At the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting last month, the mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., asked a provocative question: How would his citizens feel if the city bought thousands of ordinary writing pens – the kind that cost about $1 each in most stores – and paid $1,000 apiece for them? Or $10,000?
Chances are, Martin Chávez told his fellow mayors, he'd be thrown out of office or put in jail for misusing public funds.
Yet, he pointed out, cities think nothing of paying similar markups on bottles of drinking water to give to staff and to pass out at events like running marathons. In his view, good-old cheap city tap water is perfectly tasty and safe. Not only are plastic bottles of treated or spring water exorbitantly priced, in Mayor Chávez's view, but piles of empties end up in city landfills, where they take who-knows how many years to degrade.
Naturally, those in the multi-billion-dollar bottled water business dissent, vigorously. Not all tap water is pure or tastes good, they say. And it's certainly not always cold and convenient when one works up a thirst.
Millions of Americans have come to prefer bottled water for drinking, and are perfectly willing to pay plenty for it. A bottle of fancy water does indeed cost 1,000 or more times what it costs to pour a tall glass of tap water.
As the Washington Post noted, the bottlers of water have even started to borrow some of the terminology used for fine wine. The president of Fiji-brand water told the newspaper that his product has a "smooth, silky mouthfeel."
That's a bit too pretentious to suit Mayor Chávez. If little kids can happily drink out of a garden hose, he says, his workers and those marathon runners will get along just fine drinking clean, filtered Albuquerque city water.