Tom Brennan ’83, Andrews Tolman ’70, and Keith Taylor ’82 stay dry on Vaughn Stream in Hallowell, outside Augusta. Photograph by Phyllis Graber Jensen

Brennan, northeast natural resources manager for Nestlé Waters North America, parent company of Poland Spring, had been animated, relishing the opportunity to teach others about his work: from the “bazillion” monitoring wells that track water transmission to the method for creating subsurface maps — you explode small dynamite charges and measure the underground velocity of the resulting sound waves.

Now, less than two miles from the factory, Brennan’s eyes still gleam despite the much more tranquil surroundings. Just ahead in the damp, wooded valley is a stone shed, which shelters one of several Poland Spring boreholes, or wells, that together pump 180 million gallons of water per year to the nearby bottling plant. Just below it, springs bubble along channels that once served a fish hatchery. Trees, rooted in the mucky soil, pitch precariously on the banks.

“My part of the job is fascinating,” says Brennan, a hydrogeologist. “You are looking at how the glaciers left the state and you have to contemplate what it was like when the ice was here. The ice got hung up on bedrock, so it melted slower and deposited a lot of material. We had a glacial lake up there, an esker, and an under-ice river.”

Nearly 25 years since fieldwork at Bates — plus a junior year working for a mining company in Colorado and Nevada — cemented his interest in geology, Brennan still gets excited about reading the Earth’s history in stone. It’s that honest enthusiasm for science that Brennan has had to rely on, more and more, in his job explaining how and why Poland Spring is a good business neighbor in Maine.

Poland Spring bottles and their green and white labels — the typography hasn’t changed in a century — can be glimpsed in Boston Red Sox dugouts, in movie and TV product placements (famously in a Seinfeld episode as the precursor to Mr. Pitts’ new brand, “Moland Spring”), and at Bates Commencements. (Committed to buying from local vendors, Bates bought 103,776 bottles of Poland Spring water last year.) The company has 689 employees, a payroll of $45.9 million, and sprawling plants in Poland and Hollis, each churning out 1,200 bottles of water per minute.

Bought in 1992 by Nestlé, Poland Spring is the nation’s best-selling spring water, defined as coming from specific sources, several Maine aquifers in the case of Poland Spring. Among all bottled waters, the brand places third nationally, behind Aquafina (Pepsi) and Dasani (Coca-Cola), which are purified waters (tap water). Domestic growth in the bottle-water sector has been stunning: between 9 and 13 percent annually. “The industry’s performance is unrivaled,” notes the trade group Beverage Marketing Corp. To keep pace with growing demand, Poland Spring in late 2003 began to investigate locations for a third Maine bottling plant. It was Brennan’s job to talk to Maine towns and citizens about Poland Spring’s expansion plans, specifically the company’s water-use practices and policies and its focus on sustainability.

You’d think a company dedicated to selling clean water would be revered like L.L.Bean. But beginning in 2004, Poland Spring faced growing opposition to its expansion plans, fueled in part by alarmist misinformation about Maine groundwater resources (“A company could pump your aquifer dry!”), by landowner concerns about increased truck traffic (hundreds of trucks a day go to and from the company’s bottling plants in Hollis and Poland), and by a grassroots campaign that sought, but failed, to impose a first-in-the-nation tax on commercial groundwater withdrawals in Maine.

In two places where Poland Spring had ideas to expand — Kingfield in the northwest and Fryeburg along the New Hampshire border — Mainers delivered emotional and at times ugly potshots at Poland Spring’s point man. Even today, he shows no signs of wilting. A recreational marathoner, he’ll go the distance. “I’ve got this philosophy: if you keep showing up, people will eventually stop hitting you and you can start talking,” says Brennan. “If people give us an opportunity, we can demonstrate how we protect and care for [aquifers] and monitor our activities.”

Within Maine’s science and policy community, however, Brennan and Poland Spring take few hits. “I’ve known Tom for a long time and I know him to be a straight-up intelligent guy,” said Keith Taylor ’82. Taylor, a senior hydrogeologist with St. Germain & Associates of Westbrook, has watched Brennan work from across the stream, so to speak. Taylor represented water districts in Kingfield and Rangeley in their water-use negotiations with Poland Spring. “Say what you will about [water] trucks, but the one thing Poland Spring is not doing is wrecking the water supply,” he says.

Also watching Poland Spring with a critical but approving eye is Andrews Tolman ’70, chief hydrogeologist for the state’s drinking water program, which approves bottled-water projects. “The geology community in Maine and New England is small,” he says. “Anyone who bends the science doesn’t last long.” (The small community includes Tolman’s wife, Susan Spalding Tolman ’68, a Maine Geological Survey cartographer, and John Peckenham ’79, senior scientist and assistant director of the Sen. George J. Mitchell Center for Environmental and Watershed Research at the University of Maine).

Over the years, Brennan, Taylor, and Tolman have often crossed paths. In the early ’80s, Tolman gave Taylor an internship at the Geological Survey. Tolman then assisted Brennan with his senior thesis on groundwater flow south of Sabattus Pond. And later, as a principal in an environmental geology firm, Tolman hired Brennan, and the two worked together for nearly a decade investigating groundwater contamination from mishaps such as gas spills. Now, all three sit on the state’s 28-member Groundwater Withdrawal Study Group, convened by the Maine Legislature to “comprehensively review groundwater regulations.” The group’s report is due this winter.

Like Brennan, Tolman and Taylor brighten when talk turns from resumés to earth science, suggesting that each has retained much of the enthusiasm they experienced as undergraduates when fieldwork at Reid State Park was a trip into an intriguing new world. The son of a revered Albion College geology professor, now retired, Taylor at first did not consider Bates a stepping stone to a career in geology. “The resource in Maine convinced me,” he says. “It was going outdoors, taking those field trips. The geology in Maine was fun.”

Tolman, who seems the lowest key of the three, is something of a renaissance water man, an affable contradancer, board member of a community readers’ theater based in Gardiner, and bicyclist who’s done 10 Trek Across Maine rides for the American Lung Association. (“I’m currently on a break,” he quips, “planning to do another the year I turn 60 to prove I still can.”) Of geology, he says, “You’re trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle, but 80 percent of it is missing. It’s the puzzle, the problem-solving that is exciting.”

They all agree that the recent controversy around Poland Spring’s growth plans are distinctively controversial, featuring a mix of NIMBYism, distrust of a foreign-owned multinational corporation, local politics, and citizen jitters in a state that suffered several years of drought ending in 2005.

The first drop of controversy came in 2004, in Fryeburg, when a pump for the privately owned Fryeburg Water Co. failed. Some 750 customers of the water company had to boil drinking water for four days, and their tempers boiled too as Poland Spring, the Fryeburg Water Co.’s biggest customer, continued to truck its water out of town. (Poland Spring’s water came from a different pumping station.) Then, the very day after the boil order was lifted, Poland Spring representatives, including Brennan, came to Fryeburg to discuss the possibility of building a bottling plant. After a subsequent study revealed that the town had overcommitted water to commercial uses, Poland Spring crossed Fryeburg off its list of potential plant sites. (Kingfield remains a possible location.)

But by then a citizen’s group — called H2O for ME and formed by a former state legislator from Fryeburg — was raising water questions statewide: Do bottlers pay enough for what they take? How are bulk water withdrawals monitored, not just in Poland Spring’s case but in agriculture too? H2O for ME began a dialogue about bulk-water use in a water-rich state that had never considered such questions, culminating in the formation of the groundwater study group. But, Taylor and Tolman agree that it was unfair that specific problems in Fryeburg, whose compact aquifer is a Maine anomaly, set the tone for what came in 2005, when H2O for ME charged that Poland Spring lacked a sustainability focus.

“The consensus of most of us on the Groundwater Withdrawal Study Group is that there is not a current problem with groundwater allocation — Fryeburg being the exception,” Taylor said. Particularly frustrating to Taylor and the others is witnessing the public’s distrust of their science. One Rangeley selectman, for example, dismissed all the hydrogeology reports on a proposed Poland Spring pumping station in Dallas Plantation as “voodoo science.”

“It’s disturbing to all of us when you have unbiased technical decisions, and a well-educated public puts a blind eye to it,” Taylor said. Brennan, in particular, has had to develop a tough skin, and it troubles him most when foes question his integrity. “I’ve been a hydrogeologist in Maine for 18 years,” he says. “I’ve worked for a variety of water withdrawers, and I’ve never seen anyone held to the standards Poland Spring is, and our internal standards are higher than any external regulations. This is our lifeblood. We can’t compromise it.”

An oft-repeated line during the citizen petition drive in 2005 focused on Poland Spring’s “abuse” of water resources and how the company “ignored” regulations. Stewarding the company’s water resources is his job, Brennan says fiercely, “and I can tell you that for damn sure we’re doing it.” The upside of the entire controversy, Tolman points out, is that “we can use the heightened interest [in water policy] to get people to do things to protect their water supply,” he said. “In working with Fryeburg on their water withdrawal ordinance, for example, we convinced them to include language protecting the aquifer from development.”

Development and its evil cousin sprawl are far bigger threats to aquifers than water extractors like Poland Spring, Tolman says. “Over the past 10 to 15 years there has been a significant increase in population moving into the country and living near water supplies. We’re encouraging towns to manage growth in ways that don’t hurt water supplies. I’ve gone from being a geologist to a technical and educational assistance person.”

The issue provided educational fodder for Bates students, too. Associate Professor of Economics Lynne Lewis asked her environmental-economics students to evaluate H2O for ME’s failed proposal to place a 20-cent tax on each gallon of bottled water extracted by large bottlers. Most of the students concluded it was bad economics. “The proposed tax was seriously flawed,” she explained. “It was modeled after the Alaska oil tax, but oil is a nonrenewable resource whereas most Maine aquifers are rechargeable via rain and snowmelt.” (Poland Spring drew about 600 million gallons of groundwater last year, equivalent to .03 percent of what flows back into Maine aquifers each year, according to one estimate.)

Other flaws were the size of the tax (too big) and its target (the proposal would have basically targeted just Poland Spring). On the other hand, affixing a price on water is a good idea. “A lot of economists would say if water was priced appropriately — at its true value — we wouldn’t be having the issues we have now,” Lewis says.
But that market model is a long way off, as many agree that questions about the value and ownership of Maine water will take time to settle. “It will be more politics than geography,” says Roy Farnsworth, professor emeritus of geology and the Bates mentor of Tolman, Taylor, and Brennan.

“Water is going to be our most precious commodity, and there will be long political fights over who owns it,” he says. “Until that is clarified, it will be a tough situation.”

Freelance writer Virginia Wright lives in Cumberland, Maine.