If anyone knows how to create a narrative in response to ecological misfortune, it’s the bottled-water industry.
My family has always been at the mercy of the Big Muddy.
It’s 1993 and sandbags line the walls of our crowded living room waiting to be loaded into Dad’s pickup. The scent of sweat and ripe air sticks to everything, even us, so we take turns sponging off in a dry tub. Wallpaper in the bathroom bubbles up from the humidity into a bite-mark pattern that is fang-and-toothing through our town one room at a time. But as insulation moistens and floors sag, pumps that supply taps throughout the city are kicked off. We are in a no-water nightmare.
While areas in the south end evacuate, our family drives across state lines to Wathena to watch the main stem rise. As the water continues to rebel, we visit one of the American Red Cross relief tents. Social status becomes measured by the packs of bottled water in the pantry. Volunteers in local parks count the gallons to distribute per household, but we are persistent like mice and won’t let the long lines or July heat keep us from retreating until our trunk is full. By midnight the levee will give, drowning highway on-ramps and the buoyant casino; people will lose double-wide cabins; Sherwood Medical will collapse. Giddy from the chaos at eight years old, I fall asleep in my twin bed dreaming of viper moccasins swimming up through the floor vents.
In 2011, the snowmelt catches up to us again. As the river sidewinds and slide-pushes, it flexes its body in rectilinear locomotion to thirty-two feet. Like mice, spectators inhale and start hugging the walls of aluminum siding in search of higher ground.
In 2019, they scurry along banks, taking note of plot lines and whether or not the gravel roads can bear the weight of their homes. While the mice make plans, manufacturing areas evacuate yet again, and Mom is out of work. By this time, I have already left, and the river and all that it controls seems like another world away.
Water was not an issue for my family, except during the flood years.
Except for the flood years, I never gave our most fundamental human need much thought.
When I moderate focus groups, I can’t stop hydrating. Two empties are beneath my chair from setup earlier, which multiplies by three, sometimes four, not counting the nearly full bottles with the tops popped that I’ve left scattered throughout the facility, forgotten at the front desk, and next to the copy machine. Most facilities carry the bottles with the ultra-thin sides, the ones flimsy enough to crinkle when I want something to do with my hands. Time is measured by the plastic bottles in my proximity.
I know we have a plastics problem, but I have other concerns, like how I’m going to get through the remainder of this group without forgetting my list of talking points or taking a break.
It is also important that I appear thirsty as a nod to my new clients, folks I would like to impress. Sometimes when I am not working for beauty brands, I moderate focus groups for companies that make consumer packaged goods, like Bottled Waters North America.
Close your eyes, I say. What do you smell? Tell me about the mouthfeel of this beverage.
Except for the flood years, I never gave our most fundamental human need much thought.
Participants sip from paper cups labeled A and B, moving back and forth between each sample. One tastes heavy, according to the person on my immediate right, although it is difficult to say which, as the color of the liquids are identical.
How do you know you can trust the product you’re drinking?
Respondents tell me that as long as it comes from a well-known brand, they will buy it: a logo means it is pure. This is good news for my client, who has been previously accused of bottling and falsely marketing tap as fresh spring, with consumers filing lawsuits in Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Missouri. These groups are intended to find a way to help overturn misconceptions about the sourcing of their product.
That’s so interesting, I say, using a tactic I learned from my dad. We spent summers walking along the banks of the river together, pausing every few yards to throw sticks and soda cans into the rapids, taking bets on whether it would sink or float. And in observing this ongoing negotiation between our litter and the torrent, he would say, That’s interesting. Language for acknowledging the moment as you contemplate its significance.
Now, I use the word to acknowledge voices in the room before politely moving on; it works as a nice transition—who doesn’t want to be told they’re interesting? Told that their opinions—even the most benign comment about the scent or perceived aftertaste of an odorless, tasteless liquid—that what they have said and, by way of projection, who they are, is interesting. Clients tell me that they play a game in the back, that during each group they keep a running tally of the number of times I say the word interesting in response to someone who is anything but. The clients laugh as they say this, as though I have deliberately built-in punchlines to the group conversation.
When I step in the back room, I expect to hear about the tally of what is and isn’t interesting, maybe a comment or two about the woman who said she drank from the faucet using the same nasally pitch of gross one of the clients useswhen she catches me finishing a value menu McDouble or seeking out $5 Footlongs in Manhattan. Instead, everyone is hovering over a laptop.
On the screen is a photograph of a house reminiscent of those in my parent’s neighborhood: a cement porch, thin green lawn chairs propped against paint-chipped walls exposing the loose brick underneath. Next to a window AC unit is a black garbage bag tied off and a toddler wearing a red-and-gray-striped shirt. From the composition, you can tell the child is the main focus. And from the first line of the article, it’s clear that this is, in fact, one of the homes near my parent’s block in Saint Joseph, Missouri.
My worlds are mixing.
The clients share that Reuters has released a report on the most dangerous lead hotspots in America, profiling the thousands of US areas where lead poisoning rates are at least double those in Flint, Michigan, the once epicenter and focal point of the nation’s water contamination crisis. In some communities like my hometown, the rate of elevated blood tests is almost four times greater.
Growing up, I knew not to sip from any spigot, that tap was only for noningestible needs like washing hands and bathing. But of all the labels used to depict my region—Bible Belt, Frost Belt, Corn Belt—Lead Belt wasn’t one of which I was familiar.
Client voices parrot words like horrific and those poor kids until we all silently consider how, compared to the focus-group responses, this is even better news for a company currently combating inquiries into its sourcing ethics. If local municipalities are failing to deliver clean water, soon people will rely on brands even more than before. In times of crisis, what choice do we have but to transfer our beliefs in one institution of governing to another?
Calls are made to supervisors to discuss public relations strategy and immediate next steps. If anyone knows how to create a narrative in response to ecological misfortune, it’s the bottled-water industry.
Five years have passed since the focus groups, when, despite headlines, everyone, including those most vulnerable, decided the source didn’t matter. When you’re constantly on shaky ground, it’s easy to confuse a label for stability, mistake a logo and expensive font type for an emblem of ethics and a stamp of transparency.
Five years have passed since the Reuters report, and residents across the Midwest continue to line up for EPA-sponsored screenings before returning home, where they must remember to avoid the dust hidden along the floorboards, along the windowsills and crawl spaces for playing. Any inclination to bulldoze and start anew is irrelevant. There is no alternative. Lead is an element that doesn’t go away, so they must work with what they have.
In 1993, it wasn’t so much about working with what we had, but trying to hold on to what was left. Everyone lined up to receive their tetanus shot and a pair of latex gloves so they could dispose of the mess the river had made of their lives. As my aunts exchanged the use of their flatbed for access to a neighbor’s well and a front-yard bath, newscasters broadcasted that the levee was holding, but not for long, so we raced to haul my grandparent’s belongings to shelter.
On the night the levee breached, a boat was spotted. Traces of dynamite would be found the next morning at the site where the west side broke open, rerouting the catastrophic destruction onto Elwood, Kansas, and all 1,079 of its residents. Aerial photographs show the exact point of detonation. Some see it as an act of vigilante justice; others see it as a reclamation of agency from the forces we cannot control. Authority measured by our ability to manipulate the course of nature.
Of course, reclaiming authority over nature is a delusion. To reclaim control over a natural resource like a river implies that the river was once within our possession; it implies an ownership of what was never ours.
However, we were taught by our colonialist forefathers that procuring natural capital like minerals, fossil fuels, arable land—the elements that make human life possible—can yield the greatest rewards.
Some of the most successful skincare products today depend on the exploitation of water: Sakara’s Beauty Water Drops makes functional water effortless; Tatcha’s The Water Cream promises poreless-looking skin for just $68 dollars per 1.7-ounce bottle; Moisturize, Refresh, and Tone with one spritz of Evian’s Natural Mineral Water Facial Spray.
There is also power in rejecting what is deemed essential for others. Beauty influencers like Sophie Prana and Alise Miksta recently branded themselves as H20-Truthers, speaking out against Big Water and the many deceits it has advertised about the need to stay hydrated. Both women have told their followers to not drink water, with Miksta claiming she doesn’t drink regular bottled as it is probably really toxic and dirty.
When you’re constantly on shaky ground, it’s easy to confuse a label for stability.
This exploitation and manipulation of water for profit is examined by Chicago-based artist Pope.L in Flint Water Project (2017). Described as an art installation, a performance, and an intervention, the exhibition turned a Detroit gallery into a store that sold contaminated Flint tap as a way of drawing attention and raising money for the crisis happening across the Midwest.
The project launched with a block party on a Thursday in September and featured raffle prizes, a piñata, and tacos. Promotions were also available for attending patrons to purchase a single bottle running at $250, a case of six for $1,000, a case of twelve for $2,500, and a case of twenty-four for $5,000, with all proceeds donated to the United Way of Genesee County and other nonprofit organizations advocating for affordable water in Detroit.
As people mingled and sipped Tecate, they watched a live bottling demonstration featuring workers in blue aprons and gloves. The workers pump from a matching blue industrial barrel into a sleek plastic cylinder that holds sixteen fluid ounces. Each bottle is factory-line flawless: the rounded silhouette, the thickness of the plastic, the size of the ident at the bottom to keep it steady, the color-coordinated blue cap, and the glossy high-res photograph on the label of the iconic white Flint water tower atop of rocky terrain and cascading waves. The design detail and packaging quality is a stark contrast to the cartoonish, generic landscapes and feeble products my client sells.
What remains striking as I revisit this exhibit years later is the spuriousness of this everyday object: bottled water as a false symbol of hope, a facade for change, a subversive rebrandof the impoverished and marginalized. A shiny vessel to demonstrate our entrapment between government and capitalist systems, neither of which advocate for the people they serve.
Pope.L described the project as one Midwest city helping another struck by similar blight. In a quick glance of the label, one could easily swap the white water tower for the blue one in Saint Joseph, Missouri, or another from one of the thousands of areas across the Lead Belt. And two years following this performance, news will break of lead contamination found in the drinking water in Newark, New Jersey, Pope.L’s hometown.
Lately, when I FaceTime with my parents from my apartment in Brooklyn, water is on my mind. I ask about PUR filter cartridges and the price of the bulk case on the counter. I ask if they have hired a professional to safely strip the lead paint from the windows, and I am cut off midquestion with, How’s the weather out there?
I tilt the screen up and walk them over to the window to watch the February flakes cover the backyard of my building.
There is an invisible blockade sealing off my long-distance concerns, because worry is not intended to be exchanged between parents and children; it is only meant to flow in one direction. Worry means possible alternative outcomes, the potential for adjustment. And what value is there in dwelling over what remains true: that we have always been at the mercy of the Big Muddy, and no matter the physical distance between me and them or the time of year, we always will be.
Sun is in the forecast tomorrow for them, and if it comes out, Dad will likely, as he often does, drive up Wyeth Hill and walk along the bluff that looks down on the river. He’ll fantasize about the next time he and his Friday-night buddies can reconvene over drinks and cards at Larry’s trailer further upstream. Nights when dusk lasts a little bit longer, and all that is on anyone’s mind is the view.
In winter, still months from the trees budding, he can see subtle movements against the glassy ice as it begins to thaw—the river entering its own kind of ecdysis, slowly sloughing away layer after layer to remove any parasites that may have attached to its old skin, so it can stretch, so it can grow once again.
KATIY HEATH is an essayist from Saint Joseph, Missouri. Her obsessions include women who bathe, women who work, and women who witness. She currently is writing a memoir about her experience moderating focus groups for skincare companies. Read more from her at CHEAP POP, Pigeon Pages, and XRAY Lit.