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Commentary By Max Schulz


Water, Water Everywhere -- But We Buy What We Drink

To understand the differences between Evian and Ethos you have to speak to an expert. So, in her new book "Bottlemania," journalist Elizabeth Royte consulted a water connoisseur whose refined palette can distinguish between various brands of bottled water. "This is pretty much what rainwater tastes like," he says of one sample. "It would be good with sushi."

Americans' per capita consumption of bottled water has jumped from 5.7 gallons in 1987 to more than 27 gallons today, with more than 700 domestic and 75 imported brands to choose from. Even though America has among the cleanest, safest drinking water supplies on the planet, astoundingly, bottled water is an $11 billion industry.

Why is it that consumers routinely shell out their hard-earned dollars - and lots of them - for something they can get from the tap for a fraction of the cost? How did bottled water turn from a high-end fashion accessory to a staple of people's everyday lives?

Royte does provide a breezy, accessible history of water through the ages, from the ancient Romans and Egyptians to the massive Croton Reservoir, with walls 50 feet high and 25 feet thick, that sat on the site of what is now the New York Public Library.

She also gives a good account of the tensions in the little town of Fryeburg, Maine. "Through an accident of geology, Fryeburg is now paying the price for America's infatuation with bottled water," Royte argues. Nestle bottles and markets Fryeburg water and sells it under the Poland Spring brand. Residents are concerned what Nestle's pumping more than 800,000 gallons per day from the local sources eventually will do to their water supply. Their concerns would seem perfectly legitimate, and Royte basically comes down on their side against the large, multinational corporation. "When a large corporation - with all the lawyers, PR professionals and hydrological reports that money can buy - goes up against individual citizens, it's hardly a level playing field," she writes.

Unfortunately, this particular property right dispute, though well documented, isn't what animates Royte's book as much as a general unease with capitalism. Rather than give readers an account of how and why bottled water has become so ubiquitous, she offers a cliched attack on bottle water that reads like warmed over Greenpeace talking points.

"Among a certain psychographic, bottled water is now the mark of the devil, the moral equivalent of driving a Hummer," Royte asserts. Why? Bottled water used to be limited to the snob set. Now the masses buy it. "By democratizing bottled water - lowering its price and broadening its target - commodity waters wrecked the party for everyone," she claims.

According to Royte bottled water is "private" water; it is "corporate." And to her, corporations aren't institutions that profit by giving consumers something they desire, but ciphers that profit by making a commodity out of something that nature gives us for free. "If we believe water is a basic human right - such as freedom from persecution or equality before the law - they why would we let anyone slap a barcode on it?" she asks.

In Royte's view drinking bottled water undermines confidence in our public water supplies. "Not all tap water is perfect," she writes. "But it is the devil we know, the devil we have standing to negotiate with and improve. Bottled water companies don't answer to the public, they answer to shareholders."

Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It

by Elizabeth Royte

This piece originally appeared in New York Post

This piece originally appeared in New York Post