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Category — Bottlemania: How Water Went On Sale and Why We Bought It

Why do rain barrels matter if water isn’t scarce?

The greenest commercial building in the world sits on a slope near Seattle’s Capitol Hill district, topped by what looks like a high-tech wimple—the Flying Nun meets an attractive cube of glass and concrete. The ecclesiastical headgear is, in fact, a canted array of 575 high-efficiency photovoltaic solar panels. Combined with 26 geothermal wells, the panels will make the six-story Bullitt Center a net-zero energy user—that is, it will produce as much energy as it uses over the course of a year. And by harvesting and purifying the drizzle that falls from the Pacific Northwestern sky, the Center is also a net-zero user of water.

Photo: Bullitt Center

Many residential and commercial buildings collect and store rainwater in barrels, to be used for landscaping and gardening. In an era of diminished freshwater supply, that’s smart, but nothing new. The Bullitt Center’s commitment to net-zero water, however, is the equivalent of rain barrels on steroids. The roof shunts rain to a 56,000-gallon cistern in the basement. From there, the screened and filtered water will be used for irrigation and cleaning and to “flush” composting toilets. These appliances use about a tablespoon of water to create a foamy transport medium, which sends human waste to the basement, where it’s mixed with sawdust and breaks down in enclosed (no smell!) vessels. Another portion of the rain water will be made potable by running it through a series of filters, then disinfecting it with ultraviolet light. Activated charcoal filters will strip chlorine, added to keep water bacteria-free while it’s in the pipes, at the spigot. At last, this water will be ready for use in sinks, showers, and water fountains. Presumably it will make excellent espresso.

But that’s not all. Gray water, collected from the building’s sinks and showers, will be pumped to the third floor, where it will trickle slowly through a constructed wetland before it sinks, through street-level plantings, into Seattle’s aquifer. “We’ll be infiltrating about 65 percent of what we collect,” Brad Kahn, the Bullitt Center’s communications director, says. “That’s the amount of rain water that used to be returned to the earth before Europeans settled here, back when this was a Douglas fir forest.”

Owned by the environmentally oriented Bullitt Foundation, the Bullitt Center is undeniably modern. But it’s also delightfully retrograde, eschewing both the electrical and water grids and relying, instead, on its own powers of creation, transformation, and degradation—much as small pre-industrial villages did. Of course, those villages were far smaller, and less demanding of resources, than today’s communities, and therein lies the challenge. If the Bullitt Center can rigorously document its hyper-local sufficiency over a one-year period, it will become the first commercial building to earn certification from the Living Building Challenge, a performance-based standard for sustainability that goes well beyond the demands of the better known Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standard.

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Saving rainwater for residential or commercial use makes sense in arid regions: it shrinks the demand on municipal water supplies and saves property owners money. Without further treatment, rainwater can be used for flushing toilets, washing clothes and cars, and watering lawns and gardens. Rain barrels and their historical antecedent, cisterns (big underground vaults), can also reduce energy use and the carbon emissions associated with pumping, treating, and distributing water in a centralized system. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, reducing the demand for treated tap water by 10 percent could save the nation enough energy to meet its entire residential, commercial, and industrial demand for 30 days.

But wetter cities are also encouraging rainwater collection these days—mostly to protect their waterways from the ravages of something known as “combined sewer overflows.” CSO events occur during rainstorms, when wastewater treatment plants reach capacity and dump raw sewage directly into nearby creeks, lakes, and harbors. Joining the sewage is rainwater that sluices off parking lots and roads polluted with heavy metals, oil, and street litter. The combined insult jeopardizes human health, degrades ecosystems, and repulses waterfront visitors.

To address these issues, cities are loosening their building codes and offering rebates and technical assistance for so-called green infrastructure that retains storm water and releases it slowly to the earth. Rain barrels—like their hydrophilic cousins bioswales, rain gardens, and green roofs—not only  protect rivers, lakes, and harbors from polluted deluges, they also restore local aquifers, mitigate floods, and reduce the amount of water headed to centralized wastewater plants.

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With its closed-loop water system, the Bullitt Center sends nothing to Seattle’s wastewater treatment plant or into its harbor. That’s helpful, because in 2012, Seattle discharged 154 million gallons of raw sewage and polluted runoff into local waterways. But the building is also reducing its pull on city reservoirs by rendering its rainwater potable.

And now you may ask: why, in a city that gets a decent 35 inches of rain a year, does this even matter? Because Seattle’s population, currently about 635,000, is expected to rise by one to two million people in the next 20 years, and because the climate is changing. The city is likely to see more frequent and longer periods of drought, while warmer winter temperatures mean precipitation will more likely fall as rain, instead of snow. Rain will immediately increase the flow of rivers: that water will run to the sea if not captured.

And so Seattle is considering its options. The city could hang onto that influx by building a new reservoir—considered unlikely, as all the good spots for water storage are already inhabited. Or, according to some visionary planners, it could build a distributed system of catchment cisterns, on a neighborhood or district scale, to capture water, treat it to the appropriate level for use, then reuse and recycle it on site.

If harvesting and purifying rainwater is such a great idea, why aren’t other urban buildings, or even neighborhoods and cities, doing it? A few, in fact, are: a development in the Netherlands, with 250 housing units and commercial space, is net-zero water, as are buildings on numerous campuses in the United States (at U.C. Davis, at Pittsburgh’s Phipps Conservancy, and at Google’s new Bayview complex, for example). Approximately 140 projects in eight countries are currently working to meet the Living Building Challenge.

But obstacles, as one may guess, abound. Existing buildings tend to be on the grid already—hooked up to community water systems that provide good, cheap water (the United States has among the cheapest water rates in the world). There are also federal, state, and local regulatory hurdles to leap, permits or variances to obtain, and employees to train. (If you form your own “water district,” no matter how small, you’ve got to meet Safe Drinking Water Act standards, which means someone needs to be certified to run the system.) And then there’s the price tag: the Bullitt Center’s construction costs were 20 percent higher than those for a comparably sized conventional building. (On the upside: it will have no electric or water bills, and it was designed to last 250 years.)

Kahn admits that distributed water systems that rely on rain aren’t for everyone. It would be tough to do net-zero water in the desert. Nor would net-zero water work in places where downstream cities depend on the flow that upstream cities return to rivers from their centralized wastewater treatment plants. But such systems could work, in many locations, at the scale of a city block or district.

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I have to admit, I have a hard time imagining cisterns working in a place like New York City, my home town, which gets 48 inches of rain a year, houses 8 million people, and runs through more than a billion gallons of water a day. Ninety percent of our water comes to us from the upstate Catskill Mountains region, via shared pipes, tunnels, and aqueducts, and most of the system is gravity fed. Why mess with a good thing?

Because—wait for it—the population is growing, and the climate is changing. It doesn’t take a catastrophist to recognize that a densely populated city that relies on water imported from 100 miles away is neither self-sufficient nor resilient. The system, parts of which are more than a century old, has many potential failure points and already leaks up to 35 million gallons a day, enough to slake half of Pittsburgh’s daily thirst. As the world warms, New York City, which is already leading on climate adaptation, needs to look at backup systems. “Rainwater is a great untapped resource,” says Cecil Scheib, director of advocacy for the New York chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, “and fostering resiliency is a huge issue post Sandy.”

New York isn’t likely to meet all its needs with rooftop water: the ratio of roof to people doesn’t pencil out (costs and current regulations aside). But a distributed network of rainwater catchment, in conjunction with the existing grid, is worth considering, especially in the case of new construction. It doesn’t have to be an either-or scenario. Such systems can help extend existing infrastructure without drawing down aquifers or streams, and simply collecting rain in barrels or cisterns—even if one has no intention of drinking it—can help reduce flooding.

The Bullitt Center, which opened on Earth Day of 2013, is a demonstration of what’s possible and an inspiration for overcoming the substantial financial, regulatory, and cultural barriers to sustainable design. Planners and lenders, architects and builders, regulators and code enforcement officers are watching closely to see how things shake out. Can these systems be emulated elsewhere? Will the building eventually earn out its additional costs? The answers might not all be yes, but at least the Bullitt Center has dared to stick its neck out and to very publicly investigate. Anyone concerned with the future of design—with the future, period—should be grateful.


This column originally appeared at

December 8, 2013   2 Comments

Whose Water Is It, Anyway?


Recently, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission announced that it was temporarily suspending 19 separate water withdrawal permits due to reduced stream flow levels throughout the Susquehanna basin (which covers land in New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland). Most of these withdrawals were linked with natural gas extraction: drilling and fracking can consume up to 7 million gallons of water per well, and wells can be fracked multiple times.

Three weeks ago the U.S. Geological Survey pronounced 61 percent of the lower 48 “abnormally dry.” In the East, where I live, we had a nearly snowless winter, and rainfall levels this spring are, so far, well below normal. I’m sorry it’s so dry, but I’m glad the SRBC has the power to quickly halt large withdrawals. In recent years in the southeast, during abnormally dry or even drought conditions, major water users like Coke and Pepsi were not asked (nor did they volunteer) to cut back on water pumping, even while residents were mandated to restrict their use.

The energy companies affected by the SRBC will scale back operations or they will find water elsewhere, as thirsty people and populations with enough money always do. Already, natural gas companies are buying water from utilities and from private landowners, hauling it away from its home watershed, polluting it with chemicals and compounds, including radioactive material that used to be underground, and then hauling it away to be “recycled” or injected back into the earth. In other words, it’s lost to the hydrological cycle forever.

Individually, these withdrawals for fracking may be small, but they could have a cumulative impact on ecosystems and local hydrology. Nationwide, oil and gas companies are fracking 25,000 wells a year. People who live in shale areas need water for residential and commercial use, of course — but that water is also needed to grow crops, and to support wildlife, wetlands and streams that feed larger rivers.

Communities with abundant fresh water — in watersheds that have been protected using millions of taxpayer and private dollars — are feeling the pressure from both oil and gas companies and, perversely, from bottling companies, who recognize that demand for their product will only rise as industrial activity contaminates drinking water. In upstate New York (where there’s currently a moratorium on high-volume, horizontal hydraulic fracturing), the villages of Painted Post and Bath are considering selling municipal water to a Pennsylvania fracking company, while the town of Ephratah is weighing whether to sell land to the California-based Crystal Geyser water company, which would build a bottling plant and tap into the local aquifer.

In Wyoming, some ranchers are making more money selling their water to fracking companies than they can make raising cattle. In Colorado, ranchers are competing with frackers to buy rights to surface water, and the price per acre-foot is rising substantially. In Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania, the public water company Aqua America recently evicted 32 families from a mobile-home court in order to build a water withdrawal facility that will provide 3 million gallons a day to the fracking industry.

These water transfers — moving water away from local residents to corporate interests — have me thinking about issues of local control, private property rights, the public trust, local economies, and the future of agriculture. (Where will we get our food if this land continues to move out of agricultural production? In Pennsylvania, it’s estimated that 25 percent of dairy farmers with gas wells have abandoned farming.) I hate to prognosticate, but it’s fairly obvious: frictions in these areas will only grow more acute as the population, and its energy and water demand, grows.

Image: Nicholas_T/Flickr

May 1, 2012   1 Comment

Vended water or soda? How about neither?

In honor of World Water Day, let’s celebrate an action recently taken by a national park that should properly be interpreted as a boon to environmentally friendly water consumption.

Proponents of the right to buy whatever single-serve packaged beverage they damn well please have long argued that eliminating bottled water from vending machines will force the public to instead buy high-calorie drinks, which have a bigger environmental footprint than does bottled water. (This shift in buying behavior hasn’t yet been proven; but yes, for the record, bottled water does have a lower carbon footprint than bottled sodas, juices, or teas.)

But Saguaro National Park, just east of Tucson, has thrown the baby out with the bathwater: officials there have announced that the park will quit selling not only bottled water, but sodas as well – a decision that should eliminate up to 40 percent of the park’s recyclable waste stream. (Remember: recycling, good; reducing consumption, even better.)

Take that, Grand Canyon National Park (which recently banned the sale of bottled water — but not sodas — after a huge kerfuffle with Coca-Cola, maker of Dasani water and a $13-million donor to the National Park Foundation). Like that park and Zion National Park, in Utah, Saguaro will be installing hydration stations — those contraptions formerly known as “water fountains” — for filling reusable bottles.

If parks in some of the hottest, driest areas of the nation can take this step without fear of losing visitors to either disenchantment or dehydration, what’s stopping all the others?


Image via Wikimedia Commons.

March 26, 2012   3 Comments

Fontaine-o-phobe? Get over it

Nancy Stoner, formerly of the NRDC and now the Acting Assistant Administrator for the EPA’s Office of Water, blogged recently about drinking-water fountains. Lamenting the disappearance of fountains in public places over the last several decades, she notes that when we lose fountains, we also lose “public knowledge about the importance of investing in drinking water systems, which provide dependable, affordable and clean water.”

In cities with tasty, healthful water, I’m all for more fountains. Drinking from a fountain is cheaper than buying bottled water; fountains take water-delivery trucks off streets, so there’s less traffic and fewer diesel emissions; they keep empty bottles out of trash cans, gutters, and waterways; tap water is healthier than other packaged beverages; and fountains remind us of the fundamental connection between the natural world and our own well-being.

But as the comments to Stoner’s piece show, there are still people who are afraid of getting sick from fountains, although microbiologists say the odds of contracting a disease this way are extremely low. (Granted, good fountain design and adequate water pressure help.) And then there are those concerned about low levels of contaminants in tap water. To this second point, I would note that large cities, where this fountain renaissance is beginning to take shape, usually have the best tap water. Why? Because they have enough paying customers, staffing, oversight, and expertise to run their systems properly: they protect their watersheds, enforce anti-pollution laws, upgrade filtration equipment, and repair infrastructure (though we all know that municipalities need many millions more to do all of this better).

Yes, we continue to find contaminants in our drinking water, but that’s partly because we have the technology to detect contaminants at parts-per-billion, or even parts-per-trillion, levels. Can these low levels harm us? That’s the gazillion-dollar question: so far, the jury is out on pharmaceuticals in our waterways. Meanwhile, the EPA is investigating the regulation of hexavalent chromium, tightening the regs on atrazine, and screening an array of suspected endocrine disruptors that could end up in our drinking water. The studies are expensive, they take a lot of time, and the consequences of increased regulation are mind-boggling. (To remove hexavalent chromium from drinking water in parts of California’s Coachella Valley, for example, would cost more than $275 million and necessitate a water rate increase of 74 percent.)

Yes, we can remove anything from water if we run it through enough money. But millions of Americans drink from residential wells and can’t afford to test their own water, let alone treat it with special filters. (Read about nitrate-contaminated water as an environmental justice issue in “Not a Drop to Drink,” by moi, in the spring issue of OnEarth.)

Water contamination is an almost overwhelmingly complicated issue. But the situation isn’t hopeless: we can stop polluters, clean up contaminated aquifers, and filter harmful contaminants either at municipal plants or at our kitchen and bathroom faucets — a far less costly solution, considering that we don’t drink the vast majority of the water piped to our homes. And we can continue to promote fountains — both as a public service for the thirsty, and as a reminder that safe water is a resource upon which we’re absolutely dependent, and that we all hold in common.

Image: Mugley/Flickr

This post first appeared at

March 11, 2012   1 Comment

Some things don’t go better with Coke

Last month we learned that, in an attempt to cut down on litter, the supervisor of Grand Canyon National Park was set to ban sales of bottled water within the park, starting in January of 2011. (Dasani is the brand sold by concessionaires.) But two weeks before the ban was due to go into effect, the head of the national park system balked. Dasani water would stay, out of “concern for public safety in a desert park.” (Never mind that Utah’s Zion National Park had enacted a similar ban, to great acclaim, in 2008.) Soon the relationship between Coca-Cola, which produces Dasani from tap water, and our national parks was revealed: over a period of years, the corporation has given $13 million to the National Park Foundation, a nonprofit that generates private donations for the park system.

Environmentalists are up in arms — about the continued (and continuously promoted) use of disposable plastic water bottles, of course, but more importantly about the heavy influence of corporations in public spaces and debate. There are some angry comments on blogs about the issue, and many people erroneously seem to believe that park visitors would be stripped of any water bottles they carried into the park. Not true. Nor was it likely that the death toll from dehydration would rise. The parks and concessionaries had spent $300,000 developing “filling stations” in preparation for the ban; it’s hard to escape pro-hydration messages in the park (they’re everywhere), and it’s easy to buy reusable bottles on park grounds if you don’t already have them.

For readers who can’t remember what personal hydrological conditions were like 30 years ago, suffice it to say that single-serve plastic bottles of water were not ubiquitous. And yet millions still hiked and camped, carried water, filtered water where they found it, and sometimes waited until they reached their destination (!) to slake their thirst from a fountain or sink.

I hiked and camped in the Grand Canyon in the Pre-Perrier Period. I learned, on a day that I hauled my heavy backpack more than twenty miles across the Tonto Platform and up the South Canyon rim, that thirst can be a great motivator. Our multiple water bottles had long run dry, and we were reduced to eating dry oatmeal in our desperation for calories, with five miles yet to go. All I could focus on was the ice-cold elixir that flowed at trail’s end from a fountain in the dimly lit lobby of the Bright Angel Hotel. (Reader: I survived. I hope this water fountain has, too.)

The Coca-Cola-National Parks fracas seems to be taking on a life of its own, to both groups’ detriment. Dozens of media outlets have picked up on the story, and already more than 94,000 people have signed a pro-ban petition at Here’s hoping that the will of the environmentally minded, rather than a corporation representing the interests of its shareholders, will prevail.

Image: Sebastian Toncu/Wikimedia Commons

December 7, 2011   No Comments

Hope springs

The Rev. Daniel Meeter, of Brooklyn’s Old First Reformed Church, will be including these paragraphs in his sermon for Sunday, February 6:

“Two years ago I read a book called Bottlemania, by Elizabeth Royte. (Check her link; she lives in Park Slope.) The book describes how public water is being privatized. In our public schools, the water fountains are being removed and replaced by vending machines which sell bottled water and give a cut of the profits back to the administration. In September of 2009 I attended a conference in South Africa and I heard stories of third world governments in the global south which were selling their public water sources to international conglomerates, and the poor no longer have the free use of it, and now they have to buy it, for which they need our foreign aid. At this conference, they said that this is an issue for the churches, because water is a gift of God.

Last spring Elizabeth Royte called me up and said, “How about a public water fountain outside Old First?” Both for the real public need of it and for the message it would represent. I said I liked it but I needed time. Last summer I went to Grand Rapids for the General Council of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (check their link), and they had a workshop on water justice and the church. I thought of Elizabeth’s idea, but it seemed like such a small thing, compared to the realities of India and Africa. But then I mentioned it to the leader of the workshop, who is a theologian from Switzerland, the home of Nestle, which owns Poland Spring. He’s a leader in what’s called the Ecumenical Water Network. (Check their link.) He told me he thought it was a very good idea and we should do it, and they wanted to be part of it: they want us to share with them the process of our doing it and any problems we might face. He said it might seem like such small thing, but it’s a very important thing to do.”

It is a small thing, but a fountain does stand for so much more. If other communities of faith take notice, other property owners, the city itself . . . who knows: we may find ourselves slaking our thirst with the good stuff–our local New York City tap water, rigorously and independently tested, delivered by gravity through communal pipes– instead of buying it in single-serve plastic bottles from a distant corporation. We’ll act as members of a community, sharing a delightful common resource, rather than as disengaged consumers.

You can read the rest of the sermon here. Go deacons!

February 3, 2011   1 Comment

Last Word On Nothing

is the name of a beautiful- looking blog featuring a select handful of snappy science writers. They’ve graciously asked me to guest post, and my first entry (which you can read here) is about a subject I cannot believe I’m still writing about: plastic water bottles. Who knew that so many cared? Who knew that sales of bottled water in this country would start rising, after two years of decline? Who knew that people reading blogs still craved information on contaminants that may potentially leach from containers?

I’m asked to comment on such things because of my book Bottlemania, which in the best of all possible worlds would spark larger discussions of the very notion of “disposability,” of our culture of convenience, our reluctance to connect the dots, and make even the smallest changes in our lives. I feel funny, sometimes, talking about plastic bottles–a symptom or a symbol of more troubling matters. But if a symbol leaches, I tell myself,  people have a right to know.  I live to single serve.

[Photo: Ben Lawson]

January 26, 2011   No Comments

Bottled water: Murkier than last year

The Environmental Working Group has published its latest attack on the bottled-water industry, a scorecard that asks, “What’s in your bottled water – besides water?” The answer: it’s hard to say, since bottlers aren’t legally required to reveal the results of their water-quality tests (which, by the way, are last performed at the bottling plant, not after the water has been sitting for up to two years in its plastic bottle), how the water is purified, or the water’s source.

I’m all for more transparency, but this report gives the impression that “pure” water is a birthright. Yet no water, except perhaps distilled, is completely pure. It’s a false expectation, and possibly not even desirable.  (Water without minerals has a dry mouthfeel, and some say de-mineralized water robs the body of nutrients. You can investigate this on your own – in a quick search I didn’t find an authoritative source to steer you toward.) Tap water isn’t pure – it contains traces of everything it runs over and through. Are these “contaminants” harmful? At low levels usually not; at high levels possibly so.

EWG’s report also implies that no water is fit for drinking unless it’s been through a multi-stage filtering process, and it recommends home filtering for all tap-water drinkers. Perhaps the group is just going for a broad protective statement. New York City tap water isn’t filtered (I live in New York City and I drink my water straight from the tap); neither is the water in Seattle, Portland, Oregon, San Francisco, and Boston. Bottlers of spring water aren’t required to filter their product: some, like Nestle Waters brands, do, while other “artisinal” spring brands pride themselves on serving their product “raw.”

I take issue, also, with this statement. “When bottled water is the only option, EWG recommends brands with high transparency scores (clear labeling) and advanced treatment.” This means you’ll buy water that’s been heavily processed (reverse osmosis is energy intensive and water wasteful) when it may not be necessary, and you may also be buying water that’s been transported long distances.  My advice?  If you must buy bottled water, buy it in the largest size bottle practical from a nearby source that you trust –read the company’s water-quality reports if you can.

This brings me to my favorite part of the report — it starts on page 14 –where responses from bottling companies’ customer-service operators are chronicled. Good stuff, and clearly a warning for bottlers to better train their reps.

January 7, 2011   1 Comment

Filtered, frizzante, and free: Florentine tap water

First Paris and London, with their beautiful new drinking fountains:  now Florence. In an effort to reduce environmental impact, save consumers money, and reclaim their reputation, Publiacqua, the local utility, has erected eight fountains servings ultra-filtered water, bubbly and still. “We aren’t starting a war against bottled water companies, but against the prejudice that has berated our public water for years through campaigns and attitudes,”said Erasmo D’Angelis, Publiacqua president, at a recent press conference in Florence.

Italians are the largest consumers of bottled water in Europe, drinking 300 liters of bottled water per person a year, and  bottlers aren’t happy about this new campaign. “We are victims of what I call hydro-propaganda,” Mineracqua President Ettore Fortuna told a reporter for MinnPost. “It’s as if the mineral water sector alone were to be responsible for solving all the environmental problems.” Oh please: for decades, water bottlers have produced expensive and highly successful “hydro-propaganda” against tap water. I’m thrilled to see the tables turn.

November 10, 2010   No Comments

Another fountain design: lip-less

This fountain is in the Carter Lane Gardens, across from St. Paul’ s Cathedral in London, and it’s part of the city’s “Refill on Tap” program (you can read a bit more about the fountain here). Would you fill your bottle here? Do you think the fountain should also have a place to sip water, for the container-less population? (Thanks to Annie Bolitho for the photo.)

August 30, 2010   No Comments