Monday, July 13, 2009

Author goes to source of KC's yummy water

Posted by on Mon, Jul 13, 2009 at 8:00 AM

Elizabeth Royte writes about the chain of life. In 2005, she published a book, Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash, that followed the waste out of her Brooklyn home. Her most recent book examines a product brought in to millions of residences and offices: bottled water.

Americans consume 50 billion single-serve bottles of water a year. In

click to enlarge Elizabeth Royte
  • Elizabeth Royte
Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It, now in paperback, Royte describes how fashion, which once drove sales of bottled water, now threatens its growth. To some, toting a bottle of Evian is a social crime on par with driving a Hummer.

Much of Bottlemania is set in Fryeburg, Maine, a small town above a spring that Nestlé uses to produce Poland Spring. Royte also visited Kansas City, Missouri, and toured the city's water treatment plant, where engineers run the Big Muddy through an impressive array of filters and processes before it reaches our taps.

Of all the municipal water works in the country, why Kansas City's?

I wrote about KC's water because I wanted to compare it with New York

City's water, which is famously tasty and comes from a fairly well

protected watershed. Kansas City starts with water from a much dirtier

source -- the Missouri River -- cleans it up, and also wins taste

awards.

You seem to come away impressed with efforts the city makes the Missouri River drinkable.

I am impressed, and I think water managers (almost) everywhere deserve

major credit for making surface and groundwater clean, healthful and

tasty.

Ethanol gets criticized for being an inefficient alternative to gasoline. And as you write, it's also making our water dirtier.

Ethanol from corn is an environmental disaster: The corn needs to be

irrigated -- that's not sustainable in places where the water table is

dropping -- and it needs fertilizer and herbicide inputs that run off

into waterways, causing headaches for downstream water treatment plants

that have to remove excess nitrogen and atrazine. Farm runoff is also

contributing to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The ethanol plants

filter their water before use, and they discharge their brine into

nearby waterways. It's not a problem for major rivers but plants that

discharge into small creeks have harmed aquatic life.

Bottled water has come under a lot of criticism because of the

energy required to make a container and transport it somewhere. Your

book is interesting because of its focus on the community impact. What

led you to Fryeburg?
I went to Fryeburg because I knew that

Poland Spring is the No. 1 spring water brand in New York, where I

live. You can't walk a block, here, without seeing an empty. I also

knew that some of the townspeople in Fryeburg, where Poland Spring is

sourced, weren't happy with the water withdrawals, the increased truck

traffic, and the way the parent company (Nestlé Waters) was treating

them.

Did your personal hydration habits change over the course of working on the book?

Not in the least: I was always a committed tap drinker. Though I did

become more careful about changing my Brita filter on time. I use a

pour-through filter only to remove the chlorine smell faster.

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