An Interview with Author James Salzman on the History of Drinking Water: Part I

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The United Water Blog sat down with Professor Jim Salzman from Duke University to speak about his new book, Drinking Water: A History. We’re both water wonks who have an interest in bringing important information about the most essential public service – water – to a general audience. And that is exactly what his new book does. We asked him for his thoughts on popular water issues and debates; from bottled water, to infrastructure investments.
We will publish our interview with Salzman in two installments.


UW Blog: It sounds like the impetus for writing your book was driven by a question: if our water is the cleanest in the world, why is bottled water so prevalent? That’s an interesting question. Can you summarize your findings?


Salzman: To a certain extent I think the fashion changed, consumption preferences changed. Bottled water was long seen as a chic or luxury product. It is less so now, it is more considered as any other beverage choice.For example, my students now want to be seen as environmentally conscious, so there is some kind of peer pressure to drink tap water from a refillable bottle, for example. Student culture has changed.

Many environmental groups – in New York and San Francisco for starters – have used public relations campaigns to raise awareness of the environmental impact of bottled water. To their credit – they raised the level of consumer consciousness and have pressed the bottled water industry to be more responsible in their packaging. That’s said bottled water is going head to head right now in market share with sodas and soft drinks, so it is not as it is going away, it is still considered a big part of the drinks market segment.


UWBlog: You provide a lot of historical context in your book. What is the history of bottled water’s rise?

Salzman: Once Pepsi, Coke and Nestle got into the market in the early 90’s, they moved bottled water into mass distribution channels; that’s when the consummation of bottled water exploded, in terms of individual single served sale. I grew up in the 70’s, and if I had had gone to a gas station and I asked for water they would have pointed me out to the hose that would be used to fill radiators. Selling bottled water would be tantamount to selling air.

Now here is a challenge for your blog readers: next time you go to a food court, try to find a drinking fountain! You may have difficulty and the reason is obvious; the food court stores want to sell water now!


UW Blog: As a supplier of tap water, we are constantly perplexed by people’s resistance to pay full value for this service – that is viewed as a luxury by many areas of the world. We know that tap water – on average – is a penny a gallon; whereas bottled water can cost upwards of $2 for a liter. What are your thoughts about this phenomenon?

Salzman: “People perceive and use bottled and tap water very differently.

Bottled water is considered a product, and essentially as a drink that could be substituted with coke or a bottle of juice. People think of the water at home as an entitlement – basically like electricity. It is a service they get. They don’t really think of their water at home as drinking water. It is just a complete different mental category. The problem is you are running up against history. In history, tap water has been unbelievably cheap for most of the 20’s century.
We now use drinking water for agriculture and for industrial uses that is treated enough to drink, because for centuries water has been unbelievably cheap and abundant, and that is why single pipe were built to go into the house, with no distinction between non-treated and drinking water.

When you think about it, we use tap water to fill our swimming pool or our radiator, to wash down our sidewalks! Looking at it from an engineer perspective it is insane, the fact that we would use tap water for something that will not need any treatment. But that is the way we set it up, and as a result we are using tap water to flush our toilets.

To read more, Drinking Water: A History, is available on

1 Comment

  1. Thanks, You have touched every nerve in my body, since I drink pure spring water the best in a world know to me. Our family owns four springs over 200 years in use for still owned family properties and good neighbors. At present day there are bad management of water, so I am asking for your investigations to save the pure water. Without water is no living or life itself. Will United Water have a interest to stop the pollutions and distruction of my very old property. I have photos that show all the problems that can be fixed now. Waiting too long will be a total loss. Sincerely, MaryAnn Mattis


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