Remember when you used to be able to pull up to the gas pump and say "give me a dollar's worth of regular" and you'd get two or three gallons? I'm 53 and I remember that from my childhood. In about 40 years the cost of gas has gone up about ten times. Think about that as you think about water.
Would you agree to pay for the air you breathe?
I don't mean those fancy shots of oxygen people into designer labels and cutting trends get at oxygen boutiques. I mean having to pay by the lung full for the stuff you need to stay alive. Of course not, everyone says at once. We need air to live, we shouldn't have to pay for it! When the air gets too dirty to actually breathe it safely then people who can afford it go to boutiques and buy a shot of clean air as a pick-me-up, the rest of us write letters to editors that don't get sent, and give thanks that we live in a society where there is industry so we can buy cars that would get us to a boutique if we had money to pay for a shot of oxygen. The truth is that we are paying for the air we breathe, with our health. (That's another subject, which you can read about here.) What we mean when we say that we wouldn't put up with paying for air is that we wouldn't literally agree to having to pay for breathing. Which we can say with some conviction because we're pretty confident that no one will come up with a way to remove the air from around us, take it to his/her/its own warehouse, and then force those who want it to buy it. It can't happen, so we know that it won't, which is why we say we wouldn't let it.
Is there something other than air we need to live?
Food? clothing? shelter? if you're radical and progressive and talking about change you might add health care and education. Are we forgetting something? Yes, we are. Unlike food and clothing and shelter which we have to hunt for we forget one of the most basic necessities of life, because for most Americans it has been freely and readily available to us so we don't think about it.
Few modern wars are fought for principle or religious conviction. Northern Ireland perhaps, though there is more profit at stake than is commonly recognized. Most modern wars are fought over resources. If Iraq's major crop were broccoli the US would never have sent troops there - that's a war for oil. Oil is a big motivation in the war department. The conflict between Israel and Palestine is essentially a dispute over land, as in who gets it and how will it be controlled. People do go to war over food, when they don't have any or enough.
It is expected that a growing source of serious, serious conflict is going to be water. Fresh water has never been evenly distributed over the earth. Obviously some places are desert and, well, that's bad luck isn't it. But even many places that seem to be lush and fertile in fact do not have the water they need. Did you know that much of the water used to grow crops in California comes from the Colorado River? Colorado has agreed to divert water flowing through its borders elsewhere which would not be an issue except that that is greatly affecting water supplies in Colorado. It can be debated that moving water from a place with less than ideal growing seasons and conditions to a place with much better growing seasons and conditions is good agricultural sense. My point is that some places have water and some don't and the places that don't are trying now or are going to try to do something about it. Colorado and California worked things out with fistfuls of dollar bills. In 1990 Florida, Alabama and Georgia engaged in heated litigation over who controlled Lake Lanier. Parts of this fight are still going on. Not because the states like making their lawyers rich, but because the issue of who controls water can be deadly serious. For more about the Lake Lanier controversy click here.
In places where water is truly scarce water is not for sale. In places where people or governments do not like each other water is not for sale. And as climate patterns change, and rain patterns change, and places that had water in balance start to get too little water tensions are going to start increasing. This is not exaggeration - if a country has been agrarian and it loses the ability to grow what it needs with its own available resources what will it do? The expectation is that we as a species will start transitioning from oil so that oil will stop being the factor it is presently, but we are never going to be able to transition from water, and in the very near future water is going to be what sends people and nations to the battlefront.
What does this have to do with Maine?
Nothing. And everything. Maine has been fortunate - we have had all the water we've needed. We have not had to make deals with other states to get the water we need to nurture our broccoli and blueberries and fiddleheads and potatoes and . . . But we are letting happen to our water what we say we would never let happen to our air - we are letting it be taken from us.
Once upon a time there was a relatively small business built around a pleasant spring in Poland, Maine. Poland Spring Water grew over time, and became a popular link to the freshness and innocence of Maine for those relatively few people willing to pay for what they could get for free out of their taps. Poland Spring Water operated at essentially a balance with nature, with water being bottled not much faster than it was being naturally replenished. But somewhere along the line major international corporations found the marketing schemes to turn bottled water into big business. The Poland Spring franchise was purchased by multinational Nestle. Who also purchased rights to water on and under many locations in Maine and elsewhere. No longer is water merely being diverted from a spring - it is being drilled for, as deep as the drilling is necessary. And water being water it flows, so that Nestle may be drilling straight down on land they have purchased the right to drill on, but they are draining all the underground water that can be sucked into their pipes. Have you seen a bottle of Poland Spring water lately? There is no longer a claim that it comes from Poland Spring, because chances are immense it doesn't.
Does this matter today? Not necessarily. Maine's population is not growing astronomically, rain is falling more reliably here than in many places. But neither of these can be counted on. When rain stops falling at rates necessary to sustain agriculture or personal use we have a problem. A problem that Nestle will be glad to fix, at about $2.00 a pint. Brush your teeth? $2.00. Cook a pot of pasta? about $6.00. Take a shower, wash a load of clothes? I dunno, $30? $50? Unless, of course, Nestle raises its prices. Gas has gone up tenfold in 45 years.
We're a capitalist country -
if someone wants to buy why can't we sell?
A couple of answers. First, if someone wants to corner the fiddlehead market life will go on. Sure, the average person will no longer be able to find fiddleheads in the supermarkets, and if they're there they will be too expensive. So we won't eat fiddleheads, we'll eat broccoli. Life will go on. Of course if a few companies corner the broccoli. and bean and pea and corn markets too and we can't afford any vegetables we have a problem. (Really, check out what I have to say about corporations.) But assuming "they" just control one commodity we will find alternatives and life will go on. Unless that commodity is one essential to life, for which there is no substitute. Like air. Or water. If we allow Nestle to buy our water we are selling our lives.
The second answer is that we have not sold it, we have given it away. Traditionally, drilling rights had clear limitations. Someone bought the right to drill straight down, and there either was gold under them there hills or there wasn't. If you wanted to drill under a neighboring plot you had to buy different rights. These common sense restrictions started getting made surreal for coal. Of course no coal company should have to actually pay to tunnel deep underground, there are costs involved, it won't matter to the surface, etc. Little of that was true, but we wanted to have cheap power and the coal wasn't going to mine itself, so we as a society agreed to let a coal company dig far and wide underground.
With water the remaining traces of sanity have been abandoned. Let's be clear - our relationship with water is much different from our relationship to coal. If we want electricity we need coal (unless and until we find substitutes). And unless we want to dig the coal ourselves and convert it into electricity we are going to have to allow companies to get the coal to the surface. (We don't have to accept wholesale destruction of the environment or unsafe working conditions, but read my piece on corporations.) There is no reason at all why we need to have Nestle bringing water to the surface. None. Unlike coal, which perhaps does not greatly affect the ecosystem one way or the other while it's underground, water feeds springs, irrigates, nourishes. Even underground in aquifers it is part of the basic cycle of life, human and otherwise. There will be a real and measurable cost in letting that underground supply be removed. And while we might be safe in letting Nestle take some water there is no policy reason whatsoever for saying that any company willing to dig wells can have whatever it can grab. Even if some (much) of that water being grabbed is coming from an underground lake shooting tens of miles in all directions. The water Nestle is taking is a very valuable resource. And we as a State have not sold it for anything close to its value. Not close. Not. Close. We have given it away. This is an exaggeration but only a slight one - Nestle is getting billions of gallons of water for about what it would cost to get a permit to sell hot dogs in Monument Square.
But those bottles are so convenient.
They're also so destructive. Plastic is made from oil. You've heard about our need to become less dependent on foreign oil? As long as we create zillions of plastic bottles that we throw away we are going to remain dependent on some oil. It's going to be foreign, or we are going to bring the present beauty of the Gulf of Mexico to some other American locale. Just suppose one of Nestle's drills strikes oil in Oxford County. Is that far enough away from Portland that you're going to want the entire oil industry infrastructure set up there? If it's not Oxford County it will be someplace in America, as long as we use oil to individually package a few ounces of water.
The bottles do not make themselves. There are huge pollution costs in the manufacture of plastic bottles. Someone else's problem, right? Acid rain started out as smoke from Midwestern factories. The mercury in the fish you can no longer eat started out as someone else's problem. As emphysema and other health crises from pollution skyrocket those problems become our problems. There are few problems that are just "someone else's." We in Maine share the costs of making the bottles.
And we in Maine share the costs of disposing of the bottles. Recycling is better than it used to be. But the bottles still need to be collected - that costs. They need to be re-manufactured - that's a cost. And after the re-manufacturing there is residue - a lot of it - for which there is no known or expected use. That is a cost. Nestle is not paying any of that cost. We are.
What about jobs?
Talk water and politicians respond: jobs. Jobs are serious. Jobs are lives. We need to care about jobs. But we need to care about what those jobs are doing. We need to be creating real jobs, necessary jobs, jobs that pay enough to live on. Jobs that do not come with huge, huge costs to society. Jobs that harm society are jobs that should not be protected. I am not saying to Poland Spring employees that I do not care about their welfare - I am saying that it is the responsibility of all of us to make society workable. If all Nestle wants to do is steal our water and our environment then yes, some jobs may be lost. I'll be arguing the loudest about getting the unemployed something else. But I am not going to support paying people to destroy Maine. Sorry, not going to do it.
Stop letting Nestle take our water!
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