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Is Bottled Water Always the Enemy?

Earlier this spring, a group of students from the Stanford Graduate School of Business took a trip through California and Nevada. Their mission: to investigate water. The trip began in Sacramento with a tour of the Delta, following the flow of water south. The group visited agricultural communities in the San Joaquin Valley, then continued down to Los Angeles and Orange County, to learn more about urban water use and corporate water management—finally examining Nevada's water use through the lens of Las Vegas.

Along the way, the group met with policymakers, corporate executives, nonprofit leaders, water managers, and farmers. Students investigated ecosystem protection, water economics and markets, wastewater treatment and recycling, water infrastructure, the water-energy nexus, water quality issues, corporate water footprinting, and climate change, to name but a few.

Here is the first installment of what they found.

Tap or mineral water? All of us on the trip make a point of carrying our refillable water bottles around as we go. For us, it's the least we can do after seeing Chris Jordan's pictures of the albatross chicks on Midway Atoll, a stretch of sand in the North Pacific.

With the ocean as their feeding ground, albatross parents pick up plastic junk that looks to them like food, bringing it back to feed their young. Every year, on this diet of human trash, tens of thousands of them die from choking, starvation, and toxicity.

We certainly wouldn't want our plastic bottle caps to be responsible for killing one more albatross, would we? But despite all of that, the water bottle has become our new friend. Here's why:

Seville, an unincorporated community in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, relies on groundwater and a very old and leaky water system to service 75 houses occupied by local farm workers. While expensive water projects ensure the delivery of high quality surface water from the Sierra snowpack to agriculture in the region, local villages can't access nearby streams. Instead, they are forced to extract their water from underground reserves that became unsafe after the concentration of nitrates exceeded legal limits. Consequently, bottled water has become the main source of clean drinking water for Seville and other communities in the area that face a similar predicament.

Charity: Water
, a nonprofit organization, does a great job at mobilizing people for clean water in developing countries. The work of such nonprofits on the international scene unintentionally contributes to the misconception that dirty water only exists in the developing world. Dirty water is all around us in California —and some people drink it because they don't have the means to buy bottled water.

While city dwellers' efforts to avoid bottled water are commendable, water bottles still remain necessary for some.

Robyn Beavers became a pioneer in the cleantech and renewable energy movement eight years ago while at Stanford University, where she organized a campus-wide credited seminar on clean technologies. Robyn is now completing her studies at the Stanford Graduate School of Business where she is a candidate for a 2010 MBA.

Bernadette Clavier is the Associate Director of the Center for Social Innovation at Stanford's Graduate School of Business. In her spare time she created an organic food program for Bay Area schools, trains as a disaster first respondent, and advocates for autism spectrum disorders awareness.

A version of this post appeared at Stanford Graduate School of Business' Center for Social Innovation.

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