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What Water Bars Mean for Water Wars

Treating a natural, life-sustaining resource like a luxury item can’t end well

Photo via Flickr user Patrick McFall

Last year, Ray’s and Stark Bar, a high-end bistro at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, debuted a 42-page menu of gourmet waters. More recently, squinting through the obliterating heat of a long, dry summer, the museum courtyard presented a prismatic scene: blinding white walls giving way to chilled and darkened galleries, a faint outline of haze rising from the neighboring Tar Pits, and, in the restaurant, jeweled decanters of water collected from the most untouched areas of the world, glinting from shelves behind the bar.

Is this science fiction? No, it’s Los Angeles in 2014, in the midst of a historic drought, and artisanal water has very palpably become a luxury product. The water bar is a concept profoundly Made in California , and made at a discrete point in the state’s paradox-riddled history with its most vital resource.

Martin Riese is a scrub-faced, bespectacled German émigré with unbounded enthusiasm for his passion project. Riese embraces the term “water sommelier” to describe his role at Ray’s and Stark, explaining that “terroir affects water just like wine”—telling the “story” of its land origins. As well as supervising the bar menu and managing the restaurant, Riese teaches a class called Water 101 where he instructs people on how to drink water with sophistication.

Riese introduces his water menu with, “…are all waters the same? The answer is ‘no.’” Thus begins a comparative review of 20 different, ostensibly high-end waters sourced from around the globe, complete with a gradient measuring salty, sweet, and complex tones and a complete mineral content breakdown.

Photo via Flickr user maciej

The offerings range from Berg, a “glacial water from western Greenland” harvested from 15,000-year-old glaciers and displaying “sweet” and “smooth” tones ($20 per 0.75 liter bottle) to Iskilde, which contains an unusually high ratio of oxygen and comes from an artesian spring that a “retired insurance broker and his wife” found in Denmark’s Mosso conservation area in 2001 (a veritable bargain at $12 per liter).

Then there is Riese’s piece de resistance, his own blended water, Beverly Hills 90H2O, selling for $13 per liter. This option combines Northern California spring water with a “select balance” of minerals to evoke a “smooth, incredibly crisp taste profile.” Riese continues that to “add to the ethos of designer water, 902H20 is batch produced in limited editions of 10,000 diamond-like glass bottles.”

For a sommelier, taste is of course paramount, but is taste (and fancy containers) in fact the only differentiating factor between bottled and tap water? Due to Wild West rulings sustaining the current lack of regulation in the bottled water industry, there’s a great deal of ambiguity on the relative purity of bottled water versus tap water, or water processed using conventional filters. Are consumers paying for little more than, to borrow Riese’s term, the “ethos” of purity?

In some areas, the case for filtration, at least, is stronger. In its official review, The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) awarded Los Angeles a water-compliance grade of “fair” and issued a general endorsement of tap water with the caveat that residents with “compromised immune systems, such as the very young, old, pregnant, and ill, should consult their physicians or consider using filters.” Consumers in Los Angeles and beyond have responded to such guarded language by overwhelmingly reaching for bottled or filtered water. From 2000 to 2010, Americans nearly doubled their bottled water consumption.

The water bar, a curated source of the world’s finest bottles, fits neatly into the overall bottled water trend, which is expected to overtake soft drinks as the king of the U.S. liquid refreshment market by the end of the decade. California is in fact overrepresented in the bottled water game despite the ongoing drought, due to questionable policies making it the only Western state without groundwater regulation. Other American sources for major water purveyors are found in drought-prone parts of Texas, Nevada, and Arizona.

Photo via Creative Commons

Martin Riese is not an eco-villain as much as he’s a violator of a type of good taste that has nothing to do with the palate, and we have a long way to go before descending into the dystopia pictured in Tank Girl. But this packaging of a natural resource as a luxury item sparks questions about the graver ethical issues at play: Should corporations continue to bottle water at current levels of regulation? Should water above a “fair” health grade only be available to those who can pay more than 300 times the cost of tap water? Does water, as a resource, belong to a public commons, and should corporations be allowed to effectively sell the resource back to a public to whom it arguably belongs in the first place?

Between the water shutoffs in Detroit and this new class of glacier sippers, drinking water has become a locus for class divides. Even in LACMA’s quiet atrium, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the Water Wars have already begun. If we may engage with Riese’s analogy, California’s water story is thus far one muddled by corporate interests, politics, class, and, ultimately, the emergence of a deeply troubling hierarchy in natural resources.

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