With alkalized water brands tapping our precious local supply, has the bottled water business gone too far?
A few months ago in her Carson City home, Abby Johnson’s cleaning lady held up a bottle of Real Water and declared that the stuff had changed her life — she was sleeping better and feeling more energetic since she started drinking it, she said. “Let me see that,” Johnson replied, examining the bottle. Amid the fine print, she saw these words: “Source of water: Las Vegas Valley Water District.”
“This is not what it seems to be,” she told her cleaning lady, explaining that the product was treated tap water. “Her eyes got really big,” Johnson says. “She was shocked.”
Here’s the irony: Johnson heads the Great Basin Water Network, whose raison d’etre is to kill the Southern Nevada Water Association’s plan to pump water from Eastern Nevada, where Johnson has a second home, and ship it to a certain increasingly thirsty — and dry — metropolitan center in the south.
“We’re focused on encouraging meaningful conservation in the Las Vegas Valley as an alternative to the groundwater pipeline project,” Johnson says. “It’s illogical to take water out of the (Colorado River) system and export it. We’re all for economic development, but if there was one thing Las Vegas should import instead of export, it would be bottled water.”
Brent Jones disagrees. The CEO of Affinity Lifestyles, Real Water’s parent, argues that his company is creating jobs — 40 to 60, he estimates — by providing a good product that consumers are clamoring for. He pays the standard commercial water rate, just like the casinos and hotels whose myriad customers run countless gallons down the drain each day. And, notes Jones, who’s also the state assemblyman for District 35 in Enterprise, he’s not doing anything illegal.
Still, some say there’s something unseemly about taking a resource from the public supply, repackaging it and selling it at a premium to outsiders. Has bottled water crossed the line between what should and shouldn’t be allowed? Or is it simply smart business that should be left alone to flourish?
Real Water is on fire. Jones won’t give out his closely held company’s revenue or profit numbers, but he says that the brand’s top customers are Sprouts and Whole Foods, and that market research firm SPINS ranks it No. 2 in the natural products category. He has facilities in San Diego and Tennessee, and plans to expand into Texas. And Real Water’s website includes a photo gallery of celebrities from Common to Courtney Cox flaunting the square bottle with the “RE2AL” logo.
That little “2” has a lot to do with the product’s popularity. It refers to E2 Technology, the company’s proprietary method for — to use its lingo — “infusing it with negative ions.” Asked to explain the process, Jones declined, saying only, “It’s alkalized, which a number of waters are becoming now. No one else has figured out how to permanently infuse the water with negative ions. People make it that way with machines, but you have to drink it right away. We’ve figured out how to make it shelf-stable.”
Indeed, Real Water isn’t the only local company jumping on the alkalization bandwagon. Alkame Water’s website also features a photo gallery of celebrities that drink its alkaline product, although it focuses mainly on athletes and claims its water is also “oxygenated.” Red Rock Springs Water is one of several selling alkaline water in bulk — through large refillable jugs — and offers a lengthy explanation of why it is healthier than other water. Jones is more circumspect. Although he refers to Real Water as a “healthy product,” he won’t elaborate, citing FDA regulations that prevent natural products from making health claims.
This convenient conundrum — being able to claim your product is healthy while being legally prevented from explaining why — has produced some skeptics. “Yeah … I’ve got nothing,” says UNLV Chemistry Department Chair David Hatchett, searching the SciFinder online database for studies of alkaline water’s health benefits. “I’m always of the opinion that, if you do the science, I’ll listen. The problem is, there’s no data on this.”
Besides, Hatchett says, there are two obvious problems with the whole alkaline/negative ion water business. First, alkaline-water makers tout its acid-balancing properties, but, Hatchett says, “If you drink something with high alkalinity, your body will continue to produce acid until it’s neutralized.”
Second, and most emphatically, he adds, “There’s no such thing as negative ion water. You have to make a positive ion to have a negative ion. It’s basic physics: Charge neutrality must be maintained. If it’s not, you couldn’t swim in the ocean, because you’d get electrocuted.”
That said, Hatchett thinks he may know why people such as Johnson’s cleaning lady feel better when they drink Real Water: It tastes good, so they take in lots of it. And the better hydrated your body is, the better it works.
All bottled up
Healthy beverage fads come and go (remember when Gatorade was considered good for you?). The enduring problem is bottled water in general. For one thing, the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act requires that municipal water companies like the Las Vegas Valley Water District provide the public with a safe potable supply. Ratepayers help to fund the infrastructure for treating and delivering this water to their homes. Is it fair that they foot part of the bill for Alkame and Real Water’s business? (Commercial customers with a 1.5-inch pipe, such as Real Water’s, pay the same base rate as residential customers with a 5/8-inch pipe — $1.16-$4.58 per 1,000 gallons — but commercial customers have significantly higher surcharges. A dozen 1-liter bottles of Real Water sell for $28 on its website.)
SNWA is neutral on the issue. “You’re paying to make sure that the water coming to your house is safe to drink,” spokesman Bronson Mack says. “These guys are paying for the water going to their business.”
Mack points out that it’s pretty hard to argue against a specific abuse of the public water system when anyone can take a jug to a park, fill it up at a fountain and take it home. Or that residents widely patronize bulk distributors such as Sparkletts, which tap, treat and repackage municipal water.
But, he adds, “One element to think about, from a larger, socially conscious position, is that it takes a lot of power to treat and deliver our water. It takes a lot of power and fossil fuels to bottle water.”
According to the Pacific Institute, producing bottles for American consumption in 2006 required the equivalent of more than 17 million barrels of oil, not including the energy for transportation. It also produced more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide.
This, consumer watchdog agency Food & Water Watch says, is especially egregious for a product that is readily available on tap in virtually every home in the country. In a 2013 position paper titled “Take Back the Tap,” the organization writes, “Consumers should switch back from bottled to tap water and reclaim the clean and affordable resource that flows from our faucets.”
In other words, the power is in the purchaser’s hands: the environmental, energy and financial costs of bottled water; or, your monthly water bill plus, if taste obliges, the price of a home filter. Which one will you choose?