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In selling Maine's fresh waters, does Maine get a cut?

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This scenic stretch along Route 26, near where the first water of Poland Spring was discovered and later marketed as restorative, offers a slice of quintessential Maine: towering pine trees, pristine waters, and distant crests. In other words, all the images on the bottled water company's logo.

But these days, instead of evoking Maine's tranquil forestland and waterways, the brand symbolizes a battle over who owns and controls the water that seeps into the state's permeable rock.

A Maine group has launched a citizen's initiative to impose what is believed to be a first-in-the-nation tax on the water that companies extract and sell from the state's aquifers. It's on pace to be placed on the ballot next fall.

As the market grows for bottled water, already a $10 billion industry, the group maintains that access to water is among the most pressing issues of this century, and that the windfall reaped by bottling companies should be more evenly distributed. After all, they say, water belongs to everyone, and more controls would ensure sustainability.

But critics worry that the initiative unfairly targets Poland Spring, the largest bottler in the state. Some worry the move will push the company out and leave hundreds of unemployed in its wake. Others say the initiative could set a precedent for "use taxes" that could have a ripple effect on any number of industries.

"This is going to hurt Maine an awful lot," says Henry Shaw, a resident of St. Albans who operated an independent water company that he sold to Poland Spring two years ago. "Water is big in Maine. It's gotten bigger, and it's going to get smaller real quick."

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