Commercial water extraction in Maine has been making a splash in the Legislature in recent years. Should water be taxed? Are there risks to Maine’s aquifers? Are these businesses good or bad for our communities? Should businesses have rights?

Thomas Linzey, an environmental activist from the state of Washington, says, “It’s fascinating stuff happening in New England right now. These folks have moved forward and at town meetings have actually passed law that bans corporations from withdrawing water from within their aquifer, and then have also taken steps within those town meetings to strip corporations of those constitutional rights.

“Thirteen (U.S.) municipalities say that nature and ecosystems are no longer property, but actually have legally enforceable rights of their own.”

Interesting.

This past session of the Legislature, a bill was proposed to add a one-cent tax to every gallon of water that is bottled in Maine. Had it passed, this new tax revenue would have gone to resource protection and tax relief.

This effort is not just about water, it’s about changing property rights and impacting the rights of thousands of Maine’s family-owned businesses. It’s also about extracting taxes from business owners to increase revenue for state and local government.

Today, water bottlers buy or lease access to aquifers under the long-standing legal precedent called “absolute dominion,” a law that allows landowners to extract water from beneath their property. Opponents, however, are trying to overturn that legal concept by asserting that water is a natural resource and, therefore, it is owned by us all.

The state’s largest water bottler, Poland Spring, is the primary target of this effort. But the Nestle-owned company has its own story to tell about its multimillion-dollar investments in western Maine, its work force and its environmental impact:

$440 million of capital investment by Nestle in Maine since 1992.

800 tax-paying employees who have dependable jobs and benefits.

$40 million annual payroll at an average $50,000 wage and benefit package.

$65 million of goods and services bought annually from tax-paying Maine vendors.

700 million gallons of bottled water shipped worldwide under a strong Maine-based brand.

$2.5 million in charitable contributions in Maine since 2000.

The demand for good jobs in western Maine is self-evident. Seven hundred applicants came to apply for the 40 positions that Poland Spring filled at its Kingfield site. the numbers, it seems they have been good corporate citizens.

Another line of attack on Nestle is to argue that the aquifers are jeopardized. However, Nestle’s extraction represents less than one-half of one percent of the water used by commercial interests in Maine. Estimates from the U.S. and Maine Geologic Survey suggest that of the 24 trillion gallons of water that rain and snow upon Maine each year, at least 2.4 trillion gallons enter the state’s ground water system, far more than is used by us all.

Those who wish to tax and further regulate bottlers see a different story.

They believe corporations, including Nestle, are getting an undeserved free ride from Maine’s natural resources and believe they should be taxed for the privilege of extracting the resource from beneath us.

But if water were allowed to be taxed, then the same logic could be applied to the harvesting of trees, growing of vegetables or fishing for lobster. The concept of ownership would be turned on its head. What’s yours is ours.

A final argument to cloud this discussion is simply cynical. Because Nestle is not a Maine company, it is somehow sinister and should be treated differently than Maine-based employers. What about Hannaford, Shaw’s, TD Banknorth, New Page, Target and National Semiconductor? They employ thousands in Maine and invest millions, but all of them are based elsewhere. What would be in store for them?

Despite high unemployment and low wages, towns such as Newfield and Shapleigh in York County have voted to oppose this kind of economic development. The town of Wells recently passed a moratorium on water extraction. Some in these communities want to take it further.

Shapleigh activist Walter Bailey was quoted on the website of the Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Defense Fund (www.celdf.org) as saying, “No, we are not done; we now have to think about how to absolutely solidify these events, this knowledge, and spread both to other communities.”

For people who dream about running a business in Maine or working here, this extreme line of reasoning is a threat. Unchallenged and unchecked, “What’s yours is ours” could become the state’s motto. That approach by state legislators, however, will not conserve our most precious natural resource: our young people seeking private-sector career opportunities here in Maine.

What do you think and what are you willing to do about it? 

Tony Payne is executive director of the Alliance for Maine’s Future, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that focuses on the effects of public policy on the state’s economy. He can be reached at:

[email protected]