"If we paid as much for tap water as we do for bottled water, most people would have a monthly water bill of over $9,000." - -Andrew C. Revkin - The New York Times
It is very common for research groups to set up a "bottled water taste test". The results are always the same: without a label, there is no obvious difference among any kind of bottled water or even tap water. Yet millions of Americans routinely buy bottled water and re-filter their tap water. The Clean Water Act of 1972 was supposed to ensure all water sources were pure and safe for drinking or swimming. Enforcement simply did not go far enough, and public information on contaminants grew much faster than purification programs did. A series of laws followed the 1972 Act in an attempt to stem the general aversion to tap water, including the 1974 and 1996 Safe Drinking Water Acts (SDWA). These laws are a step in the right direction, but bottled water still maintains an advantage founded not in superior quality but in more effective marketing.
Years ago, the concept of selling water was laughable. Why would anyone pay for something they can get for free almost anywhere? Plumbing and free drinking water fountains are as old as Western Civilization. Selling water to a man with a faucet, or even a well, resembles the cliché of selling ice to an Eskimo. Consumers were intelligent enough to recognze that "evian," the name of the pioneering French drinking water bottler, was simply "naïve" spelled backwards. Yet by 1988 evian sold over 1 billion liters of water, all still bottled at the source in Evian-les-Bains, France(1). Competitors and entrepreneurs sensed a change in consumer tastes. In 1987 Suntory Ltd of Japan established Suntory Water Group in the US. It quickly became a leader, although Suntory never sold water before. Suntory knew the importance of brand loyalty: it offers the brands: Belmont Springs, Kentwood Springs, Sierra Springs, Hinckley Springs, Pacific Pure, Cloister, Texas Premium, Nursery Pure, Crystal, and Kidz Water.(2) In April 1999 Coca-Cola went a step further and began selling Dasani, which it clearly states is simply municipal water that is more stringently filtered and fortified(3).
But why would anyone pay for water? As the Suntory FAQ deadpans, "the decision between tap water and bottled water simply comes down to ... the degree to which you want to protect the health of you and your family."(4 ) American conventional wisdom does not expect a public utility to offer premium service. The government likely makes matters worse for itself with bad public relations. When the FDA finds a private bottler in violation, the bottler has every incentive to make amends as quickly and quietly as possible. When the EPA finds a public water company in violation, however, its duty is the opposite: to make sure that everyone drinking from that supply knows as soon as possible. Orange County, for instance, has 20 large water companies(5) and scores of small ones....