Trees slow the runoff of precipitation, directing more fresh water into the ground and less into the marine environment. (Nancy West photo)

To replenish our wells, nurture your trees. They intercept rain and allow water to hit the ground more gently or to run down the trunk and follow roots into the ground. This rain, along with snowmelt, provides the water we all tap into.

Once in the ground, water seeps through cracks and fissures, small and large, moving slowly as “groundwater.” Your well harvests that seepage. Precipitation is the only fresh source of water in town.

Thus it has always been in Harpswell — we’ve always relied on wells. Historically, trees have served us in many other ways. The importance of our timber, primarily for shipbuilding, was first recognized by Captain George Weymouth in 1605. By the 1650s, Maine’s white pines were prized for masts in British naval ships. By 1691, white pines greater than 24 inches in diameter were marked and reserved by law for the king.

Although white pines now commonly reach 80-90 feet, forester John S. Springer wrote in 1851 of an extraordinary white pine that reached 144 feet. Virgin timber also became log houses, blockhouses, garrisons, ships and smaller boats. Harpswell had at least 14 shipbuilders between the 1780s and 1870s. Trees also became firewood that was used locally and shipped away to cities.

Today, the focus on trees falls on how they protect our water supply and atmosphere. Trees are the visible backbone of our ecosystem. Imagine a stand comprised of 10 common Maine trees, each 12 inches in diameter: white pine, black and red spruce, eastern hemlock, balsam fir, red maple, paper and yellow birch, white and red oak, and aspen. In 20 years, that small forest will prevent about 5,000 gallons of water from running off. Instead, this water will enter the groundwater system.

During those 20 years of growth in a sunny spot in Harpswell, those 10 trees will bind up about 15 tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide in their tissues, according to MyTree, an online tool from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, arborists, and environmental science organizations.

What can you do? Preserve your trees — and their undergrowth. They funnel water into the ground directly and indirectly by slowing precipitation to fill pools, ponds and wetlands. The alternative is for water to rage downslope into marine waters, sweeping chemicals and sediment with it.

Additionally, you can plan your landscape to capture water. Exploit natural swales and berms to promote infiltration. Capture water coming off your roof with rain barrels or drainage feeding into a low spot in the yard. Minimize compacted soil and increase organic matter in the soil to soak up water.

To learn more about water conservation, visit or join in upcoming conversations with the Harpswell Conservation Commission at the Orr’s Island and Cundy’s Harbor libraries. Details will be announced. For more information, email

This article is part of “Development and the Harpswell Environment,” a Harpswell Anchor special report.