Last year, my pal Charles Fishman wrote a really smart book about a really big subject: Water. To research his topic, which is both monumental and barely noticed, he journeyed from Las Vegas to New Delhi to Burlington, Vermont, to rural Australia to report on the state of H2O.

Fishman learned that we’ve been living through what he calls “the golden age of water” — when, at least in the developed world, water has been unlimited, safe, and free. But that era is ending, he says. And throughout the world, we’ll need new ways to source water, to price it properly, and use it less wastefully.

His book, The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water, comes out in paperback today. (Buy it at Amazon, BN.com, or IndieBound). So I asked the man whom many call “Fish” to answer a few questions for PinkBlog readers.

Here’s Fish . . . on water:

Bottled water seems to be the water issue people love to debate. You’ve been to Fiji, to San Pellegrino, to Poland Spring. So school us: Bottled water, okay or not?

If you pour a glass of Pellegrino from its beautiful green-glass bottle, two things are amazing: The water has traveled from the Italian Alps, across the Atlantic, to your café table. And the bottle it’s shipped in weighs more than the water. If you buy a half-liter of Poland Spring at 7-Eleven for $1.29, you get four good swallows of water. You can then refill the empty bottle from your kitchen tap every day for 3,000 days — every day for 8 years and 3 months, long enough to go to college and medical school — before the tap water costs $1.29.

Bottled water is silly. Except after a natural disaster, no one needs a bottle of Evian or Fiji Water. It’s an indulgence. But lots of things we enjoy are indulgences — Oreo cookies, French Merlot, Colombian coffee, “The Good Wife” on your iPad.

In the U.S., we spend $21 billion a year on bottled water. We spend $29 billion a year maintaining our entire water infrastructure — pipes, pumps, treatment plants. And bottled water can’t rescue us in a crisis. When your house is on fire, you can’t call Dasani.

So enjoy bottled water, if that’s how you want to spend your money. But don’t grump when the water bill goes up. That system needs attention and modernization, and compared to a bottle of Evian, it’s a bargain.

A related question: You say in the book that water — the non-bottled kind — is too cheap and that its low cost hurts us. How can inexpensive water possibly be bad?

In the U.S., the average home water bill is $1 a day — $34 a month. In most of the country — and most of the developed world — that $34 doesn’t even cover the cost of delivering the water, let alone maintaining and modernizing the system.

In the developing world, the poorest people pay an almost unimaginable price for water — women and girls have to walk to fetch it, often sacrificing all other activity. No schooling for the girls, no real jobs for the women. If they can walk to fetch that water, why can’t a pipe be laid to bring it to them?

We’ve grown up expecting water to be cheap. Yet both cable TV bills and cell phone bills are typically twice what water bills are. A resource that is as cheap as water ends up used badly — misallocated, wasted, taken for granted, poorly taken care of.

If we all paid a little more for water, two things would happen: We’d all use it more smartly; and there would be enough money to keep the water system healthy, sustainable, and smart.

So if PinkBlog readers could take one action to move in that direction — to keep the water system, healthy, sustainable, and smart — what would it be?

Start simply. Dig out a couple recent water bills, and figure out how much water you are using each month and each day. When I started writing The Big Thirst, the Fishman family was using 350 gallons of water a day for four people. When I finished, we were using 250 gallons a day for four people — way under the US average of 100 gallons per person.

So figure out how much water you’re using, and then get everyone together over dinner and see if you can cut your use just 10 percent — shower instead of taking a bath; water the lawn more carefully; don’t flush the toilet when you pee; don’t turn the faucet on full force if you’re just rinsing dishes, washing vegetables, or washing your hands, times when volume doesn’t matter. You’ll be amazed how very small changes add up.

And one more thing: Turn off the lights, the TV, the computer monitor. Making electricity uses more water than anything in the US. When you turn off the lights, you’re saving as much water as when you turn off the faucet.

8 Responses to “Should you drink bottled water? (And other questions for Charles Fishman)”

  1. Baltimore city water has repeatedly fail road tests. The fees imposed for failing were passed to constituents, so our bills are three to four times higher than they were, with no change to water quality. To comply with row standards, Baltimore struck a deal to come up to code within the next 7-9 years. Plus, the infrastructure gets a D rating. We’ be had water main breaks flooding downtown. We are getting brown water and sediment from broken pipes and sewer. Public work are constantly tearing up neighborhood streets on water related issues. They are doing bandaid work since the problems reoccur. I will continue to drink filtered water at $3 per case of plastic, light weight recyclable to ensure my health and well being and avoid the hard water sentiment and whatever else is in the Baltimore water system.

  2. MarkMNW says:

    Slap a carbon filter on your faucet. Save yourself and the planet the problems of plastic bottled water.

  3. Wittybrit says:

    @Dan Is this quote correct? … “When I finished, we were using 250 gallons a day for four people — way under the US average of 100 gallons per person.”
    Sounds like that should read “way under the US average of 1,000 (???) gallons per person.”

    And thanks again for another great blog!

  4. @Wittybrit

    The average use of water by one American is 99 gallons a day. That’s water used at home.

    If you simply take water use in the whole country every day — including water used by steel mills and soup factories and rice farms and electric power plants — and divide total water use for every purpose, by total population, that figure is 1,360 gallons per capita.

    But that’s not a very meaningful figure. You aren’t using 1,360 gallons of water — you’re using 99 gallons.

    One amazing thing about U.S. water use: We use less water today, in 2011, than we did in 1980. We’ve doubled the size of the U.S. economy, while cutting total water use about 10 percent. So dramatic change and efficiency are possible.

    Charles Fishman

  5. Joe F. says:

    Most startling thing I have read this month: If you buy a half-liter of Poland Spring at 7-Eleven for $1.29, you get four good swallows of water. You can then refill the empty bottle from your kitchen tap every day for 3,000 days — every day for 8 years and 3 months, long enough to go to college and medical school — before the tap water costs $1.29.

    I have a question about this: We use less water today, in 2011, than we did in 1980.

    This seems impossible, but I do believe it coming from you. a) how is this? b) does this stat make people feel too comfy without a pressing need to change?

    Thanks for the work.

  6. Joe F. —

    Today, as a nation, we use 410 billion gallons of water a day for all purposes. In 1980, we used 440 billion gallons of water a day — the economy was half the size it is now, with 60 million fewer people.

    How is that possible? You have to be a little careful how you explain this.

    Municipal water utilities — the folks with the treatment plants and pipes — provide only about 10 percent of daily water.

    The vast majority of US water use goes to electric power plants; farmers; and business and industrial users. All of those folks take water directly from a river or lake or aquifer. They don’t have it delivered in pipes by a water utility.

    And those users have cut back the most in the last 30 years — farmers and electric utilities produce more while using less water, often under pressure from communities they are “competing” with for water. (Farm use of water peaked in 1980 — farmers use 15 percent less today, and produce twice as much food.)

    So why should anyone at home worry about water use, if our total use is just 10 percent? Because municipal water consumes enormous energy and resources for cities. If you cut your water use by 10 percent, you allow your city to grow without adding “new” water. You also take pressure of wastewater treatment, which is costly. Wastewater streams from cities have to be carefully managed because they have the potential to taint much wider bodies of water.

    Finally, this factoid, that we use less water today, is virtually unknown. I talk about it all the time, and it always amazes people. To me, it should have just the opposite impact: Dramatic progress is possible. And we’ve only just begun to think more smartly about water.

  7. Sterling says:

    This is a great book that I hope will open the eyes of many people. Water is the next oil. People don’t understand that because of the currently low cost. And like you stated Mr. Fishman, “If we all paid a little more for water, two things would happen: We’d all use it more smartly; and there would be enough money to keep the water system healthy, sustainable, and smart.”

    The fact of the matter is… we are running out of easily accessible and drinkable water. I currently work as a marketer for a water infrastructure/engineering firm in CO. I get to work on pursuits for cities, like Baltimore, in trying to solve their water issues and to improve their water systems (treatment, pipelines, sewer overflows, etc.) With how much industry consumes, the repair of water/wastewater infrastructure, and the now large use of water in hydraulic fracturing and the natural gas boom, we will begin to see those higher water costs. The current water bill hikes in Chicago are a perfect example of this (over 100% cost increase in a 3-year period.)

    The world, especially our lavish country, will only respond to these issues (and other natural resource/health issues) when it hits their pocket book. Like you stated Mr. Fishman, we could refill a water bottle for 8 years and only have it cost us $1.29. If we begin correcting our wasteful use and improving our systems, this will stay true. Otherwise, we will become like Michele and spend $3-$XX amount on cases of water weekly.

  8. Delia says:

    I was wondering if you ever thought of changing the
    layout of your blog? Its very well written; I love what
    youve got to say. But maybe you could a little more
    in the way of content so people could connect with it better.
    Youve got an awful lot of text for only having 1 or
    two pictures. Maybe you could space it out better? Appreciate it!

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