Elizabeth Royte is an environmental writer (and former Nation intern) whose most recent book, Bottlemania, tells the story of Americans’ love affair with potable portability from Fryeburg, Maine, where the town’s residents are battling Poland Springs’s ongoing drainage of the local water supply. For more information on the facts behind bottled and tap water, visit www.bottlemania.net.
What’s the bottled water situation?
In 2007 we drank about 50 billion bottles of water in the United States. It takes 17 million barrels of oil to make all the bottles we use in this country [for water], and the making of those bottles generates 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide. The backlash against bottled water in 2007 wasn’t about the water or privatization or pollution or any of that–it was about the carbon. It was all about oil. [A man passes on the street with two bottles of Fiji water in his handcart.] Fiji water. How can anyone walk around with that now? Fiji has become the poster child of the carbon footprint. It comes 5,000 miles over the ocean, and then it goes onto trucks. I mean, I desperately would love to taste Fiji water, because everyone says it’s really good and really different, but I can’t buy it. To me that’s like a Hummer.
What are the laws about water?
Surface water laws in this country are pretty clear–they’re part of the public trust. But we don’t have any public trust laws for groundwater, and different states have different rules about who can take the water. In Maine they have a very old law called the rule of absolute dominion, which says if you own the property you can take as much water as you want–which gives Poland Springs a chance to lease or buy land and take as much water as they want from underground.
Is tap water bad because we buy bottled water, or do we buy bottled water because tap water is bad?
I’m afraid there is a perception that tap water is of poor quality. There are multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns that imply that bottled water is cleaner and safer, when in general, bottled water can have just about the same levels of contaminants as tap water–but it’s inspected far less frequently. At least with tap water we know what we’re getting, because we have right-to-know reports. When bottled-water plants are inspected, which is really infrequently–the FDA has like one inspector or just a few to do hundreds and hundreds of plants, and so they get visited every one to five years–the results aren’t made public. So you really never know what’s in bottled water or if they’re maintaining their equipment.
Can bottled water be useful in providing water to drier climates?
I don’t think so. It makes more sense not to live in places that are really dry. It’s just not sustainable. And why should we grow water-hungry crops in the desert? We have to be smarter about how we’re using our water and think about how far we really want to go, how much money we want to spend and how much oil we want to burn in order to get water to people who shouldn’t be living in a desert and having swimming pools and golf courses.