Back Talk: Elizabeth Royte

Back Talk: Elizabeth Royte

Environmental writer Elizabeth Royte plumbs our obsession with bottled water.


Adrian BellesguardElizabeth Royte

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

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.

So there should be more centralized planning of where communities are built? As government policy?

Well just as, yeah–smart growth, smart planning. Are you talking about in the US or globally? I just think everywhere people shouldn’t live where it’s difficult to live and where it takes a higher environmental and human toll to keep people living. Dubai is a funny example. They have a lot of money and a lot of oil. They don’t have any water. They’re pretty much the largest bottled water consumers per capita in the world. They can make all the water they want through desalinization, but it takes a lot of energy. Should people live in Dubai? I guess I don’t really want to comment on whether Dubai should exist. It’s been there for a long time. But that’s an exception, where they have the oil and the money, and they’re making their own water.

So instead of diverting rivers to get water to Arizona, maybe people just should live somewhere else?

I think so. I’ve said it!

Should tap water become more expensive as a way of improving the infrastructure?

Yeah, I think that tap water is underpriced. We need the money to fix the infrastructure. That money can come from the government, and it can come from big users of water and big polluters of water, but rate-payers have to be willing to pay to take care of public supplies. People would use their water more wisely if it cost more. We wouldn’t be taking expensively treated water and cleaning our sidewalks with it or washing our cars.

How can people be persuaded to give up convenience?

People should buy refillable bottles. They’ll save so much money, for one thing. And they have to get over the idea that they need to drink eight eight-ounce glasses of water a day. Drink when you’re thirsty. If you’re worried about being thirsty, bring a bottle with you and take responsibility for it. We have this mentality of instant gratification and wanting to have it right now. Don’t be so spoiled! Bring a refillable bottle, fill it from the tap. And if you don’t bring it, know that you’re not going to desiccate on the spot. You’ll probably survive until you get to a place with water.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing an article about Orange County. They take their wastewater and, instead of sending it out to the ocean, they’re cleaning it up in the wastewater treatment plant and then sending it to another plant right next door where they’re running it through ultrafiltration and reverse osmosis, and then running it back into the taps. If you don’t like it you call it toilet-to-tap, and if you’re in favor you call it water recycling.

How does it taste?

It tastes great. But the funny thing is, they make this really clean water, they go through a lot of hoops, use a lot of energy. Then they run it into the ground, and they mix it in with groundwater, or water from the Santa Ana River, from the Colorado River and from the Sacramento River, which are their surface water sources. They’re actually taking very clean water and making it dirtier by mingling it. They do it for psychological reasons. People didn’t want to think about it coming right from the plant.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about water?

How it’s really not a black-and-white issue. A lot of my ideas were turned around as I learned about the problems with tap water and why people might be wary of it. We have to work on these municipal water-supply problems. We need $250 billion over the next twenty years. In 1978 the federal government supplied 78 percent of money to the states for clean water, and now it’s 3 percent. So the Bush Administration has thrown up its hands–they think it’s a local issue or a state issue. They haven’t been willing to provide funds for cities to maintain wastewater treatment plants or clean drinking-water plants. It all goes together.

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