2009-11-11 / Opinion

Defeat of ordinance sets new agenda in Wells

Perhaps many of the Wells voters who rejected a town ordinance regulating water extraction did so to protect local aquifers from international water merchants.

This seemed to be the view of those holding signs at the Wells polls last week, and we can't say they were wrong. Their argument was that a local regulatory ordinance amounted to a welcome mat for Poland Spring and Nestlé, its parent company.

The editorial board of this newspaper supported the proposed ordinance, because we saw it as an important first step toward protecting groundwater in Wells. The disagreement we have with the activists on this issue concerns the need to pursue the best strategy to protect the aquifers.

The defeat of the proposed ordinance has made this controversy moot. Now it is time for a collaborative effort on a new ordinance.

Wells currently has a moratorium in effect against water extraction, but a moratorium, by definition is not a permanent solution. Some believe that the town's existing ordinance would not permit Poland Spring to tap local aquifers, or that the company will not want to do business in a town that has expressed opposition to large-scale water extraction.

We can't refute these claims, but we don't think they are beliefs that responsible town officials should rely upon. After all, Poland Spring was fully prepared to enter into an agreement to tap the Branch Brook aquifer managed by the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport &  Wells Water District for 432,000 gallons per day.

Wells selectmen and the town's ordinance Review Committee made a good-faith effort to establish rules protecting the town's groundwater from damage due to water extraction. We hope they will not be discouraged by last  week's vote and will begin considering an ordinance that reflects the stricter conditions that many in Wells seem to want.

Although stricter limits might make a local ordinance vulnerable to a legal challenge, the likelihood of a lawsuit is probably not high. This is a new regulatory frontier, and if Wells chooses to set extremely strict limits, the industry might decide it is not worth a high-profile court fight.

Unfortunately the fight over the regulatory ordinance has made some people comfortable with the idea that the regulatory approach itself is flawed, and cannot effectively protect natural resources.

In the end, towns have only limited authority to restrict  legitimate business enterprises. In the long run, those who want to protect the purity  and abundance of groundwater must press for state legislation, including a law limiting the right of land owners to tap this common resource.

— Questions? Comments? Contact Managing Editor Nick Cowenhoven at nickc@journaltribune.com or City Editor Kristen Schulze Muszynski  kristenm@journaltribune.com.

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