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From Maine Forests to Your Pint Glass

Healthy Forests. Clean Water. Quality Beer.  How are these things related?

May 5-11 is National Drinking Water Week which is intended to recognize the critical role drinking water plays in our daily lives. This year the Portland Water District (PWD) is working with eleven local breweries and Sebago Clean Waters – a partnership of conservation organizations and PWD – to highlight the link between forests, water and beer.   You can find a schedule of tasting room events here (www.pwd.org).  

To explain the relation we’ll start with the beer and walk you back to the forest. 

The first key fact to know about beer is that it’s 95% water. Maine’s craft brewing industry is large and expanding.  According to the Maine Brewshed Alliance – a new coalition of brewers that is committed to protecting the waterways that make our state a great place to live, work, brew, and enjoy great beer – the craft brewing industry generates an estimated $260 million per year in sales. This direct link between clean water and quality beer is what led PWD to reach out to local brewers to help educate their visitors about the importance of protecting our waters.

Greater Portland alone has more than 20 breweries – and all of them use Sebago Lake water. The water from Sebago Lake is excellent for making beer because so little has to be done to prepare it for the brewing process. In fact, the water is so clean it does not need filtering at the source. Sebago Lake is one of only about 50 lakes – out of 13,000 such drinking water supplies in the country – that does not require filtration. This is hugely beneficial for at least three reasons, including:

  1. The water is less expensive. Filtration costs a lot of money. A recent estimate is that it would cost about $150 million to construct a facility large enough to filter the water used by our customers in Greater Portland.  Some users would see their water bill nearly double.
  2. The water tastes better.Many of the steps in the filtration process involve the addition of chemicals which would change the taste of our water. A less clean lake (or a lake needing filtration) would also have more algae in it, and some algae impart strong tastes.  
  3. The water is safer.It is a more effective strategy to keep pollutants out of the water in the first place than to remove them during the treatment process. 

Which brings us to the forests. How are they part of this story?

Forests are natural water filters. The overhead tree canopy cushions raindrops to prevent erosion. Erosion is bad for water because it carries soil and nutrients into waterways.  These nutrients are food for algae.

Sebago Lake is surrounded by forests. The land between Bethel and Standish that surrounds and drains to Sebago Lake – its watershed – is 84% forested, yet only about 10% of those forests are protected.  If too much of that unprotected forest gets converted to non-forest uses, then things will be forever changed. Sebago Lake will certainly be less clean and the quality of the other lakes, ponds, rivers and streams in the watershed will also lose their purity. Without those forests we will lose woods jobs and wood products.  We will have lost forest habitat and will have less healthy fisheries. Our towns will be more prone to flooding and our lands less able to adapt to changes in climate. Our air will be less clean.

The forests provide all those benefits, while also naturally purifying our drinking water.

So what’s being done to protect those vital forests?  PWD and land trusts including the Loon Echo and Western Foothills land trusts have been conserving Sebago Lake’s forests for decades.  But we need your help.  Sebago Clean Waters has formed for just this purpose.  Like anything precious, conserving land will require money. The partnership is launching a drive to create a land conservation fund to conserve Sebago Lake’s forests. Please visit the cooperating breweries during Drinking Water Week to learn more or visit sebagocleanwaters.org.     

With your help, Sebago Clean Waters can help ensure clean water and quality beer.

The way life should be.

Paul Hunt is the Environmental Manager for the Portland Water District

Karen Young is the Coordinator of the Sebago Clean Waters partnership