From The Editor | August 17, 2016

What Do Americans Think About Their Drinking Water?


By Kevin Westerling,

Survey data on U.S. consumers’ attitudes toward public drinking water confirms tough times now, but hints at better days ahead.

Finally, Americans are considering the value of water. Though everyone innately knows that water is vital to life, U.S. consumers have become so accustomed to cheap, plentiful, and clean water that they stopped thinking about how that water gets to them. Unfortunately, it has taken prolonged drought, the tragedy of Flint, and numerous contamination concerns — those around PFOA/PFOS, algal toxins, and frack water to name a few — in order to get Americans' attention.

A recent poll by MWH Global, now part of Stantec, testifies to this awakening and provides detail on U.S. attitudes toward water and infrastructure. The top-line takeaway is that nearly half (48 percent) of those surveyed said that "not having easy, low-cost access to water is an issue facing U.S. communities," which is a sizable increase from the 39 percent with the same concern from MWH's 2015 survey. Most respondents (68 percent) backed up that sentiment by supporting more public spending for improving and maintaining water infrastructure. Sixty-two percent also said they were likely to spend more on products that require less water during manufacturing, suggesting that corporate social responsibility can bring financial benefit to a company in addition to being good for water security.

Those are the statistical highlights from MWH's press release, but there are other interesting revelations to be had with a deeper look into the full survey. Two trends stuck out to me — one a troubling sign of current times, and one that may foreshadow a better future.

The Rise Of Bottled Water

“How much more or less bottled water do you buy now, compared to a year ago?”

That was the question posed in the MWH survey, and it revealed that 42 percent of people are lately buying more bottled water, while just 17 percent are buying less. Furthermore, 57 percent of parents — more apt to make purchasing decisions based on health concerns — are increasingly turning to bottled water and (one can assume) away from the tap. Though no analysis is offered, it seems to indicate a waning of confidence when it comes to public water. That would be a shame considering the excellent overall track record of drinking water utilities, not to mention the extra cost and environmental footprint associated with bottled water.

Confirming the survey findings, the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) boasted record production volumes for 2015; and while a good portion of the market gain came from chipping away at soft drink companies, the fallout from the Flint, MI lead contamination crisis was a boost to bottled water by wrecking consumer confidence in tap water. The distribution system being the main culprit in Flint (along with poor planning, oversight, and O&M), the MWH survey reflects the impact in that 35 percent of respondents expect current water infrastructure to last less than five years.

Millennial Movement

Drinking water aside, there is a scarcity issue in parts of the U.S. (particularly out West, but also in the Southeast) that demands conservation in terms of overall household usage — for bathing, laundry, lawn care, etc. — which is opposite the old ‘cheap and plentiful’ paradigm. Alternative water sources, necessary when the proverbial well runs dry, can often be more expensive; indeed, consumers are often spending more now for using less water. Industrial practices that save water can also be more expensive, resulting in a higher list price. The good news is that Millennials, hopefully a harbinger of lasting change, are even more willing than older generations to reward companies that conserve water. While 62 percent of MWH survey respondents said they would likely pay a premium, the number jumped to 74 percent for Millennials. Seventy-seven percent of Millennials say they are concerned about the amount of water it takes to produce everyday items, meaning that nearly the entire set is willing to back up their concern with their wallet. An earlier poll, conducted by the Value of Water Coalition, revealed that Millennials (age 18 to 39) are also more willing to pay higher water rates to fund infrastructure than those age 40 and over.

If the concern over water footprint extends to bottled water companies — since it reportedly takes 1.63 liters of water to make every liter of [Dasani®] bottled water — then Millennials could also lead the charge back to the tap. It seems a perfectly consistent stance, shirking industrial water waste, until you factor in the wild card of water quality concerns.

And while the water industry on the whole may have been dealt a bad hand for having to answer for Flint’s failures, the attention could be the impetus for infrastructure investment, improved water quality, and restoration of consumer confidence. As more Americans turn their attention to the value of water, let’s hope the intense scrutiny ultimately results in well-earned appreciation.