With bottled water back in the news after Nestlé announced that it’s pulling out of its contentious project in McCloud, California, I figured it’s a good time to briefly review two recent books on bottled water.
“Wellsprings: A Natural History Of Bottled Spring Waters” by Francis H. Chapelle provides a comprehensive history of bottled water and a technical overview of the hydrology that creates spring water. Dr. Chapelle is a widely respected hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and author of over one hundred peer reviewed papers and the leading textbook “Ground-Water Microbiology and Geochemistry.” Chapelle has given water wonks an informative and thoroughly researched book. Its detailed history of bottled water contradicts the popular perception that this is a new fad. Spring water was bottled for sale in America as far back as 1767, when Jackson’s Spa water was bottled and sold in Boston. The size and value of the bottled water market is also nothing new; in 1856, Saratoga Springs in New York produced and sold 7 million bottles of water at $1.75 per pint (in modern dollars). When public water suppliers began using chlorination to provide safer drinking water in 1913, the bottled water industry fell off. But it came back in 1977 when Perrier made bottled water fashionable again. Chapelle couples this historical perspective with a technical survey of America’s springs. He describes his visits to many spring water bottling enterprises, some so small that they are literally mom and pop operations.
“Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It” by Elizabeth Royte provides a journalistic look at our most important beverage. Royte has definitely hit the big time with Bottlemania; it made the front page of the New York Times Book Review. The book looks at the growing popularity of bottled water and the recent backlash against it. Royte primarily explores three questions. First, is bottled water healthier to drink than tap? Her answer is “no,” but she also shows that tap water may be unsafe because we have as a society neglected both our watersheds and our water infrastructure. Second, she asks if bottled water is bad for the environment. Her answer is “yes,” but again she also points out the tremendous environmental (and social) impacts of public water supplies, focusing on the dams and reservoirs that have transformed the Catskill Mountains landscape to provide New York City with its famously great tap water. Finally, she asks if it’s right for a company like Nestlé to bottle and sell a public resource. She does not give a definitive answer to this question, instead showing how the issue is debated in a small Maine town divided over a local Nestlé “Poland Springs” bottled water plant.
The two books have almost no overlap in their coverage of bottled water issues and they provide two very different perspectives. Chapelle does not seem at all concerned with turning water into a product or commodity by bottling and selling it, perhaps because his historical work shows that bottled water has been big business for over a century already. Nor is he terribly concerned with the environmental impact of bottled water, probably because he has visited many small spring water bottling operations that have had almost no impact on the local watershed. Royte’s research began with Nestlé and its high volume sales and large water bottling operations that cause so much controversy in small New England towns. Royte views bottled water as a threatening alternative to tap water, and is justifiably concerned that we are not doing enough to protect our public water. Both authors are justified in their perspectives, and together they provide a complete look at bottled water in America.