Sometimes a story takes on a life of its own.
It would seem that we’re awash in stories about water. And there’s a fairly predictable breakdown of opinions/options along the way. There are experts that say the glass is half full. Others say it’s half empty. There are still others that question the need to wade into this topic, given other crises like the swine flu epidemic. And still others are hoping that I’ll stop watering down this story with so many puns. (I’ll try, promise.)
I’ve been planning to review Elizabeth Roytes’ excellent book, Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It. Then I received the City of San Diego’s Annual Drinking Water Quality Report in the mail, a federally mandated report mailed to every residence in the metropolis. And then the Government Accounting Office released a report on the Safety and Environmental Impact of bottled water.
Everywhere I’ve turned over the last few days there’s been reportage on water, ranging from the Union-Tribune’s article in the food section about flavored/enhanced waters (zzzz) to the local Fox news anchor (Kathleen, I think) urging viewers to read the labels on their bottled water (they aren’t relevant, unless you want to know that your bottled water has no calories) to a report at Voice of San Diego about City Council Member Sherri Lightner may have switched sides in the debate over recycling water in our fair city.
So let’s try to break it down into small pieces and make this water issue more understandable.
Elizabeth Roytes’ Bottlemania (2008, Bloomsbury) is a short (229 pages) and to the point book that gives an outstanding overview of the issues that are being raised about drinking water, whether it’s from the tap or out of a designer bottle. The book is largely told through accounts about the struggles of Maine landowners trying to figure out their relationships with Nestl?, a multinational powerhouse in the water business (and, yes, the same company just recalled all their Toll House cookie dough) that controls most of the brands that aren’t owned by Coca Cola or Pepsi. She also delves into the subject of how tap water is sourced, sanitized and sent down into generally out of date distribution systems that bring it to our homes. If you buy one book on the subject (and you should!) this is the one.
The City’s Water Report
Quick! Study this and memorize no less than twenty four acronyms and abbreviations. Now, look at this chart. Are your eyes getting heavy yet? Is our local drinking water safe? Well, yes, unless you’re immuno-compromised. In which case, they don’t know. Maybe your doctor can tell you. Can’t afford that office visit? Maybe you’d better stick with beer, which was the most common form of refreshment in the US prior to the “socialist” takeover of private water companies by government back in the 19th century.
But the city does seem to think its water is okay.
The operations division of the City’s water department oversees 3,280 miles of pipelines, 47 pump stations and 9 reservoirs. They supply over 200 million gallons of water each day to 1.3 million customers, including people living in Del Mar, Imperial Beach and Coronado. Like other public agencies, the water department faces increasing pressures to due to funding and personnel cuts. And each time one of the City’s increasingly out-dated water mains breaks, the public is exposed to potentially dangerous contaminates.
Much of local water supply must be purchased regionally, coming from water supplies upstate and the Colorado River. These supplies are literally drying up, and there have been several proposals to either recycle water or build desalination plants.
Sadly, the political will to recycle water (known as “toilet to tap” by it opponents) seems lacking in the backbone of many local leaders. Opponents, using emotional pitches based on a perceived “yuck” factor, include the Union-Trib and a group of flat-earthers that call themselves the Revolting Grandmas. Never mind that the water that Orange County sells Disneyland is recycled, or that our own supplies sourced from the Colorado River include wastewater from Las Vegas; it just not “in the cards” around here.
Desalination is actually progressing locally, despite many environmental concerns voiced by the Surfrider Foundation and other groups. To hear the local boosters (again, with the U-T in front) tell it, these poor corporations that are trying to do the right thing are being bled to death by radical environmentalists.
According to the GAO Report, the Environmental Protection Agency does require public systems to be tested by certified laboratories. That’s more than we can say for bottled water, whose safety is the responsibility of the Food & Drug Administration. The FDA is not legally authorized to test water, and any violations of safety standards that happen to be uncovered by bottlers do not have to be reported. Even if the FDA was required to test bottled water, its funding over the last eight years has been gutted to the extent as to make its existing inspections meaningless. Remember the peanut butter scandal? How about the spinach deal?
The Insanity of Bottled Water
The twenty six billion (yes, that’s a “B”) bottles of water that were consumed in North America last year took seventeen million barrels of oil to produce. Visualize this petroleum usage including production, warehousing and trucking and you’ve got about one fourth of each of those crisp and refreshing bottles filled with oil before the water is added. Mmmmm, tasty!
But wait! There’s more! Bottled water adds another two and a half million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year. 86% of these twenty six billion empties find their way into landfills (and quite a few get thrown into the sea). According to the Earth Policy Institute, one thousand five hundred bottles are discarded every second.
Over the past decade, the per capita consumption of bottled water in the United States has more than doubled, increasing to over twenty nine gallons per person annually. We spend an average over $400 each year on the stuff, usually as a result of the highly marketed (and unproven) notion that the stuff in the bottle is somehow healthier than tap water.
There are two ways to fill a bottle of water. The first, and this is the image the companies want you to have in mind, is to collect water from natural springs in rural locations. Reading the first few chapters of Bottlemania should go a long way towards shattering any mental images that you may have about how “natural” a process this is. The second, and most common way, is to simply fill bottles with good old tap water. Yes, it’s run through a filter or two, though this process isn’t very far removed from running tap through a carbon filter like those sold by Brita and Pur. For that matter, the filters on the water supply of many restaurants’ soda guns do much the same job.
So it really comes down to the container itself. And here’s where the bad news gets worse. The Food and Drug Administration had a statuary “mandatory” deadline about fifteen years ago to determine if the plastics commonly used in bottles were leaching harmful molecules into consumers. The two big concerns are cancer (of course) and hormonal reactions (which could have wider reaching implications). Guess what? Nothing happened. And we still “don’t know”, beyond the ever increasing data that suggests something Very Bad may be happening here. After all, it’s those pesky “scientists” and “consumer groups” that are making a stink. And that might be really bad news over at Nestle, Coca Cola and Pepsi.
Follow the Money
Many of the world’s leading investors and most successful companies are making big bets on water. After all, it’s the most valuable commodity out there, and the supply is shrinking everyday. Bloomberg News says that the worldwide scarcity of water has already made it more valuable than oil. While other investments have tanked, water related investments averaged a 35% rate of return during the 2003-07 reporting periods. And it’s still producing at a rate of 8%, despite the recession.
The United Nations estimates that, by 2050, more than two billion people in 48 countries will lack sufficient water. Most of the water around the planet, by the way, is ocean water, too saline for human consumption. Making matters worse is the fact that 95% of the world’s cities continue to dump raw sewage into the limited freshwater supplies that do exist.
Meanwhile, over at General Electric, Chairman Jeffrey Immelt recently predicted that the company’s revenue from water purification and treatment would double in the next two years, to over $5 billion.
The bottom line here is whether or not water will be treated as a commodity or a basic human right in the future. The privatization crowd and their corporate overlords are hoping that we’ve been sufficiently conditioned by their market driven health conscious mantras to accept and embrace lining their pockets to defer our collective thirst.
So do yourself a favor. Realize that drinking that bottle of Dasani IS a political act. And make a choice that favors the planet.