Bottlemania: even-handed and engrossing look at today's water-wars

Elizabeth Royte's Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It is a balanced, nuanced, entertaining and vastly informative look at the crisis of water — bottled and tap — in the USA. Bottlemania asks the big questions about whether water ought to be privatized, takes a penetrating look at the fraught local politics that gives bottled water companies rights to extract a town's vital water and ship it elsewhere, and presents a compelling critique of the sustainability of letting the rich buy their way out of failures in public resources like water. She looks into the campaigns by water companies to "educate" restaurant servers about the fortunes in tips to be had by flattering their customers into buying bottled. The book also does a good job of discussing the amazing local water supplies that come out of the taps in many American cities, absolutely free.

At the same time, the book is not afraid to look at some of the serious problems facing municipal water supplies. The EPA have been negligent in setting and enforcing standards, little-understood bacterial films and hormones and pharmaceutical excretia present compelling health threats, as do arsenic and carcinogenic purification by-products. It's worse where cities don't own the land around their water-reservoirs, where agribusiness and other water users can add expensive- (or impossible-)to-remove toxins to the water.

Royte doesn't leave us with any easy answers, but she frames the debate we should be having about water, going into detail on the missing testing and enforcement regimes, the need to recycle more waste-water (water in New Orleans has already been filtered through 50% of the population in the USA!) and to internalize the environmental costs of private pumping aquifers.

Water wars have been with us for all of human history — the word "rival" comes from a Latin word meaning "one who uses the same stream as another." But today's water wars have higher stakes than ever before: we're now fighting over a substantial fraction of all of Earth's freshwater. Bottlemania is a hell of a look into the future of that fight.

Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It