Natural Resources

Bottled Water: The New Slippery Slope

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Author Elizabeth Royte dislikes bottled water at the conceptual level. Among her reasons is that corporatizing water sheds might limit access for people who can't afford private water:

[Interviewer]: Some local communities object to their spring water being bottled and sold elsewhere. But what makes extracting water from a spring one place and selling it somewhere else any different from extracting oil or wood for timber?

[Royte]: What gets people so upset is that water is necessary for life. We can live without timber and we can live without oil, but water is something that everyone has to have access to, and it has to be affordable for everyone. And once we go down this path of letting these corporations control it, there's no telling where it will go.

Royte's objection ignores the fact that water isn't currently free—paying for water in the form of city utilities is still paying for water. The gist of the argument seems to be that addressing one's monthly payment to a private company is somehow less pure than sending a check to your local government:

[Interviewer]: You found that it's not just environmentalists who are denouncing bottled water now; there are nuns doing so, too. Why?

[Royte]: They see water as something spiritual, as well as necessary for life, and they just object to it being turned into a crude commodity, something that someone can control, put in a bottle, sell, and that people can't afford.

Nuns, and other people of faith, feel a sense of responsibility for the poor and, increasingly, for the earth. Bottled water, if it indeed hurts tap water by taking away public support to improve and protect it, will disproportionately hurt those who can't afford to buy their water privately.

As opposed as she is to bottled water, Royte doesn't call for sin taxes:

[Royte]: It's hard to make a case for singling out bottled water, especially when there's no tax on drinking unhealthy beverages. I don't want to turn people away from drinking water.

As to the affordability of private tap water: if companies can make a profit off water that they've bottled and shipped across the globe and country by charging only a buck or two, how much more could tap water (which is local and only mildly filtered) possibly cost than it does now?

Associate Editor Katherine Mangu-Ward on the EPA's biggest advocate for private water.

NEXT: Messiah Watch

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  1. Private water utilities are a good thing. Water bottling companies (private or gov’t-owned) are not. Water utilities generally adhere to cost causation principles, while water bottling companies are basically one giant negative externality (and I don’t mean environmentally).

  2. We can live without timber and we can live without oil…

    What are you a Bushman?

  3. Stop chlorinating tap water to the point it tastes like a public-pool in August, and maybe I’ll go back to drinking it.

    If Dasani or Evian were putting bleach in their bottled water at the same ppm, the enviros would scream bloody fucking murder.

  4. Water utilities generally adhere to cost causation principles,

    What are those?

    while water bottling companies are basically one giant negative externality (and I don’t mean environmentally).

    How so?

  5. So taking water and putting it into a bottle and selling it is bad, but taking water and adding sugar and caramel coloring to it and selling it is not bad?

    All those other bottled beverages have water as an ingredient, folks. Even milk and fruit juices, indirectly.

  6. Cost causation just means that the person who benefits from something (i.e., gives rise to the cost) pays for it. And externality is the opposite.

    If an area has, say, 10 million gallons of water a day to use, and bottling takes up 1/2 (I’m making these numbers up), then that leaves only 5 million gallons a day for development. People can’t move in because water isn’t available. Thus, in exchange for a couple of hundred bottling jobs, the local area’s growth stagnates, property values drop, etc. The bottling company doesn’t see this a negative externality, they view it as creating jobs.

    Nestle’s operations in Pasco County, FL, have created serious political friction. The Hillsborough River eventually provides the Tampa Bay area with much of its water. Yet Nestle continually fights to be permitted more withdrawals. It doesn’t take much to see that if Nestle had its way, nobody in Tampa Bay would have a drop of water. The negative aspects of reduced development owing to reduced water supplies….that’s the bottled water problem.

  7. Actually, private bottlers are rarely paying for the water that they take from fresh water sources. Each case, from Nestle on, that I have researched, has shown while people living in the areas may have to pay water costs, the companies drawing the water do not, or pay so little as to be of no consequence.

    Similar things happened in the timber industry, and mineral industries.

    I do support a “market” in things like water, but mostly what we have is government giveaways, corporate welfare, AGAIN.

    If there is one thing we can count on, it is that libertarians, especially around these here parts, are whole heartedly behind the direct support of Mercedes driving welfare queens, as long as they have incorporated first, in direct opposition to the free market.

    If corporations really paid reasonable rates for removal of water, there probably wouldn’t even be a “bottled water” industry in America. Certainly not one that looks like the present one does.

    Congrats, another fine post building straw arguments so that libertarians in favor of welfare can thrive again!

  8. Bottled water is for suckers(*). Can’t he just make that argument and move on? Why ruminate about TEH KORPERATIONS?

    (*) I use well water which happens to have a higher than usual arsenic level. Thus, I relied on bottled water (hooray for TEH KORPERATIONS!) until I got a filtration system installed.

  9. Nestle’s operations in Pasco County, FL, have created serious political friction. The Hillsborough River eventually provides the Tampa Bay area with much of its water. Yet Nestle continually fights to be permitted more withdrawals. It doesn’t take much to see that if Nestle had its way, nobody in Tampa Bay would have a drop of water. The negative aspects of reduced development owing to reduced water supplies….that’s the bottled water problem.

    If water were priced at market rates, this wouldn’t be a problem: Nestle would be forced to move their factory someplace where fresh water was more plentiful. As usual, this is a problem of government and rationing, not of the free market.

  10. When do I get my Mercedes? Will the trunk be filled with bottled water?

  11. As God is my witness, I just want to thrive again!

  12. Royte on responding to the sometimes questionable quality of tap water:
    I think people should know where their water comes from and what’s in it.

    The poor and the vulnerable about whom Royte worries are the people least able to get that information, and, if publicly regulated water systems are failing, their moving to brands they trust is doing a bit more to look out for their interests than Royte’s agitating for “public support to improve and protect” tap water.

    The poor have the right to be treated as consumers with options rather than a gross public with the meaningless right to lodge a complaint.

  13. rooticusrooticus is absolutely right. Even where water markets exist in the U.S. they are nowhere near free markets. Misallocation of water is a natural, predictable result of the situation.

  14. It seems to me that this externality problem Lamar is talking about results from poorly defined property rights. Look up the Coase theorem. As for the anti-private-water nun, I’m inclined to think she just hates anybody who doesn’t give up all private possessions and act like a goody-fuckin’-twoshoes all the time.

  15. If water were priced at market rates, this wouldn’t be a problem: Nestle would be forced to move their factory someplace where fresh water was more plentiful. As usual, this is a problem of government and rationing, not of the free market.

    And you propose to price a public resource just how, exactly?

    The Nestle problem (if described accurately) is a standard Tragedy of the Commons issue, which is only solvable via government intervention.

  16. And you propose to price a public resource just how, exactly?

    Sell the river to somebody; they’ll figure it out.

  17. And you propose to price a public resource just how, exactly?

    If Nestle can extract the entire throughput of the (apparently unowned) Hillsborough River from its source, they can sell it to whomever they like.

  18. MP,
    You are right the problem stems from the Tragedy of the Commons issue but you err in taking Hardin’s tack that it is only solvable by government regulation. Selling shares in the water supply, allowing competing companies and utilities to bid freely for water use, and various other solutions would probably work better.

  19. And you propose to price a public resource just how, exactly?

    Doesn’t the water come from a spring, or a reservoir, that is surrounded by land that can be sold? Wouldn’t the owner of said land then be able to sell the water at whatever price he could get for it?

    More fundamentally, what is a “public resource”? Please define these wacky terms before you try to use them to defend your viewpoint.

    The Nestle problem (if described accurately) is a standard Tragedy of the Commons issue, which is only solvable via government intervention.

    Only in the same sense as “heart attacks are caused by clogged coronary arteries.” You aren’t going far enough to pinpoint the root cause.

    “Tragedy of the commons” is a problem created by the government’s notion of “public land”. If all land were privately owned, there would be no commons on which to create a tragedy.

  20. Selling shares in the water supply

    Who is selling those shares?

  21. “Tragedy of the commons” is a problem created by the government’s notion of “public land”. If all land were privately owned, there would be no commons on which to create a tragedy.

    No, it’s not. It’s caused by the existence of things that aren’t naturally subdivideable. Thus, resource extraction can only being accomplished in a market friendly manner by setting a cap, which defines the marketplace. That cap is set, and can only be set, by the Government.

    Unless you really think that someone (individual, collective, whatever) could own Lake Superior.

  22. No, it’s not. It’s caused by the existence of things that aren’t naturally subdivideable. Thus, resource extraction can only being accomplished in a market friendly manner by setting a cap, which defines the marketplace. That cap is set, and can only be set, by the Government.

    Or if someone decides they want to drain a lake, the owners of about-to-be-former lakefront property can sue that person for damages, resulting in independent arbitrators/courts determining the value of the water in that particular lake through the magnitude of the damages. I don’t see that top-down regulation and/or rationing is at all necessary: the market can handle it just fine.

    FWIW, watch your unqualified assertions, e.g., “can only being [sic] accomplished” one way. Simply because you aren’t creative enough to figure out another way doesn’t mean another way doesn’t exist.

    Unless you really think that someone (individual, collective, whatever) could own Lake Superior.

    Somehow I doubt Lake Superior is in any danger of being drained anytime soon, so it’s probably not an issue there. Nonetheless, the same principle applies.

  23. “Who is selling those shares”.
    The government could sell those shares kind of like it sells public land. It’s not a perfect solution, but better than putting water rights under the eternal control of democratic government.

  24. Simply because you aren’t creative enough to figure out another way doesn’t mean another way doesn’t exist.

    When someone comes up with a creative solution, maybe I’ll change my stance.

    And BTW, your unrealistic tort solution isn’t one of them.

    The government could sell those shares kind of like it sells public land. It’s not a perfect solution, but better than putting water rights under the eternal control of democratic government.

    The sale of those shares by the Government does not remove the Government from the equation. The Government retains responsibility for enforcing the cap. It’s a permanent role player. Good to see though that you backed away from your original statement: you err in taking Hardin’s tack that it is only solvable by government regulation. A cap, and the enforcement of it, is regulation.

  25. And BTW, your unrealistic tort solution isn’t one of them.

    Because you say so? I hereby defer to your omniscience, oh great one.

    The Government retains responsibility for enforcing the cap. It’s a permanent role player.

    Yeah, but in this solution, government’s roles can essentially be boiled down to monitor, arbiter, and repo-man. It’s easy—even for me, with limited creativity—to see how to replace each of those with private organizations. Keeping them all together questionably provides a little (synergistic) efficiency and a lot of potential for corruption, as well as helping to bloat the State to the point that it stops being a mere arbiter of disputes and intervenes in private, externality-free transactions between consenting parties.

  26. Actually, private bottlers are rarely paying for the water that they take from fresh water sources. Each case, from Nestle on, that I have researched, has shown while people living in the areas may have to pay water costs, the companies drawing the water do not, or pay so little as to be of no consequence.

    Wow, way to compare apples and oranges.

    Private bottlers that don’t pay for water are rarely using public water. They generally use spring water or well water or river water. Any other user with a spring or a well or two feet to walk down to the river can get water for free, too.

    Saying that people who are not part of the public water system are using public water without paying for it is like saying that farmers are using public water without paying for it when rain falls on their crops.

    The water under my land is mine, buddy. If I dig a well or have a spring on my land, that water is mine. If it rains on my land, that rain water is mine. It’s not “public water I’m using without paying” or an “externality”.

  27. Because you say so? I hereby defer to your omniscience, oh great one.

    Wise choice.

    Yeah, but in this solution, government’s roles can essentially be boiled down to monitor, arbiter, and repo-man. It’s easy—even for me, with limited creativity—to see how to replace each of those with private organizations.

    Yes, that’s all possible. But you’re still not going to be able to completely remove the Government, even if you are able to marginalize it to the point where it is simply an accountability supervisor over a privately operated enforcement mechanism.

    And that’s my point. There’s no feasible circumstance under which the Government actor can be removed completely from equation of solving a Tragedy of the Commons issue.

  28. The water under my land is mine, buddy. If I dig a well or have a spring on my land, that water is mine. If it rains on my land, that rain water is mine. It’s not “public water I’m using without paying” or an “externality”.

    Unless the existence of the resource you are tapping is fully self-contained within the boundary of your plot, by what right is it exclusively yours?

    Remember that question next time Nestle taps into “your” water supply via an access point on the next lot and sucks it dry.

  29. Just to address the price of bottled water,
    As long as you aren’t buying fancy water by the single bottle from a gas station, it’s cheap as hell.

    If you are around your water ( like at home) and can use one of those cup or glass things, you can buy a gallon ( or a 2.5 gal or whatever other container you can find) of distilled, purified,drinking, or spring water for somewhere around 69 cents.

    If you prefer the liter individual bottles, you can regularly buy a 24 pack case at any grocery store ( assuming you live in an area with discount stores and at least 2-3 supermarkets competing) for 3-4 bucks. I sometimes get 24 packs for 2.50, or around 5 cents per cup of bottled water.

    Tap water isn’t free. I pay $150 per quarter for my water bill. Thats all from showers ( sorry stinky environmentalists), average laundry use, and running the dishwasher once a week tops. It probably costs me an extra 100 bucks just to use my son’s kiddie pool.

    Plus my tap water is nasty and tastes bad. IF I use only hot water and then chill it, it’s alright. Drinking straight cold tap water is pretty bad. And did I mention it kills fish and eats fixtures?

  30. “The water under my land is mine, buddy.”

    Change the word “water” for “oil” and you have the pretext of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

  31. How do these fucking morons feel about agriculture?

    Water Content of Foods

    Dry seeds, such as the grains and legumes were intentionally left off the following list as they should have a common moisture content of 10% or less. All pure fats and oils contain no water. The water content of each of the foods below is shown by the number following the food. After these foods have been dehydrated, their weight will be reduced by close to the following percentage:
    Almonds 7%
    Apples 85%
    Apricots 85%
    Bananas 76%
    Bean Sprouts 92%
    Beef Raw Hamburger 54%
    Bread Whole Wheat 35%
    Broccoli 91%
    Butter 20%

    You can get C – Z here. How do people get this goddam stupid? I’ve tried mass quantities of ethanol and can’t even approach this level of idiocy.

  32. This year the Vermont legislature passed a bill declaring groundwater a “public trust”:

    http://www.leg.state.vt.us/docs/legdoc.cfm?URL=/docs/2008/bills/senate/S-304.HTM

    They say all it does is require anyone who pumps more than 57,600 gallons a day to get a permit first, but you just know that eventually all wells in Vermont are going to licensed, taxed, and inspected.

  33. I’ve enjoyed watching the same pretentious jackasses who started the bottled water fad suddenly reverse course and become anti-bottled water, for whatever idiot reasons.

    Keep the entertainment coming, folks.

  34. Royte,
    What gets people so upset is that water is necessary for life. We can live without timber and we can live without oil, but water is something that everyone has to have access to, and it has to be affordable for everyone.

    Her argument stems from a non-sequitur: water is necessary for life, SO it must be made affordable. Ok, I did not expect her to be a logician, but heck, this is an easy one!

    And once we go down this path of letting these corporations control it, there’s no telling where it will go.

    A slippery-slope fallacy. Oh, dear.

    Bottled water, if it indeed hurts tap water by taking away public support to improve and protect it, will disproportionately hurt those who can’t afford to buy their water privately.

    Something like: If people prefer bottled over tap water, then we must make damned sure people USE tap water regardless of their preferences! Forward, Ho!

    Mike Riggs is correct: Her objection to bottled water stems more from her anti-market ideology than any real concern for her fellow beings.

  35. Can’t we admit the problem is growth itself, and no amount of censoring bottled water, big macs and SUVs is going to change that?

    Apply Occam’s razor — the problem is what it appears to be: TOO MANY PEOPLE, and now they all want to live first world lifestyles.

  36. Conservationist,
    Apply Occam’s razor — the problem is what it appears to be: TOO MANY PEOPLE, and now they all want to live first world lifestyles.

    How many is “too many”? Would you be one of the “too many”, or would you not be?

    If people want to live first-world lifestyles, it is their business, and their right to pursuit their happiness. It would be hypocritical to tell them “I got mine, but you cannot get yours”. There is always a way to obtain wealth without damaging the environment, and it is called “Property Rights”.

  37. Change the word “water” for “oil” and you have the pretext of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

    Huh, no, you do not. That was not the pretext. Iraq invaded Kuwait because Kuwait did not want to condone Iraq’s debt to Kuwait, even when Iraq contended (correctly) that Kuwait was spared invasion from Iran thanks to Iraq’s efforts.

  38. Lamar,
    If an area has, say, 10 million gallons of water a day to use, and bottling takes up 1/2 (I’m making these numbers up), then that leaves only 5 million gallons a day for development.

    Development of what? People? Does not make sense. Please see below.

    People can’t move in because water isn’t available.

    This is inconsistent, and makes no sense economically. If 1/2 the available water was really used for bottling, the price for the commodity would determine its relative scarcity, hence the short availability of water would make bottling it an expensive enterprise. If another factory found it possible to bottle only 2% of the daily consumption of water and make a profit, it would drive your hypothetical company out of business.

    Thus, in exchange for a couple of hundred bottling jobs, the local area’s growth stagnates, property values drop, etc. The bottling company doesn’t see this a negative externallity, they view it as creating jobs.

    If I were one of that company’s stock owners, I would see it as an unprofitable endeavor. It is clear you understand very little of basic economics, instead trying to use emotions and other fallacious arguments to booster your case against the market.

    Nestle’s operations in Pasco County, FL, have created serious political friction. The Hillsborough River eventually provides the Tampa Bay area with much of its water. Yet Nestle continually fights to be permitted more withdrawals.

    Nestle is doing what is logical, to ask for additional permits with the local government. If the river was owned by several parties, it would have to negotiate with each or withdraw to another source of water.

    It doesn’t take much to see that if Nestle had its way, nobody in Tampa Bay would have a drop of water.

    You cannot possibly know that.

    The negative aspects of reduced development owing to reduced water supplies….that’s the bottled water problem.

    No, it’s a case of poorly managed water distribution, and the calculation problem. Since the water is owned by the government and it doles it out cheaply, compared to demand, it would not matter much if Nestle bottled water or not. For instance, you have a situation like in Georgia, where last year it was suffering a drought caused by little rain, and a water doling system that makes no economic sense, basically having a State almost giving water away at below its cost, and still managing to throw away some to keep some fish alive. Whatever you think a company can do when it comes to water consumption, the State can do much, much worse.

  39. “the problem is what it appears to be: TOO MANY PEOPLE, and now they all want to live first world lifestyles.”-Conservationist.

    No, that is not even what it appears to be. If you want to benefit manking by sterilizing or killing yourself, go for it, but the problem is mis-allocation of scarce resources. This can be fixed by allowing water to be sold at its true market price. If the price for water gets high enough, people will use less or make more out of seawater.

    Why do the neo-hobbesians always want to cull the herd? Which humans would we be better off without? Surely not you.

  40. Wait a minute.

    Some parts of the ongoing argument over bottled water make it sound like the bottled water companies are taking all the water and leaving their neighbors in near-drought conditions.

    If bottled water was being sold that way because it was otherwise unavailable via the tap, you may have a point. But tap water still flows.

    This is an invented controversy, wrapped in environmental scare tactics (‘they’re stealing a public resource’) without any actual environmental problems. It’s merely about demonizing businesses, and punishing them for the crime of being capitalists.

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