THE setting is exquisite: a hilltop overlooking a valley of a thousand lesser hills stretching toward Mt. Washington, snow-capped and majestic in the distance. Then there is the spring itself, a gift from retreating glaciers in the last ice age, and the reason for the region's long-standing fame and for much of its present-day well-being. In pre-colonial times Indian tribes, north of what is now the Canadian border, knew of the spring. In the early decades of this century, visitors to the adjacent Poland Spring resort, including several US presidents, would gather to watch white-robed workers bottle the clear water as it bubbled forth from the earth. They did so from the plush viewing room of a teak- and marble-walled structure erected to protect the spring and house the bottling plant.
Today the waters are in as much demand as ever, but the spring house is empty, a badly fading relic. It is a symbol of the times - not of the decline of the bottled water industry in the United States, but of its spectacular success. The old building, architectural gem that it still could be, is no longer remotely adequate for the task.
As recently as nine years ago, this Victorian spring house, with just 12 employees, bottled all the water the company could sell. Now a new plant, 10 times the size with a staff of more than 200, works around the clock to keep up with demand. And as winter tightens its grip on Maine, bulldozers are pushing back frozen earth in readiness for a new warehouse.
``If it's not up by April, we'll be in trouble,'' says plant manager Bob Brierly, anticipating the increased demands of warmer weather and an expanded product line that will see the full-scale introduction of reconstituted fruit juices using the pure spring water.
What has occurred in the Northeast has overtaken the nation as a whole. According to the International Bottled Water Association, which has its headquarters in Alexandria, Va., US consumption of bottled waters, domestic and imported, has increased fivefold, from 317 million gallons in 1977 to more than 1 billion gallons in 1987. It is projected to expand 10 to 15 percent annually into the next century.
These projections may be unduly conservative; the most recent (October 1988) survey by the Bottled Water Association showed bottled water consumption in the US had almost tripled in the last two years. New England (27.5 percent) and the Pacific Coast region (25.2 percent) led the way in the number of households using bottled water on a regular basis, followed by the South Atlantic region with 19.5 percent. Nationwide the average is a little more than 15 percent.
Why the dramatic increase? The growing concern over ground-water contamination and the entry into the US market of one Gustav Leven. Mr. Leven is the chairman of the Perrier Group, whose fame and wealth are based on the naturally carbonated spring waters that usher forth from the hills near Vergeze in southern France - and on Leven's mass marketing skills.
When Perrier began advertising its product on this side of the Atlantic in the mid-1970s, all US spring waters were carried along on its coattails. Poland Spring was one, though its real boost came in 1980 when Perrier bought it out.
Leven hopes, or more accurately plans, to turn Americans into a nation of bottled-water drinkers as the Europeans are now. But the white-haired Perrier chairman makes an interesting observation: While Europeans drink spring water for what is in it, Americans do so largely for what is not in it.
A grocery clerk echoes that observation as he stacks gallon jugs of spring water alongside the Kellogg's Pop Tarts, and Quakers' Chewy Granola Bars in a Weymouth, Mass., supermarket: ``The way this stuff sells it says a lot about this town's water.'' It was the second time he had filled the bottled-water shelves that day, and he reckoned on making a third trip before closing time.
Sara Cowman, a technician with the McKesson Corporation's Los Angeles-based water division notes that the popular move toward bottled water in the home began in California and spread to the rest of the nation. In her company's experience, the marked move upward began in the mid 1960s, and ``There's been no let-up since then.''
Better taste, rather than fear of contaminants in tap water, is the spur that drives bottled water's popularity, she believes.
While over-chlorinated water is a frequent reason for poor-tasting municipal water nationwide, a common problem in northern states is high sodium levels. Road salt is the contaminant, which makes the water just fine for soup and boiling the broccoli, but not for adding to your fruit juice concentrate.
On the other hand, road salt is a mild contaminant compared to the industrial wastes that have occasionally spilled into municipal water supplies, providing headline horror stories on prime-time newscasts.
It is calculated that one 55-gallon drum of spilled toxic waste can render a billion gallons of ground water unfit for drinking, a fact constantly on the minds of spring-water bottlers. ``We own 400 acres around our springs,'' says Brierly for Poland Spring, though he says that land holdings, however large, are no proof against a strategic spill miles from the spring, such is the unpredictable nature of ground-water movement. But the company plays it safe with water tests ``several times a day.''
Not a drop of herbicide or any other agricultural chemical is used on the property. Moreover, says Brierly, ``to avoid any chance of even a mild oil spill, none of our vehicles is serviced on the property.'' All but a few specialty oils used at the plant ``are biodegradable.'' No road salt, or even the so-called ``benign'' deicers, are used on the roads. ``We spread only sand,'' he says, adding, ``and even that comes from our own sand pit. We won't risk importing any pollution.''
But if contaminated or poor-tasting municipal water is the reason Americans turn to bottled water, how do they know the bottled water is any better?
According to the International Bottled Water Association, all bottled water is regulated by the federal Food and Drug Administration, which classifies bottled water as a ``food.'' But the association's prime piece of advice is: ``Read the labels.''
Though labels are not required to state the source of their water many of them do. On the other hand, they must state clearly whether the water is natural (springs, wells, artesian wells) or from an approved public water source; whether it is plain or a mineral water (containing 500 parts per million of dissolved solids), and if it is a sparkling water (carbonated either naturally or by man).
In the final analysis, your taste buds will tell you which of the 600 or so brands of bottled water available in the US you prefer.
In this respect a few cities still serve up excellent-tasting water to the public. In the January 1987 Consumer Reports magazine, Los Angeles and New York municipal water supplies were included, with 8 bottled water brands, in the nation's top 10 for taste.
PARTING THE WATERS
All bottled drinking water in the United States must meet Food and Drug Administration standards for purity, according to the International Bottled Water Association.
The categories of bottled water are:
Drinking water: Bottled water obtained from an approved source, including municipal supplies, that has undergone minimum treatment, including filtration and a disinfection process.
Natural water: Bottled spring, mineral, artesian well, or well water as opposed to tap water.
Spring water: Water from an underground source that flows naturally to the surface.
Well water: Water derived from any hole bored, drilled, or dug to tap into a natural aquifer.
Mineral water: Natural water that contains a minimum of 500 parts per million of dissolved mineral solids.
Natural carbonated mineral water or naturally sparkling mineral water: Water in which carbon dioxide is naturally present.
Carbonated natural mineral water or sparkling natural mineral water means carbon dioxide has been added.