Credit: George Danby / BDN

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Lawrence Butler of Thomaston is a retired ambassador. He worked with NATO and U.S. commanders in Afghanistan.

This summer, Stonington had to truck in 200,000 gallons of water due to extended drought conditions. Which to me raised this question: What do the following have in common: mines; wells in Fairfield; salmon farms in Belfast, Bucksport, Gouldsboro, and Jonesboro; a Portland-area fish and lettuce hydroponic operation; a land-based eel-farm; and a Millinocket cloud computing center?

Water. Stonington ran out of water, but there seems to be plenty to go around elsewhere. This year has been feast and famine — wells dried up and roads washed out.

Water has always been fundamental to Maine’s prosperity. In the 19th century, water-powered mills and sail cargo and fishing fleets drove its economy. Today, we are witnessing the effects of climate change as farmers in Arizona got cut off from Colorado River irrigation water, Tennessee suffered deadly flash flooding, Maine coastal roads got washed out, and Stonington had to spend $20,000 to refill its standpipe.

Corporations are responding by seeking an increasingly scarce commodity — clean water — and Maine (still) has a lot of it. Foreign and American companies are working to establish salmon farms here. In Belfast, Norwegians plan to build a salmon growing facility on land, relying on massive quantities of water. Treated waste water will flow into Penobscot Bay. Per a 2019 study, “every ton of salmon produced in aquaculture creates about 92.6 to 145.5 pounds of nitrogen waste and 15.9 to 23.1 pounds of phosphorous waste … excess nitrogen and phosphorous waste in the water are the leading cause of an algal bloom if they are in high concentrations.”

These investments understandably are warmly welcomed by local governments anxious to reap the benefits of larger tax bases and jobs, even as locals fight a seemingly losing rear-guard action.

But, what happens if the salmon farms suck more ground water out of aquifers than nature replenishes? Or dump too much organic waste into our pristine waters? How are the local utilities pricing the billions of gallons of water the fish farms require? Has the state adequately modeled the impact the consumption is going to have on local supplies 10 years from now? Wells were already going dry this year in the Midcoast before the July rains came, and not just up in Stonington.

Around the Schoodic peninsula, salmon farming pens are proposed in Frenchman Bay, closing off a huge chunk of scenic saltwater for another Norwegian corporate interest. One wonders whether the full environmental impact of salmon waste has been evaluated, and why aren’t lobstermen raising as big a ruckus as they did over offshore windfarms and plans to protect right whales?

Up in Millinocket, Maine’s governor and both senators showed up to celebrate a deal with a California company to establish a data center that requires flowing fresh water to cool and power the electronic equipment — celebrating the prospect of new tax revenues and a few new jobs. This may actually be a great deal for all parties, as long as the water flows and doesn’t get polluted.

Not that far away, a Canadian mining company proposed to start mining in the North Woods, telling its potential investors not to sweat indigenous people’s rights or water pollution. It just withdrew its application due to likely rejection of its rezoning application.  The company claimed that it has a new technology that would eliminate pollution from mining waste entering the Penobscot River system, so one should expect to see the application resurrected at some point.

Further south, there is a wild claim of billions of dollars of lithium, which can only be extracted by open-pit mining. The EPA just announced that it was shutting down the $90 million cleanup of an old copper mine in Vermont.

Which brings me to PFAS, or forever chemical pollution. In Fairfield and elsewhere in Maine sludge from wastewater treatment plants that serviced the paper mills was sold as fertilizer to local farms. Said sludge contained chemicals associated with cancer and other health problems, which permeated the groundwater, which can render crops grown on the land and the water drawn from local wells unfit for human consumption. Forever.

The final examples of proposed water-driven investments are home-grown. One Maine entrepreneur wants to expand his aquaponic lettuce and tilapia fish operation, and another wants to grow eels, both on land. The first repurposes tilapia fish waste to fertilize lettuce and other greens grown hydroponically. The challenge might be on the amount of water the eventual operations will require and what that might mean for the local fresh water supply years from now.

The bottom line is asking whether Maine’s government recognizes the scale and impact of growing demand for this seemingly infinite resource, is cognizant of the impact climate change will have, and is making sure that all this water use is appropriately priced, regulated and protected for future Mainers. Today’s tax revenues and jobs could be tomorrow’s superfund clean up and scarcity. History will judge.