While the deadly water crisis in Flint, Michigan, was a flashpoint in our national dialogue about water, it was far from an anomaly. Thousands of communities in the U.S. have higher levels of lead in their water than Flint. The Wall Street Journal reports that “U.S. water systems need to invest $1 trillion over the next 20 years... [while] federal funding for water infrastructure has fallen 74 percent in real terms since 1977.”
The percentage of privately-owned water systems in the U.S. declined from 2007 to 2014, but there are signs that the trend could be reversing in light of financial pressures faced by municipalities across the country. Trump’s 200 billion dollar infrastructure plan encourages private takeover as a solution to the nation’s crumbling water infrastructure. The Dow Jones Water Index began rising in the year that Flint made national news, hit a record high a year later, and experienced another bump when Trump’s plan was unveiled.
Many studies have shown that rates rise when water systems are privatized, but in Maine we have seen play out one of the less-reported consequences of privatization: loss of democratic control.
In 2016, the Maine Supreme Court upheld a contract between Nestlé (the largest food and beverage company in the world) and Fryeburg Water Company, granting Nestlé 45 years of water extraction rights for its water bottling subsidiary Poland Spring.
Nickie Sekera is a resident of Fryeburg and an organizer with Community Water Justice, a network of front-line organizers in Maine working against the privatization of water sources. According to Sekera, the 45-year deal was more difficult for local residents to fight because it was made between two private corporations.
Sekera points to communities in California where Nestlé had tried to secure 50-year contracts and failed. “The community mobilized and blocked it. It doesn't take too much to figure out that's a bad deal. But unfortunately in our case, because our municipal water supplier is run by a private company, the deal was between two private corporations. It really marginalized the community’s voice.”
Regulatory capture was also evident in the Fryeburg case. All three Maine Public Utilities Commissioners were forced to recuse themselves because of direct ties to Nestlé, and LePage-appointed judges stepped in, approving the deal. “Witnessing something like this happen, it’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion,” said Sekera.
In the course of resisting the deal, Fryeburg community members learned how little environmental oversight the regulatory bodies involved were required to provide. “Part of the value of dragging it out all the way to the Maine State Supreme Court was to clearly hear the judges state that it was not within the purview of the Maine Public Utilities Commission to consider environmental impacts when it reviewed the contract,” said Sekera. “Our regulatory system is really more about providing customer service to corporations then it is about genuine protections.”
Nestlé claims that the 603,000 gallons per day it is permitted to extract has no impact on the aquifer, but residents are reporting dry wells. The burden of proof is on the resident to demonstrate that Nestlé’s withdrawals are the culprit. “Maine is a poor rural state,” said Sekera. “Who can fight Nestle in court?” In January a hydrologist reported to the Fryeburg Water District that aquifer flow levels have been on the decline for years due to both drought and increasing withdrawals.
Maine has a higher percentage of privatized water systems than the national average, with 62 percent of community water systems in private ownership. Maine Water Company took over management of Fryeburg Water Co. in 2016, and is by far the largest private water utility in Maine, serving 32,000 customers in 12 communities. Its parent company is currently pursuing a merger that would make it part of the third-largest privately owned water utility in the country.
Sekera sees water privatization as deeply interconnected with other front lines in the climate crisis. “When we destroy our local fresh water sources, whether it’s with fossil fuel pipelines that burst, or toxic-extractive industries, bottled water is being sold as the solution to that. But displacing and shipping water all over the world instead of taking care of your local sources is just going to exacerbate all of these problems.”
The solution, according to Sekera, is local control. Seeing Nestle’s impact in the Maine communities it currently pumps from, other communities like Shapleigh and Newfield have enacted anti-water extraction ordinances, enshrining people’s rights to regulate water and pre-empting corporate takeover of water sources. Sekera envisions regional ordinances, protecting local food and water sovereignty in a cooperative system. “We're going to continue to have a system where our food and water sources are shared,” Sekera said, “but the question is who benefits and who is in control.”
An earlier version of this article misstated that Nestle pumps water from seven Maine communities. It's more like 10.