This drought is a bummer. My yard is less lush, and my car is dirty. But having grown up in this state, I learned long ago to turn off the tap while I brush, take quick showers and plant succulents. So, I am not suffering. In truth, hardly any of us are. Yes, it’s hot, and yes, we need to cut back. But I am not panicking, because I still have free clean water that comes out of the wall of my house 24 hours a day.
But panic has struck, regardless. In the wake of mandatory water restrictions, picket lines and online petitions have formed in response to revelations that more than 100 bottling companies in our state take 3 billion gallons of our water each year and ship it across the country. Although I applaud any activism that champions water conservation, I think this campaign is missing the point.
What the bottled water companies are doing is certainly offensive. But the quantity of water being bottled is relatively small in the scheme of things. Those 3 billion gallons companies bottle per year is only about one-eighth of 1 percent of what urban areas use (they suck up 2.4 trillion — with a “t” — gallons per year), while agriculture uses a whopping 8.6 trillion gallons. Certainly we should conserve. But shouldn’t activism focus on why we are drinking bottled water at all?
Nearly half the bottled water we buy does not come from the pristine landscapes depicted on their labels, but from treated municipal sources. Still, the U.S. consumes 8 billion gallons of bottled water every year even though, thanks to the EPA, this country has some of the safest drinking water on the planet. It seems as though we have fallen for the oldest trick in the book — manufactured demand.
A few decades ago soda companies realized that there was a limit to our consumption of their product. By creating a scary image of tap water and a cool image of bottled water, they hoped we would buy a product we didn’t need. We totally fell for it and now pay 2,000 times more for a packaged product that we can get for almost nothing.
Personally, I find this embarrassing.
The recommended eight glasses of water a day will cost you about 49 cents a year if you drink them from the tap. Drinking them in bottled form will cost you $1,400. But the thievery of the bottling companies — taking our water and selling it back to us at a huge markup — is not the only offense here. Manufacturing the bottles uses 17 million barrels of oil a year, and even more fossil fuels are consumed in the transportation of bottled water to other, wetter states. The incineration of bottling waste releases toxic pollutants. And despite recycling efforts, 80 percent of water bottles still end up in landfills — often shipped overseas and out of our sight. And there are even health risks from the bottle itself, which can leach toxins from reuse or heating (even if left too long in the cup holder of your hot, fuel-efficient car). Bisphenol-A (BPA), used in plastic packaging, interferes with the body’s hormones and has been linked to cancer and diabetes. But BPA-free is not necessarily safe either, because the outdated Toxic Substance Control Act does not require companies to prove safety, and testing of substitute products still shows chemical hazards.
If these facts still haven’t converted you into a “tapper” (I just made up that word, but I think it’s going to catch on), consider global water use. About 900 million people around the world have no access to clean drinking water. That is nearly three times the population of the U.S. Approximately 2,600 people around the world die each day from diseases directly linked to lack of clean water. And those who aren’t dying are spending 140 million hours a day collecting water. Imagine if you had to walk five miles to collect and carry a gallon of water for your family. We are not even willing to walk from the far end of a parking lot. Free water from your wall sounds pretty good now, huh? What if we used all the energy and money directed at bottled water and used it, instead, to bring clean water to the rest of the world. Great idea, right? (Sometimes I amaze myself.)
So you’ll stop drinking bottled water now, right? Yeah, I know that, despite the overwhelming evidence against bottled water, and countless blind taste tests that prove tap water tastes just as good, some of you will still turn up your noses at tap water. While it is true that no water is pristine, the EPA has strict testing standards and regulations in place to treat tap water for removal or deactivation of pathogens through disinfection and filtration. The EPA does not monitor bottled water. The FDA handles bottled water, but their guidelines are much less strict. If you are concerned about the quality of your tap water, you can visit your city’s water district website for detailed reports of current water quality. The level of contaminants in my tap water doesn’t concern me — I’m confident that it is at least as safe as the meal I’m eating from trendy food trucks, the pool I’m swimming laps in, the summer fire-season air I’m breathing and hundreds of products I have in my home with ingredients I can’t pronounce. (The point being — we do not live in a hermetically sealed world.)
But if you are still tap-shy, there are sensible solutions even easier than remembering your canvas grocery bags. First, you can filter your tap water. Filters are available for pitchers and individual bottles and can even be attached to your tap or plumbing. But an even cheaper and easier way to perk up the flavor of your water is through infusion. A lemon slice or two in a jug of water is delightfully refreshing and could land your kitchen counter on the cover of Sunset Magazine. And for those who are even more daring, recipes that use herbs, spices, vegetables and fruits can help quench that drought-induced thirst in a trendy, food-porny way.
Or, you could become a tap connoisseur. There is actually a contest for the best tap water. It’s the annual Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting. And you might be surprised to learn that the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has repeatedly ranked in the top five. (That’s your tap!)
I still blow a gasket when I see lush green lawns, leaking sprinklers and clean cars. And I absolutely stalk the neighborhood with my smartphone posting #droughtshame offenses. But more important, I drink water from the wall.
You should too.