The Poland Spring bottling company has significantly limited the amount of water it pumps out of one of its largest aquifers in Hollis in response to declining groundwater levels related to the most severe drought in Maine in more than a decade.

In August, the bottled water company drew 9.9 million gallons from five boreholes into Clear Spring, south of the company’s gigantic bottling plant on Killick Pond Road in Hollis. While that sounds like a lot, it is the lowest monthly withdrawal from the site in eight years and broke a record low of 10.4 million gallons set in July, according to monthly well monitoring reports from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

In August 2015, Poland Spring withdrew 19.4 million gallons from Clear Spring. In August the year before, it pumped out 18.9 million gallons.

It isn’t just in Hollis where the company is cutting back. Production at the Poland Spring sites in Poland, which have a smaller recharge area than Hollis, is down 40 percent from last year. To compensate, the company is increasing water withdrawals from parts of the state less affected by the drought and trucking the water to the bottling plant.

“The key here is that we need to respond appropriately to conditions, and the conditions we see this year tell us what we need to pump,” said Thomas Brennan, Poland Spring’s senior natural resources manager.

“We’ve got a business to run,” Brennan said. “The demand for our brand is increasing, and that collides head-on with drought conditions.”

Poland Spring is required to maintain groundwater levels at its Hollis wells above a minimum flow level. The level is adjusted monthly to align with historic water flow in nearby Wales Pond Brook. An alert level is set at 120 percent of the low flow and is triggered if the groundwater goes below that.

The only way to ensure the company doesn’t trigger an alert or go below actionable flow levels is to cut production. Poland Spring has not triggered an alert yet this summer, said Mark Margerum of the DEP’s water division.

“The summer alerts are the ones we would be concerned about because they would affect groundwater directly,” Margerum said. “I would say that by avoiding any alert levels or low water levels they are complying with permit conditions.”

The company files monthly reports for its Hollis sites with the DEP, but monthly reports are not required at the Poland wells because of the long history of withdrawal there, Margerum said.

Monthly withdrawals from the Hollis wells have been steadily declining since May, according to the monitoring reports. In May, the company took out 15.3 million gallons from the main aquifer at Hollis. It pumped 12.8 million gallons in June, 10.4 million gallons in July and 9.9 million gallons in August. September withdrawals are expected to be even less, Brennan said.

The department has received no complaints this year of effects on private wells from Poland Spring’s Hollis operation, he said. There has only been one complaint about the Hollis wells, from a landowner last year whose well went dry. The landowner believed it went dry because of Poland Spring’s withdrawals. An investigation by Poland Spring and the DEP found the company was not to blame for problems with the well, Margerum said.

Poland Spring started planning for a dry summer based on below-normal snowfall this year. The company started planning in March so it could organize the complicated and expensive process to truck water from far-flung wells to its main bottling plant in Hollis, Brennan said.

The exact financial impact on the company is unclear, Brennan said.

“It is significant, I can say that,” he said. “Water resource management is the underlying motivation, not the economics.”

As it draws down production in Hollis and Poland, the company has ramped up production at remote wells in northern Franklin and Somerset counties. Rarely used wells in Dallas Plantation near Rangeley and Pierce Pond Township near Flagstaff Lake are working overtime to compensate for the drop in southern Maine water. The company prefers not to use the wells because of the added cost of transporting water to its bottling plant in Hollis.

“We are accessing those every day,” Brennan said. “In previous years we haven’t used them – they have been backup.”

The worst drought in 15 years has gotten progressively worse, and there is no guaranteed relief in the forecast.

The parts of Maine affected by severe and extreme drought have expanded dramatically in the last week. According to federal data, most of southern Maine, including York, Cumberland and Sagadahoc counties, is in extreme drought. Severe drought, on step below extreme, affects a wide swath of the state, from the western foothills to the Bangor area and south to Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park. More than 1.05 million Mainers, close to 80 percent of the state’s population, now live in drought areas, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Groundwater levels at a U.S. Geological Survey monitoring well in Sanford in June, July and August were the lowest in 20 to 30 years, and surface water flows in the state’s major rivers are near record lows. In the past year, York County received about 33 inches of rain, almost 17 inches less than normal. Cumberland County had about 34 inches of rain, almost 15 inches below normal. Rainfall across the state has been between 9 and 14 inches lower than normal.

In such conditions, Maine’s iconic spring water company, owned by Nestle Waters North America, is conscious of the volume of water it is pumping out of the ground. Last year, Poland Spring pumped 730 million gallons of water from eight sites, including large wells in Kingfield and Denmark. But more than half the water withdrawn, 488 million gallons, came from Hollis and Poland.

The drought has coincided with the company’s busiest sales period, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The company typically cuts back production starting in late fall and into the winter.

Along with the northern wells, Poland Spring also has been heavily pumping another well in Hollis located on a different aquifer. The California Fields borehole has been in use since 2005, but only started pumping water for bottling last year, Brennan said. It pumped out more than 4 million gallons from the well in June and July.

Because there is only one borehole, compared with five at its main Hollis well, the company can afford to pump more without triggering a flow alert, Brennan said. With no above-average precipitation forecast and the drought expected to continue through December, the company expects to hit the well’s 30 million-gallon annual limit.

“Unless we trigger the compliance number, we are going to try and use it all,” he said.

 


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