Thirst For Knowledge

Tapping into drinking water, a substance that’s been variously treated, distributed, regulated, consumed, and—unfortunately—taken for granted.
May 14, 2013

This was one commencement address not bound to be bobbing in the sea of the forgettable. It would not be especially “fun or breezy or grandly inspirational,” as the speaker (and the cultural phenomenon), David Foster Wallace, told Kenyon College seniors in 2005. But it would not be watered-down wisdom, as he signaled with his starting parable: “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’ ”

The point of the fish story, Wallace said, is that “the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.” And what could be more obvious, ubiquitous, and important—and so seldom a discussion item—than water, particularly the water we drink?

Saltzman: The popularity and availability of bottled water may cause public fountains to be as rare as phone booths. (Credit: Les Todd)

 As it happens, water is a discussion item on a typically sunny late-winter day in Durham’s typically crowded Whole Foods. Not far from the array of wines is a table stacked with water bottles, a display presided over by a salesman decked out in large earrings, multiple finger rings, and a print shirt ablaze with fire-spewing dragons. Formerly in the vitamin-supplements business, he’s offering little cups of Aquation, “purified spring water” that is “recommended by dental professionals.” He’s also handing out cards inviting customers to experience “fresh hydration powered by Xylitol & Electrolytes.” The water itself— “spring water bottled at the source”—is infused with Aquation’s “proprietary oral-health blend,” purified with “advanced filtration,” and “certified Kosher.”

Did lead pipes contribute to the fall of the Roman Empire? Not likely. The aqueducts were constantly flowing, so the water would not have had the chance to settle and stay in contact with lead for very long. Also, the geology around Rome is dominated by limestone, meaning that calcium carbonate would have built up to the point of providing a sort of inner pipe or insulating layer removed from the lead.

Water, water, everywhere, the upscale aisles of Whole Foods included, and who knows what we should be drinking? A new guide through the confusing currents is Drinking Water, a book by James Salzman, who holds appointments in Duke’s law school and the Nicholas School of the Environment. Salzman specializes in natural-resources law. “Any time there is a resource that’s scarce—whether it’s an endangered species, timber, or water—the law is going to have to step in and figure out questions of regulation and distribution, and how to negotiate the tradeoffs,” he says. “If we’re concerned about saving endangered species, how do we factor in communities built around logging?”

The book earned a cover blurb from Guns, Germs, and Steel author Jared Diamond (“Even if you prefer to drink wine—it’s mostly water anyway—you’ll enjoy this book"); was a "recommended" read in Scientific American (with one online comment speculating that “solar-power atmospheric water generators” would be the liquid provider of the future); and, according to Amazon, floated comfortably into the realm of the history of the commonplace (“frequently paired” with Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat). “Water is one of the few true universals,” Salzman says. “Issues around drinking water occur everywhere and across all time. Drinking water is an essential human act. What’s more interesting is how cultures have invested in the supernatural or metaphysical aspects of water. For any society built around natural springs, there’s always a supernatural linkage with this substance that comes pouring out from rocks. So there’s also a mystery to water.”

There’s little mystery about the placement of settlements from the Neolithic time onward. Reliable sources of drinking water were nearby, whether they were wells, springs, streams, or lakes. And the history of urban planning is the history, in part, of societies figuring out how to store and distribute water. From the American Southwest to the Middle East, excavations of ancient civilizations have produced plenty of archaeological evidence of sophisticated water management.

For most of history, safe drinking water has been the precious exception. In much of the world, safe drinking water remains precious: More than a billion people lack access to even a basic water supply. Well over 2 billion people lack adequate sanitation. Where communal or free water sources are too far away or clearly contaminated, the poor purchase their water from street vendors or tanker trucks. These prices are always higher than the price of water from municipal supply systems, often twelve to twenty times as much, producing “the tragic irony of the poorest in society paying the most for their water,” Salzman writes.

Payment is just one aspect of how drinking water is regulated, and regulation, stretching to water-safety concerns, has never been a purely technical matter. Notions of safety evolve over time and across cultures; they’re shaped by understanding of disease, technological capability, aversion to risk, and social wealth. In his book, Salzman sketches a cholera outbreak in Victorian-era London, in 1854. It was a time when most people still imagined miasma, or airborne vapors, rather than germs, to be the drivers of disease. The outbreak caught the attention of an influential London physician, John Snow; he found that every cholera victim had lived within a quarter-mile of the popular Broad Street Pump. It was a finding translated into Snow’s “Ghost Map” of cholera-case clustering. Local officials were persuaded to shut down the water source, and the outbreak stopped soon after. “This marked both the first time a government had sought to stop the outbreak of a water-borne disease,”says Salzman, “and the birth of the modern field of epidemiology.”

Having embraced the modern field of epidemiology, we now take for granted that our tap water is subject to exacting chemical and biological analyses. According to Durham’s Department of Water Management, “Everyone expects to turn on their tap and have clean, safe drinking water flow out,” and to flow out “in full compliance” with regulatory requirements. The soothingly labeled Safe Drinking Water Act requires the Environmental Protection Agency to set maximum contaminant levels for copper, lead, and more than eighty other compounds. Salzman points out that since its passage in 1974, the act has regulated ninety-one contaminants. “That sounds impressive until one realizes that more than 60,000 chemicals are used within the United Sates, and the number is growing. Moreover, since the year 2000, not a single chemical has been added to the list. Indeed, many of the standards for chemicals that are listed have not been revised since the 1980s or 1970s.”

A key point about safety, in Salzman’s view, is that just because something obnoxious is in our drinking water does not mean it poses a significant hazard. For that matter, just because mice or rats will respond in some strongly negative way to a mega-dose of something doesn’t make that something off-limits, at any level, for humans. He mentions the August 2011 issue of Reader’s Digest, with its bright red cover warning that our water “may contain: rocket fuel, birth control pills, arsenic, and more shocking ingredients.” An accurate if alarming assessment, but one that ignores the scientific view that mere traces of many compounds are harmless, in Salzman’s view. “Arsenic’s mere presence in a glass of water does not mean you’re poisoning yourself by drinking it.” Of course, there are contrary findings that low levels of some things—that their presence at any threshold—might not be just abstractly “shocking” but actually harmful.

Perhaps the most impressive ancient water engineering in the Americas was constructed at Machu Picchu by the Incas, who faced the challenge of moving water from a distant spring to their capital, located at an elevation of more than 7,000 feet. Sloping canals delivered water through agricultural terraces to the emperor's residence and then, through a series of sixteen fountains, down the mountain to the city's residents.

The inevitable uncertainty around safety standards helps explain the popularity of bottled water and its branding strategy, which plays up the natural, pure essence of the clear liquid. Yet most bottled water, because it doesn’t apply to interstate commerce (and therefore to Food and Drug Administration oversight), is exempt from federal regulation. And some states don’t regulate bottled water at all. Salzman found that Massachusetts dedicates only one-quarter of one person per year to supervise bottled water in the state. As Salzman puts it, “All of the ‘0 percent’ daily values tell us precisely 0 percent about the water’s specific source, mineral composition, and quality.”

On the other hand, New York City, according to its most recent self-reporting, collects more than 1,200 tapwater samples per month from some 546 locations. Officials analyze those samples for a host of water-quality indicators: bacteria, chlorine levels, acidity, pollutants, clarity, odor.

For better or worse, bottled water helped inspire Drinking Water. Not long before David Foster Wallace was set to deliver his iconic address with its watery metaphor, Salzman was teaching a class on the Clean Water Act. And he was surprised to see that more than half his students had bottles of water sitting on their desks. If tap water is safer than ever before, he wondered, then why is bottled water so popular?

These days, he says, his students are more likely to be deploying Nalgenes, translucently colored containers that are advertised as being environmentally friendly and virtually indestructible. Still, Salzman notes that in 2011, Americans drank more than 9 billion gallons of bottled water—roughly 312 single-serve bottles per man, woman, and child. Bottled water, he says, is poised to become the nation’s dominant beverage, surpassing even soft drinks.

The lure of the personalized water container is somewhat ironic, since, as Salzman’s book makes clear, civilized societies were built around water management. Rome is the prime example, and one that the U.S. would do well to heed: Salzman writes that across the U.S., a major water pipe bursts every two minutes, with much of the water infrastructure built decades ago or even dating back to the Civil War. By comparison, the Romans were water-savvy and certainly infrastructure-minded. The waters of the high-rising Marcia aqueduct, built in 144 B.C.E., were distributed throughout the city by gravity and largely used for drinking. Almost half of the aqueduct’s water went to private use, and roughly a quarter went to the city’s public basins, known as lacus, which were used by citizens for gathering water for domestic use. But some particularly privileged citizens had pipes running from the main system to their houses. For that luxury, they were assessed a special water tax, known as a vectigal. Piped delivery of water to a private residence was a status symbol of wealth; a major black market arose in “puncturing”—attaching secret pipes to main lines in order to draw water illicitly into private residences.

Rome illustrated two different and still-competing concepts, then, of drinking water: a public good provided by right through imperial beneficence, and a private good for domestic consumption. Salzman writes, “To the wealthy Roman, water in the house—whether for drinking, an ornamental fountain, or domestic uses—effectively was a priced good. The water itself was free, but charging for the service of water delivery made it a commodity. To the average Roman resident, however, water in the city was available by right, as free for the taking as water from the Tiber River.”

During the Middle Ages, holy wells throughout Europe began to compete with one another for the burgeoning commerce of pilgrims. In an early example of product branding, each holy well produced its own distinctive container with a special seal. By the eighteenth century, such spa towns as Bath in England and Saratoga Springs in New York were feeling the branding imperative. Given the attraction of taking the waters at the spa, it seemed a logical (or business-smart) step to promote the possibility of taking the waters home. And so the spas bottled their own mineral waters.

For the U.S., the first bottled-water carrier was, at least according to legend, Benjamin Franklin. Enamored of the spring water in France during his time there as ambassador, he arranged for the shipment of a supply to Philadelphia upon his return, “delighting his dining companions with French wine and French water,” Salzman writes.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, bottled water was becoming available well beyond ambassadorial circles. In 1845, Poland Spring sold its first bottled water in a three-gallon clay jug. Vittel, Deer Park, and Arrowhead followed, all taking advantage of rapid advances in bottling technology and industrial processes, along with the growth of railroads for ease of transport.

Jewish law regarding drinking water has been traced as far back as 3000 B.C.E., when Semitic tribes settled in Ur in the land of Mesopotamia. The basic rule was one of common property. As the later writings o the Talmud put it: "Rivers and streams forming springs, these belong to every man." Islamic and Jewish water law flow together harmoniously: The Arabic word for Islamic law, "Sharia," literally means "the way to water."

Timeless commodity: The Water Carrier of Seville by Diego Velazquez. (Credit: Summerfield Press/CORBIS)

In Drinking Water, Salzman sketches an early bottled-water success story. The carbonated waters from the town of Vergeze, close to Nimes in the south of France, had been celebrated since Roman times. In 1863, Emperor Napoleon III granted Alphonse Granier, former mayor of Vergeze, permission to sell water from the local spring that formerly had been free for the taking. Granier hired Louis Perrier, a doctor interested in the use of hydrotherapy to treat arthritis, to help run the spa. Three decades later, Perrier and a group of financial supporters, drawn to the market potential of its waters, purchased the spring. Seeking additional capital, Perrier brought on an Englishman, Saint-John Harmsworth, who had sampled the waters while traveling in France. Harmsworth—paralyzed from what Salzman says must have been among the very first car accidents—chose to keep the Perrier name but to create a new image for what he now called “The Champagne of Bottled Waters.”


The floodgates opened for the modern bottled-water market in 1976, with the transatlantic launch of Perrier. Perrier used a generous advertising budget to position its product as a healthy and chic drink. The company was riding a cultural wave. It recruited spokesman Orson Welles, perhaps not the picture of chicness, but an actor whose voice boomed with authority. It also had the marketing savvy to sponsor the 1979 New York City Marathon, where 6,000 runners competed in Perrier T-shirts. In Salzman’s words, “The health craze sweeping the nation fit perfectly Perrier’s positioning as a classy alternative to sugar-filled, fattening soda.”

Salzman offers a $54 million illustration of the strange supremacy of bottled water— the price tag for a new football stadium at the University of Central Florida. On opening day in 2007, security guards prevented fans from bringing water into the stadium. When those fans went to get a drink of water to cool off, they found no drinking fountains. The only water to be found was in $3 bottles at the concession stands. It’s remarkable, he says, that the stadium designers saw nothing wrong with failing to provide drinking fountains in a place where high temperatures and humidity are the norm. “Indeed, they saw it as a clever way to increase concession revenues.” Drinking fountains, he observes, are becoming rarer than pay phones.

In an acclaimed new novel (pretending to be a self-help book) by Mohsin Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, it’s not just drinking fountains that are disappearing; so, too, is safe and accessible drinking water. As the book sketches the sordid scene, “Your city’s neglected pipes are cracking, the contents of underground water mains and sewers mingling,” with the result that taps are disgorging water full of contaminants. The nameless hero in a nameless country finds an avenue to his filthy (or contaminated) riches: He builds a business empire by boiling tap water, sealing it in bottles collected from restaurants, and selling it as a health-promoting product.

Selling the book is a motivation for Hamid’s visit to a Raleigh bookstore, in March. Hamid tells his bookstore audience that his hero has “identified a market niche” by peddling something that’s not too dangerous, not too safe, not too expensive, but certainly not free. Hamid, unselfconsciously enough, takes an occasional sip from a bottle of Whole Foods’ own brand of spring water, 365, “bottled at the mountain source.” He says, “The market has become this all-powerful thing. In an über-capitalist society, the government does very little and people basically are on their own. People don’t have food, don’t have shelter, and increasingly don’t have water. What had been common property is now becoming expensive.”

Like the clueless consumers in Hamid’s novel, people are quick to buy into the idea that bottled water has benefits and a price to go along with those benefits. (In the annual “Drinking Water Supply and Quality Report,” New York officials tell residents that bottled water “costs up to 1,000 times more per year” than the city’s drinking water.) But it’s a big step from paying for health-promoting water in a bottle to having your free-flowing drinking water privatized; privatization is “a poster child for everything that’s wrong about globalization,” Salzman says. He adds that it’s a complicated issue, in part because a water company, unlike, say, an electricity provider, doesn’t actually own the water, even though it may own the water treatment, or the water lines, or even the water-channeling dam.

And the privatization record is mixed, as is the case for water as a firm foundation for building a business. There are plenty of examples of damaging effects from water privatization: rate hikes, cutoffs to customers who can’t pay, reduced water quality, secret contracts, bribery and corruption. But there are contrary examples, Argentina among them, where public authorities have failed to provide safe and adequate drinking water. After a wave of privatization in the 1990s, Argentina saw measurable benefits—cleaner water, faster repairs, improved water pressure, fewer stoppages, and the expansion of water lines into poorer areas not previously connected at all.

Ambiguities may endure over privatization, but in the U.S., some 95 percent of the water systems are public utilities. Drinking water in the U.S. is “a great success story,” Salzman says. “It’s remarkable that anywhere you travel in the United States, you don’t give a second thought to what you drink out of the tap.” Success, of course, has its limits: This winter, North Carolina’s media were filled with reports of dozens of wells in Wake County with dangerous levels of a cancer-causing chemical. Officials said that some of the contamination may have come from a former circuit-board manufacturer.

During the height of the Cold War, conspiracy theorists saw Communist nefariousness in the fluoridation of public water supplies. The fact that some fluorine compounds were used as rat poison made the thought scary—all of which informed Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. In the movie, General Jack D. Ripper launches a preemptive strike against the Soviet Union to thwart a plot to contaminate the "precious bodily fluids" of Americans.

Around the world, it’s an even murkier picture. According to UN estimates, by 2030 more than half of the world’s population will live in water-scarce areas. There are just two options, Salzman says. One is to move water from water-rich to water-scarce regions. (“Think tankers full of Great Lakes water plowing the seas toward the Middle East or icebergs towed from the poles.”) But there are plenty of challenges with that practice. In 2008, while suffering its worst drought in sixty years, Barcelona had six ships per month delivering more than 400 million gallons of freshwater—with a cost per gallon more than three times higher than that of regular water. The second strategy is to generate new supplies of water locally. But technology can offer only so much in the drinking-water arena: It’s hugely expensive to construct and operate desalination plants, and desalination relies on coal- or oil-fired power processes, which emit huge amounts of greenhouse gases that in turn aggravate climate change.

“There is little doubt that climate change will increase the scarcity of water in some areas over the coming decades,” says Salzman. Drinking water is only a small fraction of overall water consumption; in cities, authorities provide potable water for a range of uses, from cooking to flushing toilets. So “diminished availability of municipal water will, in turn, mean less water available for drinking,” he adds. “The story of Barcelona, as developed a city as anywhere in the world, and its need to buy tanks of fresh water, provides a cautionary tale.”

Salzman’s biggest water-related caution has to do with the declining infrastructure. “We’re not making the investments that we need to make to keep the system robust and resilient. It’s not that different from bridges and roads.” Any suggestion to hike water rates, he writes in the book, seems almost as taboo as talk of raising taxes. “Most people seem to assume that cheap water should be ours by right and that government, somehow, should find the means to pay for it on its own. We have taken the ready availability of water for granted in the past and intend to do so in the future.”