Do Americans Value Water?

Vanessa M. Leiby

Americans are willing to spend a lot of money on water.

Now that I have your attention (and many of you think I need to get my head checked), let me clarify: Americans are willing to spend a lot of money on bottled water.

According to a recent Beverage Marketing Corp. press release, 2013 bottled water sales reached an all-time high of more than 10 billion gal, for a total of $12.2 billion in wholesale sales revenues, an average of $1.21 per gal.

Let’s compare that with non-bottled water consumption in the U.S. In 2005 (the most recent figures available from the U.S. Geological Survey), the total of water consumed for all purposes, including agricultural, industrial, etc., came in at nearly 150 trillion gal. The USGS does not calculate spending on water consumption, but it is safe to say we have not seen a revenue stream proportionate to that of the bottled water industry.

I found it interesting that the International Bottled Water Assn. recently issued a statement applauding President Obama for signing the Water Resources Reform and Development Act. One paragraph in particular caught my eye:

“The bottled water industry supports a strong public water system, which is important for providing citizens with clean and safe drinking water. In fact, many bottled water companies use public water sources for their purified bottled water products. Once this water enters the bottled water plant, several processes are employed to ensure that it meets the purified standard of the U.S. Pharmacopeia, 23rd Revision. These treatments may include one or more of the following: reverse osmosis, distillation, micro-filtration, carbon filtration, ozonation and ultraviolet (UV) light.”

Do any of these processes sound familiar?

I am not criticizing the bottled water industry. They have done a fantastic job communicating something we in the public water sector have not: the value of water. I am also not suggesting we start charging people $1.21 per gal for their tap water; however, we do need to raise public awareness of the value we provide so we can charge fees that are fair and responsible.

WWEMA co-chaired a technical session at the American Water Works Association’s ACE14 event in Boston last month on breaking down the barriers to innovation within the water industry. One of the top barriers discussed was the low perception of value placed on water. One participant held up his one-year household water bill—less than $100! He pointed out that this was about equal to one month’s service for his daughter’s cell phone.

So do Americans value water? Depends who you ask.

Vanessa M. Leiby is executive director of the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Assn., a Washington, D.C.-based trade organization that has represented the interests of manufacturers serving the water supply and wastewater treatment industry since 1908. Leiby can be reached at info@wwema.org.

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