Things aren't looking pretty for drinking water these days. Recent articles from The New York Times and the Associated Press have exposed unchecked pollution, grave gaps in oversight, decaying infrastructure, and concerns about emerging contaminants.
Yet one voice sees the decay of our water infrastructure through a rose-colored glass. "We're bullish on water in the next 10 years," said Nestlé Waters North America CEO Kim Jeffery, on a recent call for analysts. How exactly can he say this, given recent reports?
The Clean Water Act was passed in the 1970s in response to widespread public concern about high levels of water pollution. Images of the Cuyahoga River in Ohio burning or the dredging of Boston Harbor still linger as a reminder of how bad things had become. There has been much progress in the 40 years since, but there are still problems and a long way to go.
At the root of these problems lies the question, "for whom?" For whom are our country's waters intended first and foremost? Surely our founding fathers' design was not to have a set of private polluters and users control it as they please.
Behind many of the problems facing our water resources and systems lies corporate control of water. Big corporations often have priority access to water, which they then overuse, abuse or appropriate to benefit their bottom line without regard for the costs to the public. Sometimes the impact is direct-Massey dumping coal slurry into streams in West Virginia, or General Electric's legacy of PCB contamination in the Hudson River. In other cases, it is indirect--pesticides and fertilizers may be applied by farmers, but the agribusiness and chemical corporations that produce them profit handsomely from encouraging their overuse, while the impacts flow downstream.
When this is what the upstream impact of corporate control looks like, why would we look to yet another private corporation to make things right?
Nestlé's Jeffery said that, "we believe tap infrastructure in the U.S. will continue to decline. People will turn to filtration and bottled water for pure water needs." The bottled water industry isn't just seizing an opportunity- it is banking on the decline of our water infrastructure as key to their successful business model. Nestlé is actually helping to further this decline. Jeffery boasts that, "our company is the only one out there driving the consumption of bottled water in America and the need to consume bottled water in America."
Well, how does one do that, if not by disparaging the alternative-the tap? And what public, disheartened by accusations against the tap, would advocate for renewed investment in public water? (Ironically, Nestlé's Pure Life brand is bottled tap water and bottled water in general is less regulated than the tap.)
Nevertheless, Nestlé might argue, "isn't a business model based on bypassing or cleaning up other corporation's messes an illustration of the ‘magic' of market forces?" The reality is this ‘magic' means those who can pay, will, and those who cannot, will go thirsty.
As pollution increases and clean water becomes scarce, the expensive treatments required will make providing it more expensive. As rates increase, wealthy users of water--well-to-do gated communities, industrial users or big agribusiness firms--will pay what they need to pay. For the rest, there will either be derelict tap water or bottled water at prices much higher than what most of us currently pay.
Relying on corporations to provide solutions to our drinking water challenges doesn't solve the problem because it relies on the same principle--corporate control--that created many of the problems in the first place. There are other ways. Federal spending on our water systems is at historic lows. We can invest the money needed to rehabilitate them; an investment which would help pay for itself and then some by creating local jobs and promoting further economic development.
We must reaffirm our nation's commitment to first provide clean, affordable drinking water for all, and ensure that our water systems and resources are democratically controlled for the public good. Because as Nestlé's Jeffery aptly points out, "the only question [now] is who gets what share of water." It's our choice.