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Why Bottled Water Is Insane

How consumers gave up the first battle of the water wars.
Photo: Sean Dreilinger

Here's a weird thing. If you are over, say, 30 years old, you likely remember a time before bottled water.

Bottled water as a concept has been visible for a very long time, of course, and most histories of the phenomenon mark the introduction of Perrier in 1976 as the genesis of modern bottled water. It wasn't until the mid-'90s, however, that bottled water became everyday and, you know, for the common folks. Those of us that remember this period are lucky enough to have witnessed one of the most insane events in consumer history, when the soda industry figured out how to sell the same thing in bottles that people already had piped into their houses.


The coup is this: while that bottle of Aquafina goes for $1.79, the same amount from your tap (which, if you are buying bottled water to begin with, is likely of the same quality) spits out water that might go for $.00063 for the same 20 oz. And that is at the upper end of the municipal water price-range.

It's hard to know the precise moment when regular drinking water first came into competition with itself, but some would place it at the arrival of Aquafina, PepsiCo's big foray into bottled water, in 1994. Not long after, Dasani, its Coca-Cola analog, came along, and drinking water had gone from well to reservoir to faddish luxury item to mass commodity—cultural symbol, office supply, omnipotent restorer of health. It is, after all, the stuff of life.

I stopped off at the gas station/convenience store last night in part just to actually take some stock of the water offerings. There were about a half dozen brands, and maybe another half dozen variations on those brands; from the ubiquitous Aquafina and Dasani to Fuji and even good ol' Evian. These were a full third of all cold beverages on sale.

That last one, Evian, is probably the only one of these brands that to me has ever tasted very different from tap water. And that difference is only in taste, of course, because that's the only real-world difference between most waters (taste comes from negligible amounts of minerals/chemicals). Water—the two-hydrogens-one-oxygen part of it that we need—does not actually change as long as it remains water. Water is water. In other words, there is no better water or worse water if we're actually talking about just water. Unless you're drawing from the Great Salt Lake, most anything water comes with won't make much of a difference in how much more or less good that water does your body.


It doesn't matter if it's in a cup of coffee, the most garbage-y soda ever (Diet Faygo Rock'n'Rye, for the record—but we're not going there), naked from a mountain stream, or sporting some small amounts of fluoride and chlorine from your city's most likely excellent municipal supply; your body will use it in all of these forms. In fact, a large percentage of of your water needs come from food. There's a decent chance that you actually get more water than you need, not less, barring an absolutely hideous diet of, like, Fritos and beef jerky.

In this case, marketing equals an unceasing stream of semi-trucks driving between a series of wells and a bottling plant in Denver, about three hours away.

Water from Coke or from the freshest mountain stream has the same physiological effect. You know this already, or should, but the difference is in marketing. That's the difference in a whole lot of consumer goods, but the absurdity of it in the water marketplace reaches record heights. There is, for instance, the price differential mentioned above—a 280,000 percent markup between your glossy water and your tap water.

There is also Nestle, which sits at the cheaper end of the "all natural" bottled water market, and which is helping to illustrate the general insanity of bottled water quite well right now in Colorado. In this case, marketing equals an unceasing stream of semi-trucks driving between a series of wells and a bottling plant in Denver, about three hours away. One truck pulls up, fills, and drives on, to be immediately replaced by another empty truck, and so on. In the process, they are draining an aquifer that feeds the Arkansas River.


Nestle has purchased the rights to this water from the municipality of Aurora, Colorado, a suburb of Denver. Water that Nestle takes from the Arkansas is replaced by Aurora's water supply, and then pumped into the river not far upstream from Nestle's wells. So, Nestle takes water from the Arkansas, trucks it, bottles it, and then trucks it again to stores. Meanwhile, it's returning the same amount of water in less marketable form to the river.

Owning land on the Arkansas River doesn't give Nestle the right to take millions and millions of gallons out of it, even if that land is loaded with aquifers. But the company can buy millions and millions of gallons to put back into the river from Aurora, which, like most of the Denver area, gets its water from a big diversion project in the mountains that collects water that might otherwise head downstream along the Colorado River, and sends it to the city by aquaduct. Guess what feeds the Colorado River? The same exact thing that fills the Arkansas and its neighboring aquifers and your bottle of Arrowhead Springs: snowmelt from precipitation originating somewhere over the Pacific.

The head waters of the Arkansas. Photo: Wikipedia.

The process is this: snow piles up, melts, and either heads downward via creeks and rivers; or, it finds a soft, permeable spot and travels inward, stopping eventually in an aquifer, basically an underground natural reservoir The aquifer option is huge in a place like Colorado, much of which is considered high-desert, for being able to store water through the dry season. Taking from an aquifer is even a bit worse than just running a pipe from the river (the unmarketable river), as it's depleting a possibly finite, defintely local source of water.

This, folks, is the power of marketing: the comforting illusion of better water, at the cost of a river of semi exhaust, diversions, drilling, and, eventually, labels that say "pure." Needless to say, a great many people around Nestle's spring aren't happy about the whole idea.


But also, the plot thickens. After the city of Aurora replaces the water that Nestle is taking (again, by diverting water from another river that has basically an identical source, just in a different place, as the water removed by Nestle), that water will continue to flow onward, about 150 miles through Bighorn Sheep Canyon and the Royal Gorge. Eventually, it meets the first part of the state's second massive diversion project, which collects and sends water to Colorado's more southern urban centers like Colorado Springs and Pueblo, along with the sprawl of farms and feedlots occupying the state's eastern plains. In Colorado Springs I spent a good part of my childhood drinking Nestle's pure water for thousandths of a cent per cup.

In any case, the actual flow of the river, one of the most significant to the state's survival, shouldn't be affected by pulling from the aquifer—which Nestle insists on calling a spring, though that would have to be a hell of a spring. (There is a spring involved, but it gets a lot of help from Nestle in moving water upward.) As Sarah Olson, producer of the documentary "Tapped," points out, Nestle has a history of pumping more water than its permits allow. "Every situation is different, but a lot of things that are in the agreements between Nestle and any community are difficult for the community to monitor," she tol d the Colorado Independent. "Once the agreements are signed and Nestle begins pumping water, it is so easy for Nestle to take advantage of people and it is so difficult to stop them."


A spokesperson for Nestle, Catherine Herter told the Independent that the company enjoys a good, collaborative relationship with the Chaffee County community. Last week the company, which has agreed to 44 conditions as part of its water permit there, issued its 2013 "Creating Shared Value" report, which focuses on water efficiency and "sustainable water management practices." "As a natural resources company, our business depends on our commitment to environmental stewardship," said Heidi Paul, executive vice president of Corporate Affairs at Nestle.

In January 2009, a report by the county and funded by Nestle as part of the permitting process—found that Nestle's claim that the project would have "no detrimental impact" for terrestrial and aquatic animals and plants was not supported by science.

In July of that year, the author of that report, Colorado State University ecologist Delia Malone, wrote an open letter to the company, arguing that, contrary to Nestle, water withdrawal during a drought could drain the aquifer and leave nearby wells dry. She also criticized the company for not considering warming climate trends when studying wildlife, wetlands and the long-term ecology of the aquifer. Nestle dismissed the report as "not based on scientific evidence."

If Nestle's Colorado operation doesn't appear totally absurd, just stop reading here. Otherwise, consider that Nestle CEO Paul Bulcke is the guy who once declared that water is not an essential human right, and that it should be privatized. (In fairness, that's an eight year old statement that Bulcke and Nestle have vigourously refuted.) It's an idea many degrees more weird and gross than any claim that Monsanto has made over the ownership of seeds.

Photo: DJ Waldow

Two hydrogens and one oxygen. Water bottlers really want you to think that this is a compound that is special and is conjured forth by magic rocks rather than the global network of cycles that move water from sea to sky to ground to sea and over again, with some rest stops in underground aquifers and 7-11 coolers. (They also want you think that your tap must be yucky because it's practically free, but let's save that for another time.)

Tap water is treated, of course, by more or less the same filtration processes bottlers use, while bacteria are killed by the addition of chlorine. Unless you're a bacterium, chlorine is actually fine in the amounts used in drinking water, but if you're super-paranoid and think Big Chlorine is in cahoots with your local water supply to give you cancer, then it can be removed easily enough with a filter. (The same cannot be said for those places where the water is contaminated, and not just in developing countries; even if the Colorado governor likes to demonstrate the safety of fracking fluid by drinking the stuff, that doesn't excuse the fact that the companies that frack aren't required by law to disclose which chemicals they're pumping into the ground.)

The specific locations of aquifer sources in the Colorado mountains don't actually have much to do with how bacteria in your water supply get killed, whether its by UV light or good old chemicals. Ideally, we wouldn't have to go after bacteria in our water supply at all, but there's just too much poop in the world.

Photo: Tom Arthur

The fact it's one of the key ingredients for life on Earth as we know it seems a pretty good argument for calling two hydrogens and one oxygen a human right. But Bulcke doesn't even have to argue that water should be privatized. In a way, consumers have helped make that argument for him, simply by allowing water to become a global phenomenon for a thirsty consumer class, on full florescent-lit display at our corner convenience store, anywhere.

Meanwhile, aquifers are drying up, fast; in the U.S., groundwater levels are falling faster than at any other time in the past century. Pollution is hurting the supplies we have. In other places, fights over water can look a lot more brutal than shouting at a town hall. Winning the impeding water wars, which will be between countries but, even more so, against profits, will involve staring down the basic, absurd assumption that water is a thing that we must pay a lot for, and for a lot more than just money.

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