March 25, 2004
by Mike Corrigan
Wilfong proposes fee for drawing water for large bottling operations
Why are some businesses able to draw water free and clear (the
adjectives can apply to both the businesses and the water from aquifers that run under hundreds of square miles of public and private lands?
“Would we tell someone in the forest industry, ‘Oh, you work in the woods, take all the trees you want for free?’ former Maine State Representative Jim Wilfong of Stow asked, rhetorically, last Friday afternoon.
He doesn't think so.
Jim Wilfong has been thinking hard about this whole water thing. He proposes that a Maine Water Dividend Trust be established, essentially taxing water extracted for large bottling operations.
“Maine people and Maine government have made billions of dollars in investments to preserve and protect our clean water supplies,” Wilfong notes.
“Every time a homeowner puts in a septic system, it's to help clean water, and it can cost the individual from $10,000 to $15,000. Industrial waste water treatment systems can cost millions.”
Wilfong, who served in President Clinton's SBA as an assistant administrator for International Trade, and has long boosted the cause of small entrepreneurship, also cites significant public investments in keeping groundwater clean.
These investments and protections run from the Great Ponds Act, to farm and open space laws, and include Tree Growth, the (expensive) closing of landfills, fuel tank remova1s, Shoreland Zoning, construction of salt sheds, and other laws promoting the safe drinking water, pollution reduction, wellhead protection, and on and on.
The state as a whole, and every town in it, and every citizen, too, not only has a stake in clean water, the Stow Christmas tree farm operator all these interests quite literally have contributed to a public and private grub-stake that preserves clean water.
For this effort, the public and the state get no actual monetary returns; the benefits are significant, but secondary. Yet anyone with the capital and initiative to set up a drilled well can basically pump money from the ground, from a huge aquifer which might underlie dozens of Tree Growth farms, hundreds of septic systems, dozens of old removed fuel tanks, a former closed landfill of three, some publicly-protected wetlands and all the rest.
Jim Wilfong has been thinking that this doesn't even make sense. Something is missing from the equation.
He proposed a 20 cent a gallon withdrawal tax rate on commercial water extractions exceeding 200,000 gallons.
The former state legislator sees the issue of water as supreme in Maine, since clean, extensive groundwater supplies form the base for Maine's natural setting for tourism, for quality of life and for the building of private and public wealth.
“We have to state recognizing water for what it is. Water and Maine,” Wilfong says, “it's like oil and Saudi Arabia.”
Without water we can't live, he notes. Without oil, we'd find another way. Severance taxes on oil and natural gas, he notes, are being proposed at a 12.5% level for Alaska. His idea is similar - only it's water and it's Maine.
Wilfong says that he is far from anti-business. His is not an attempt to damage the water extraction industry, he says. “We have a board to find out what level of extraction is sustainable for any one aquifer,” Wilfong says. “As long as the groundwater levels are not threatened and people can still use wells and public water supplies, companied could pump to that level. It's a renewable resource. Bottling fresh water is not a bad thing. But it is to the water companies' benefit, as well as to the public's, not to overdraw our aquifers, either”
Wilfong reports a good response from legislators he has approached with his water fund/water tax idea. He currently is making the rounds of newspapers with his idea, too.
“If we can't get something through the Legislature, I think we will then just go the referendum route,” He says.
Clean, fresh water, something often taken for granted - it falls from the sky! It bubbles up out of the ground! - is advancing as the world's most important natural resource, more valuable than oil, he argues.
“In the future, wars are going to be fought over water,” Wilfong predicts. “Tankers will carry water over long distances on the oceans.”
Already, he notes, Turkey fills up huge balloons with fresh water and floats them to Israel.
In the U.S., water is growing scarcer in many areas. Development in Florida has been drawing down its natural water supplies, creating problems in the Everglades and creating sinkholes in other areas. The Great Plains have always been short of water - and it takes 1,000 tons of water to produce one ton of grain on those plains.
Water extraction issues have been extensively in the news in the Fryeburg area in recent months. “It isn't just Fryeburg,” Wilfong says. “I don't want to get bogged down with the local battles on this issue. It's all over Maine. There is an exhaustible appetite for clean water. Nestle's - which includes Poland Spring brand - has over 70 brand names for water, worldwide, all by itself.”
The Northeastern U.S. has been ticketed to provide fresh water for Europe in years to come, according to Water Follies, a new book detailing the sudden, mostly unnoticed rise of the water bottling industry.
Taxing water extraction would provide a huge reservoir of funds for Maine, Wilfong says. After building up the reserve for a couple of years, with no drawdowns, interest from the fund could produce enough money to help the state support local education to the promised 55% level, and to provide an entrepreneurial fund for young people. “We'd like to keep the money out of the General Fund,” says the former president of TradeNex, an export management company. “I served in the Legislature. You put the money in the General Fund, it's gone without a trace.”
Five percent of the gross would go to fund a state oversight board. The other 95% would fund to Maine's Water Dividend Trust.
“I started thinking about this in earnest about six weeks ago,” Jim Wilfong says. “And I realized if we didn't do something now, the horse is going to have left the barn.”
Wilfong does want to make sure that horse doesn't take the watering trough with him.
Wilfong has been talking to legislators, public officials - even to lobbyists for the water industry.
In short, Jim Wilfong isn't wondering, anymore. He's working.