The bottle let me down

Somewhere along the way, when I wasn’t paying attention, I became big water’s best customer.

As a kid, if I was thirsty, I simply wrapped my lips around the nearest faucet or the hose in the front yard. The local water supply was plenty good enough for me.

Now I reach for the bottle every time.

I buy it by the case, and I drink copious amounts of the stuff. The empties litter the floorboards of my car and the top of my desk, waiting for me to trundle them off to the recycling bin. I never made a conscious decision to pay for what—somewhere in the back of my mind—I still consider to be the most basic of public goods. And I still don’t know where most of this water comes from. Until I read Josh Indar’s cover story (see “Drinking problem”), it never really occurred to me to ask.

Is there anything wrong with the tap water at my house? No, especially here in Sacramento, where our water comes from the American River and is pretty pristine by municipal standards.

It’s just that I have this vague feeling that the water that comes into my house is somehow not quite good enough. That’s where the water marketers really got me. Free water: bad. Paying for water: good.

And that’s where the bigger picture begins to emerge. Because there’s a whole other branch of the water industry that is making enormous profits off the stuff that comes out of the tap, too.

Companies like Bechtel, Vivendi and RWE Thames are busy privatizing public water systems in the United States and around the world. They go where governments can’t afford to upgrade the local infrastructure, promising millions in new investment. Then they can charge whatever the market will bear for something that we used to think should be free. Gradually, more and more of the world’s water supplies are coming under private control. The brilliance of the bottled-water industry is that it makes this change that much easier to swallow.