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Is Too Much Bottled Water Coming from Drought Stricken Regions?

Leon Kaye | Tuesday August 12th, 2014 | 4 Comments
Bottled water, drought, California, tap water, farming, beverage companies, Leon Kaye, groundwater, water stewardship

San Luis Reservoir, one visible example of California’s drought.

The bottled water industry has grown exponentially the past few decades despite the fact tap water in the United States is generally safe. Never mind the fact bottled water producers have had more than their fair share of safety issues: Bottled water has become accepted by consumers. While companies such as Nestlé insist they are taking responsibility for water stewardship and recycling, they also bottle their water at dubious sources, including those in drought stricken regions.

In fact, much of the bottled water produced in the U.S. comes from areas affected by drought. As an article recently posted on Mother Jones illustrates, four of the most popular bottled water brands — Aquafina, Dasani, Arrowhead and Crystal Geyser — come largely from California. True, farming takes up the lion’s share of water in the state, and bottled water in the grand scheme of things is not parching California on its own. But at a time when California is struggling to provide residents, industry and farmers adequate supplies of water, more citizens are asking why it is bottled here and shipped out of state.

Part of the problem is regulation, or lack of it. While most states monitor and restrict groundwater use to ensure supplies are not depleted, California lacks any such laws. The state’s legislature is finally starting to address this oversight, but even if the legislation in current form is passed, the state will long be in danger if the current drought conditions do not improve. Agencies in charge of groundwater basins will not have to issue sustainability plans until 2020, and those plans would not have to be fully implemented until 2040, according to the Washington Post. Over half of the bottled water churned in California and ending up in PET bottles is groundwater, though the bottling companies prefer the more exotic term, “spring water.”

Whether it is spring water, groundwater or water coming from other municipal supplies, the point is that the state could be using this water for far better use than allowing beverage companies to bottle it and mark it up to sell it at obscene profit margins. Despite the bottling industry’s bizarre claims that bottled water production is “ironically” low compared to that of processing other beverages, it still takes almost 1.7 liters of water to produce a liter of bottled water. Add the wasted plastic resulting from the petroleum that could be better used as fuel, plus the energy required to produce bottled water, and we have an oddly unsustainable industry despite these companies’ fervent claims to the contrary.

In the end, consumers need to be convinced tap water really is the cost-effective and safe alternative. While many bottling companies refuse efforts at transparency when it comes to disclosing the actual sources of their water, recent snafus such as the loss of drinking water in Toledo, Ohio (through no fault of the city) give bottlers more ammunition to pitch their product. Nevertheless, the strange spectacle of bottling water in a state entering its third year of drought should give us pause before we spurn the tap in favor of those brightly-labeled bottles.

Image credit: Climate.gov

Leon Kaye has lived in Abu Dhabi for the past year and is on his way back to California. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter. Other thoughts of his are on his site, greengopost.com.


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  • JimK

    I drink bottled water out of convenience, not because I think tap water is dangerous. Plus I don’t like the taste of tap water.

  • am

    I enjoy the bottled water because it is chilled and portable, tap water is not. Lets all be honest here the municipal water depts charge families for sewer and water usage so they are still making money they are just not reporting it because they dont have to.

  • Amy

    Instead of buying convenient bottled water, another option is to purchase Nalgene bottles of different sizes, fill them, and store them in the fridge for a quick “grab and go” option while you are out running around.

  • IBWA

    I represent the bottled water industry and wanted to raise a couple of points. As you correctly point out, the amount of groundwater used for bottled water is tiny. Bottled water production from groundwater sources accounts for less than 0.02% of the total groundwater withdrawn in the U.S. each year. All bottlers adhere to federal, state, and local regulations, which may include withdrawal limits and fees, taxes, local regulatory oversight, and applicable facility monitoring and inspection. Also, 100% of all bottled water is intended for human consumption, the highest use for water.

    You also comment on the definition of term “spring water.” It is not just a marketing move, as you imply. Both “spring water” and “purified water” are federally-defined terms that have specific, regulated meanings. All packaged foods and beverage products, including bottled water, have extensive federal labeling requirements, including the type of water in the container, ingredient labeling, name and place of business of the manufacturer, packer or distributor, net weight, and, if required, nutrition labeling. In addition, almost all bottled water products also have a phone number and/or website address on the label.

    Not everyone knows that bottled water is comprehensively regulated by the FDA as a packaged food product. By federal law, the FDA regulations governing the safety and quality of bottled water must be at least as stringent as the EPA standards for tap water. And, in some very important cases like lead, coliform bacteria, and E. coli, bottled water regulations are substantially more stringent.

    As people choose to live a healthier lifestyle, they are drinking more water. And, many are choosing bottled water instead of less healthy packaged beverages – which also use more water to manufacture. In fact, at 1.32 liters per liter of finished water (including the liter consumed), bottled water uses less water to make than any other beverage. The 1.7 liters figure mentioned in your story does not even appear in the linked reference, which actually cites an altogether different global water use figure.
    Most people who drink bottled water also drink tap water, and that’s a good thing. Water is the healthiest beverage, and bottled water provides consumers with a safe, convenient, refreshing, and responsible choice. It’s the healthiest calorie-free drink on the shelf.

    You can learn more at http://www.bottledwater.org.