Maine Weighs Tightening Water Use Regulations
By Sandor M. Polster, Special to Stateline
AUGUSTA, Maine -- There are 31,672 miles of rivers and streams in Maine -- about 20 percent more miles than the Equator is long -- and unregulated use of that fresh water for irrigating crops and watering golf courses is creating a potential crisis, according to the state's Department of Environmental Protection.
"I think everyone recognizes something needs to be done. We are going to do it, it's just how we do it," says David Courtemanch. As director of Environmental Assessment, he is responsible for ensuring the quality and quantity of Maine's rivers and streams. "
Courtemanch says he is drafting a proposal that will spell out how much water can be diverted from each river and stream in the state by, among others, farmers irrigating their potato, cranberry and blueberry fields.
How would such a regulation be implemented? "That's a good question," he says. "I suspect we'll do it through some sort of licensing or permitting, setting standards," with enforcement shared by the state's Environmental Protection and Agriculture departments, with help from the Land Use Regulation Commission in more remote areas.
While the exact number of irrigation projects in the state is not known, the diversion of water that results is rapidly becoming untenable. "It's a bigger problem than we knew of 10 years ago," Courtemanch says.
Those who are draining the rivers and streams for irrigation agree that action must be taken, and quickly.
"We recognize that there is a need for regulation. Years ago, very few potato and blueberry and other crops were irrigated, so there were relatively few people using the water and there was just enough to go around." says Clyde MacDonald, head of the Maine Cranberry Growers' Association.
The problem is compounded by unfavorable weather in Maine this spring and summer. Just 0.28 inches of rain fell in Portland in April, making the month the driest in 127 years; June escaped a similar record, recording about a half-inch of rain.
"Even if we had regulations in place now, we're facing a drought. Streams now are running at minimum flow," Courtemanch warns.
Farmers aren't the only unregulated users of Maine's rivers and streams. In the summer months golf clubs divert water to keep their courses green, and in the winter ski areas use the resource for snowmaking. Vermont recently had to implement water diversion regulations because of heavy use of natural resources by that state's sizable ski industry.
When streams are dewatered, fish kills result. In the last four years, Courtemanch says, there was one pollution-related fish kill; in that same period, there were four or five water control-related fish kills, most in northern Maine.
The Maine official says the new regulations will set a minimum flow for each of the state's waterways, which will be based on the size of the upstream water shed and will vary from season to season.
He says the draft proposal will be "a compromise, whatever comes out," and will be submitted to the department's Citizen Board for a public hearing soon.
"No one is crying foul right now on what we're doing," Courtemanch says, and Maine Gov. Angus King Jr. "hasn't voiced anything" on the proposed changes, "But if we were going to do something really off track, either way," he adds, "I'm sure someone will ring up the governor's office."