Bottle Shock 

The notion of paying good money for a plastic container of water would have been laughable when I was a kid

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In this space last week, Scott Renshaw wrote about the unthinking use of water by us lawn-loving, water-guzzling Utahns ["A Sprinkle in Time," May 21, City Weekly]. He got me thinking about my own history with water. Mine is probably different from most others because I have lived in places overseas where water is not taken for granted. In one Third World country, I paid more for a gallon of potable water than I did for a gallon of gasoline. In another place, water flowed through pipes only two hours per day—one in the morning, one in the afternoon. I saved some in buckets to flush the toilet and boiled drinking water for 20 minutes. Water has also been an aesthetic. The most magical sight I have ever seen was the sparkling blue light of bio-luminescence in the Red Sea one night.

That said, those of us growing up in Salt Lake City have water-related experiences in common—bobbing in the Great Salt Lake, swimming at Lagoon, drinking from a hose, shooting squirt guns, irrigating lawns, mixing a jug of cherry Kool-Aid on a hot day. On the other hand, I was one of a select few making midnight dives into the lake at the Salt Lake Country Club to salvage golf balls. And not many besides me and my friends fished the pretty stream which meandered through Jeremy Ranch before the first house was built there.

Bygone days, those: Leave It to Beaver was on the black & white Zenith, and water came from a faucet. The notion of paying good money for a plastic container of water would have been laughable when I was a kid. Insofar as I'm concerned, it is still laughable. I don't buy bottled water no matter how pretentious the label or modest the price. I never ordered "Perrier with a twist" when it was a hip drink at cocktail parties, and I ridiculed those who carried a water bottle as a fashion accessory. My prejudice against bottled water is shared by environmentalists concerned about the 35 billion plastic bottles discarded by Americans every year. But ours is a tiny tribe. That most people have no qualms about bottled water is evinced by the 170-plus brands on the market.

To my mind, potable water is a basic commodity. You can pair it with soap, coffee beans, Kool-Aid, dye, toothpaste or scotch; you can boil pasta, eggs, vegetables or lobsters in it. You can even drink it straight from the tap to quench a thirst ("to hydrate" in today's parlance.) How could there possibly be 170 brands? A Google query didn't lead to crystalline springs in the Alps, but to Amazon—not the region, the website. I was amazed to find water for sale there—pricey water!—and plenty of it. I soon discovered that reading about water is a lot like reading about wine. If you enjoy reading wine labels, you could entertain yourself on a rainy day with the watery advertisements penned by copywriters with degrees in English. How about the alliterative: "Hydrate the hustle"? Or the tortured simile: "Pure and crisp like from a cloud"? I detect a lawyer's hand in: "Flavored, nutrient-enhanced water beverage."

If you are in the water-beverage business, you have to first convince people like me that bottled water is superior to tap water. Then, you must convince them that your brand is healthier, sexier or tastier than the competition's. Having the right name is critical. You need something with panache. Dasani, La Croix, Perrier and Glaceéu have it. Butt Water, a Pakistani brand, doesn't.

Another important factor, I infer, is the source of the water you intend to bottle and sell. The more exotic the source, the better. Already for sale on are glacial water "bottled in Iceland by native Icelanders"; volcanic water from Hawaii; carbonated, mineral water from Italy; and water from "a protected source in Wisconsin's north woods." (Protected by Wisconsin natives in flannel shirts?) Perrier, "the champagne of mineral water," has been bottled at a spa in Southern France since the late 19th century. If you are looking for a "100-percent natural alternative to tasteless fruit waters," you can buy water sourced from coconut, turmeric, cactus, artichoke and the sap of birch and maple trees.

Copywriters emphasize what's in the water. Electrolytes, minerals and micronutrients are evidently good for cellular health and good for sales. Some brands claim to be kosher, vegan, soy-free and gluten-free—sounds yummy, doesn't it?—and if you add caffeine and a hint of lime, so much the better.

What's not in the water is also highlighted. After all, who wants to ingest more calories, GMO, fructose, heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, pathogens and pesticides? Not me!

Neither do I want to pay for trendy water. Last year, a brand of coconut water made $400 million from people determined to "hydrate naturally." actually breaks out the per-fluid-ounce cost of each brand of bottled water. One was $2.17 a fluid ounce ($277 a gallon); another was 50 cents an ounce ($64 a gallon.) Just to calibrate you, a bottle of decent California Pinot Noir goes for less than $1 an ounce. A gallon of Utah's tap water—consistently in the top tier of "best-tasting water in the United States"—costs less than a penny.

And therein lies part of the problem. Because water is cheap, Utah leads the nation in per-capita water use. And most of it is sprinkled on thirsty Kentucky bluegrass, Renshaw writes. He advocates conscious use of water in this age of mega-drought. He is right, of course. We also would benefit from a conscious decision to forgo the extravagance of water in bottles.

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