Water Withdrawal

“There is no small pleasure in sweet water,” wrote the Roman poet Ovid , and everyone wants some of its sweetness. Without water, of course, there is no life – nor are there juicy tomatoes, or mossy green golf courses, or fast, snow-covered ski runs during a dry winter, let alone rivers and lakes with healthy fish and insect populations.

If you’ve lived out West, you’re infinitely more aware than those of us in the East that water is a finite resource – or at least, you should be. Unlike here, it doesn’t rain for months in some Western locales – which is why you see those wonderful pictures of surfer dudes riding the waves in October, but also why you hear of water allocation wars where thirsty communities – residents, farmers, tribes -- are fighting over who has a right to draw water from a river, or aquifer, or lake.

Now, though, the understanding that water is a finite resource has hit home here in water-rich Maine. And like many issues that concern the sustainability of our resources, our laws have not kept pace with the growing evidence of the environmental consequences of our actions. For centuries, we’ve allowed virtually unfettered withdrawals of water from rivers, streams and lakes, and that use is increasing every year. Southern Maine’s housing development has placed greater demands on drinking water supplies; farmers across the state are using ever more water for irrigation; golf courses and ski resorts want more and more water for fairways and snowmaking. But questions are now being raised about how much water a river needs to remain healthy. Take a lot of water out of a river in the summer and it will get too hot and cook the critters in it. Divert too much water from a river in the spring, and it won’t have enough power to scour out channels and move gravel and sediment downstream. How much water do we really need to leave in a river, so that it can provide habitat for fish and insects who themselves provide food for mammals and birds?

Well, that’s the question the state Legislature posed in 2002, when they directed the Board of Environmental Protection to “adopt rules that establish water use standards for maintaining in-stream flows and GPA lake or pond water levels that are protective of aquatic life and other uses and that establish criteria for designating watersheds most at risk from cumulative water use.” For the last three years, scientists at the Department of Environmental Protection, working with colleagues in the US Geological Survey, the Maine Geological Survey, the National Weather Service and the Department of Agriculture have been trying to understand how much water flows through the state’s watersheds and when it flows. Through an incredibly complex series of investigations and computations, they’ve come up with draft rules to govern how much water each watershed needs to function properly, and thus how much can be safely taken out of the state’s rivers during six different periods during the year.

You can bet that no matter how rational a process it was to come up with these “instream flow rules,” from this point on, as the rules come before the public and the legislature, things won’t be so tidy. Mark Twain said that “Whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting,” and in this case, we’re about to find out what he meant.

Maine Rivers believes that it is possible – with conservation, infrastructure improvements and adequate planning – to meet diverse communities’ requirements for water, and still leave enough in our rivers for them to thrive. Farmers, for example, will need help to build storage ponds so they can take water out during high flows and save it for the dry summer months; they’ll also need technical assistance in acquiring or adapting irrigation systems so that they conserve instead of waste water.

An early draft of the proposed rules was circulated by DEP staff this spring; the formal draft rules will be released for public comment in the fall. See http://www.state.me.us/dep/blwq/topic/flow/index.htm for details. Maine Rivers will be collaborating with our colleagues in the environmental community to present a series of public education programs about this issue during the fall and winter; check our website, www.mainerivers.org, for future announcements. We are aware that the proposed rules are but one piece of a much larger question we all face: How do we use the resources we have sustainably? When it comes to water, we’re dealing with the foundation of our lives; it is a question that will take time and wisdom to answer.


Sharri Venno is an Environmental Planner for the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, as well as a new member of the Maine Rivers Board.  We asked her
to let us know just how her community in Northern Maine has tackled the heavy pollution of the Meduxnekeag River – as an object lesson in just what kind of effort it takes….over twenty years, and with a huge number of partners.....to clean up a river.  This essay is her answer:

No one remembers exactly when large mats of stringy algae began turning the lower end of the Meduxnekeag River green during summer low flows.  However, biologists first documented the condition in the 1960s and ‘70s as part of fishing survey reports.  Algae respiration and decay cause dissolved oxygen levels in the River to fall below the state-established water quality standard of 7ppm.  In 2000, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (MDEP) formally attributed the problem to nutrient contamination from dischargers and agricultural activity in the watershed.


Photo: Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians

The Meduxnekeag is the most intensively farmed watershed in southern Aroostook County.  The River literally turns another color - brown, from large influxes of farm soil – after snowmelt and storms, which is evidence of the agricultural community losing their most valuable resource.  Elevated water temperatures, loss of fishery habitat and DDT in fish add to the list of this river’s impairments.

Working together to help the river
“In the late 1980s, a group of interested resource stewards got together and talked….and then talked some more,” recalls Don Collins, then District Conservationist with Soil Conservation Service (SCS) USDA.  “The Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians [HBMI] and Southern Aroostook Soil and Water Conservation District [SASWCD] were leaders in this process of identifying problems and problem solving strategies.  The result was the Meduxnekeag River Watershed Management Plan/Environmental Assessment.”  HBMI had purchased trust land within the most affected 6 mile stretch of the Meduxnekeag in 1986, and knew they needed to be part of a watershed-wide effort if they were to help improve conditions in the River.  The Plan, drafted by SCS and the US Forest Service, and published in 1993, began supporting water quality protection activities throughout the Watershed.  For example, around 35 acres (@15,250 linear feet or 2.9 miles) of riparian buffer zone were planted in the early to mid ‘90s.


Photo: Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians

In 1995, MDEP and SASWCD established the Meduxnekeag Watershed Coalition (MWC) as a community forum for watershed management and water quality issues.  Many participants have and continue to develop joint water quality projects as a result of discussions and relationships developed at MWC meetings.  Most recently, in 2002, some members of MWC, interested in a more active approach to watershed management, incorporated the Organization for Watershed Living (OWL) as a nonprofit organization.  OWL maintains a relationship with MWC and benefits from the Coalition’s role as a community education and outreach organization. 

The Winter Cover Project: A Success Story
Thus, in 2002, when EPA published a request for proposals under a newly established Targeted Watershed Grants Program, partnerships were already in place to take advantage of this highly competitive nation-wide program.  It was a testament to years of relationship building that so many individuals and organizations participated in the scoping process for this proposal.  These included folks from SASWCD, University of Maine Cooperative Extension, MWC, OWL, Northern Maine Development Corporation, Resource Conservation & Development, Maine DEP, Natural Resources Conservation Service and HBMI.  It would be our most ambitious effort to date. 

After a couple of meetings to decide how to best meet the grant criteria, we chose a project supporting the adoption of conservation practices that provide cover on otherwise bare potato fields during the winter.  These practices – planting winter cover crops and mulching fields with hay or straw -- help keep productive agricultural soil on the farm and out of the Meduxnekeag River.  The Watershed Protection Plan and Environmental Assessment, completed almost 10 years earlier, proved invaluable in supporting our proposal.  One of 20 watersheds selected from 176 nominations, we were awarded $700,000 (some of which went to a storm drain study).


Bale Buster Photo: Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians

I worked with project partners throughout the process, and wrote the grant proposal on the partnership’s behalf.  On a personal note, I can say that finding out about the award was such an exciting moment, I’ve kept Matt William’s (UMaine Coop. Ext.) message on my voice mail telling me we got the grant!   

Thanks to the long term relationships developed in the Meduxnekeag and the joint efforts of these local, tribal, state and federal partners, a growing number of farmers in the Meduxnekeag Watershed are now using winter cover conservation practices.  In 2003, only four farmers used these practices on a total of 285 acres; the estimated soil saved was 92 tons.  One year later, fifteen farmers are using the practices on 1,809 acres, saving an estimated 542 tons of soil from moving into the river! 

For more information about the Meduxnekeag’s Winter Cover Project or EPA’s Target Watershed grants program check out the following websites:

EPA’s Targeted Watershed Grant Program website:
SASWCD’s website: www.saswcd.org


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