Who Owns the Rain

Part 2: In Search of Spring Water: Got Beaver? Got Trout?

Well-meaning people call Poland Spring every day from all over Maine boasting about the output of their well, or wanting someone to come check out the gusher on their uncle’s farm in Palermo. This is not, generally, how Poland Spring finds new sources of spring water.

“You have to get people out in the field.”Geologist Mark said, gesturing at the empty forest all around us. “So for the last seven or eight years, we’ve had geologists out every summer walking, walking and talking to farmers and hunters and forestry people from Kittery to Parmachenee,” the state’s northwest corner, “walking all those sand and gravel features over to Madison and the Kennebec Valley where you change geology.”

Poland Spring’s most recent (and most productive) site is in Dallas Plantation, a Franklin County entity of just 250 people living on 40 square miles in the extreme northwest of the state bordering Quebec. In other words, in the middle of nowhere. How did they find it?

“Now, I don’t know Dallas Plantation,” Mark said, “but a beaver trapper, a deer hunter, a forester — they all know where the springs are,” because that’s where the animals are. Being semi-aquatic, beaver need open water, and moose, deer, and other forest dwellers are drawn to drink at the springs because they’re free of ice even in February.

“So I told this beaver trapper, Léo Pepin, what I wanted — sand and gravel low in the valley, a place that doesn’t freeze in the winter — and this gentleman, speaking half French and half English and a very shy, quiet type, he took me there. At one end there’s 600 gallons a minute coming out of the ground and you walk all the way around it and there’s no water coming in anywhere. I knew exactly, right then, that it was good.” Though this last was said with a big grin, I’m sure he had, at that moment, performed the geologist’s equivalent of a victory jig.

The other very good indicator of a possible spring site was at our feet, not an old mill race as I had thought but the restored raceway of a trout hatchery sited here by an enterprising person over half a century ago.

“Trout like cold temperatures,” Mark said, “they like clean water, and they like to live where people aren’t. So we look for historic hatcheries, places where people would have naturally said, gee, there’s very cold water here, why don’t I build a canal to grow some fish here, and it’s 1941. About half of our spring sites had some sort of hatchery activity on them, including this one here in Hollis, which still has a working hatchery here today, the Shy Beaver Fish Hatchery, one of the oldest in the Northeast in continuous operation.”

Looking at the idyllic scene, I could imagine trout racing up and down the canals, basking in the glory of the cool, clean water bubbling up all around them. And yet, I asked, how could he be certain that what appeared to be spring water was not just temporary, accumulated runoff, say, after a particularly wet spring or fall or even a few wet years?

Essentially, he summarized, it takes about three years and a million dollars just to find, map, determine yield, and certify a spring site with all of the state and federal agencies involved before a single gallon of water destined for the bottle is pumped.

The presence of trout hatcheries, beaver, moose, even of certain kinds of trees and plants, those are all very suggestive… but your journey has just begun. “Sometimes the spring site is not all that impressive, just a wet spot at the base of the slope. So,” he continued, “we pound in dry points,” ten- or fifteen- foot-long pipes perforated to let the water flow in at the bottom end. “When you’re out in August, you’re looking for low-temperature water. In southern Maine, York County, you want it to be 48 degrees, 49 degrees F. If it’s 55 degrees, you might not have a spring but more runoff. But, if it is an aquifer” — and this I found to be a wicked cool aquifer fact — “the water temperature should be the same as the average ambient air temperature for that point on earth year round.”

(When you think about it, it makes sense, the accumulated water moving through a region underground having fallen as rain or snow in that region and thus taken on the temperature of the air through which it was moving. Rarely, however, does Nature’s math seem to work out this neatly.)

“So 48 degrees here,” Mark was saying, “is the average air temperature in Hollis all year long. In Franklin County, it’s 41 degrees; it drops six degrees between southern and northern Maine because the average temperature of the air is lower. If you find a spring in August at 48 degrees, and it’s 90 degrees out and you’re in Kittery, you know you got a good place. If you go back and you check it again in January, and it’s 48 degrees when the air is 20 below, then you’re even more sure.”

You’ve located your aquifer, you’ve got your “pipe in the ground”, all systems are go, except….

Before you bottle a single drop, you’ve got to certify with both the Food & Drug Administration and Maine Water Engineering Department first, its fitness to drink — that it is free from microbial or bacterial or chemical contamination and its TDS, or mineral contents — and second, its provenance in order to legally call it “natural spring water”. This is just the start of your regulatory regimen, however.

“Site location laws in Maine,” said State Geologist Robert Marvinney, “especially for a large facility like a bottling plant that includes wells for water withdrawal, are regulated in considerable detail by Department of Environmental Protection. Every aspect of the project — the impacts of the withdrawal on nearby surface water, aquatic habitats, springs, and any other water resource that could be impacted — for all of that there is rigorous hydro-geological regulation. And that’s just the DEP.”

Further, you’ll need to prove to the Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Maine Department of Environmental Protection, federal EPA, and, equally importantly, to the local populace through Land Use Regulatory Commission or local water board hearings that you’re following all the rules and regulations regarding land use, wetland and endangered species protection, riparian species monitoring, and local and regional water table monitoring.

This last is very important because the recharging — the refilling — of any aquifer with fresh water depends on the rain and snowfall in any given year. Irresponsible withdrawal might overtax the aquifer, lowering the level of the local water table and thus reducing the amount of water flowing out of the system to maintain river, stream, pond, and lake habitats — as well as running your well or your town’s wells dry.

(The poster child of over-pumping is the Oglalla Aquifer underlying parts of eight western states from South Dakota to Texas, whose baseline water level has dropped in places forty feet since World War II, when large-scale irrigation first began. Poland Spring, and the State Geologist Marvinney, were at pains to point out the dissimilarities, the two most obvious being the large population drawing from the Oglalla and the fact that a quarter of the nation’s irrigated farmland sits over it as well.)

So you gotcher H2O…now what?

Part Three: Making Water in a few days, mate

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