Putting a Price Tag on Water, a Priceless Commodity

I can’t recall a single instance in my life that I’ve been desperately thirsty or without easy access to fresh, clean water. I’ve never lacked water to keep my small lawn and my wife’s beautiful flower and vegetable gardens healthy and beautiful.

If your experiences are similar — how fortunate you are, too. As an American, through essentially the luck of the draw, you find yourself a part of a society that has come to expect and receive the world’s most precious commodity at a price reflecting the tiniest fraction of its life-sustaining value.

Little wonder as I sit here at my desk and write this that I’m puzzling over a beautiful plastic water bottle my wife absentmindedly left here. The label on the bottle says Kiwaii. It’s an attractive, four-sided bottle measuring 9½ inches with a small yellow flower (looks like a tropical flower) gracing its bottom right-hand corner. Small print on the label says the bottle contains “100% True New Zealand Spring Water.”

I’m stumped.

How the deuces did this 1 liter bottle of water get from New Zealand to here in the U.S.? In an airplane? On a huge tanker? How did it get in my home? (Well, at least one mystery is solved, as my wife, an unapologetic bargain hunter, informs me she bought the water in the mark-down section of our local Kroger supermarket. She says she paid $1.)

What a remarkable journey for this 1 liter container of water originating in “the pristine Blue Spring in New Zealand,” ending up in a supermarket just a short walk from Lake Erie, one of the Great Lakes. Looking out over the lake, all I see is water, fresh water, and a heck of a lot of it. (OK, have some fun with our Lake Erie water, if you will. We deserve it, given the algal blooms we’ve lived through these past few years.)

And, why did my wife pay $1 for the Kiwaii water? That’s pricey water in my world. (“I just wanted it,” she says without further explanation. Another question answered.) But, just how expensive, even at the bargain price my wife says she paid for, is this plastic bottle of water, I wondered?

Digging out one of my latest water bills, this one for the water my wife and I used in April, shows we used 1,496 gallons of treated water. We paid $62.27. This breaks down to $27.65 for water and $34.62 for sewer, which is priced on how much treated water we use. Reacquainting myself with my fifth-grade math, I determine that we paid just under 2 cents per gallon for our city-supplied fresh, clean drinking water. Combining the total cost (water plus sewer), we paid slightly more than 4 cents per gallon. Still a great bargain.

I compare what we’re paying for our public water with the imported Kiwaii. Since it takes 3.9 liters to make 1 gallon of water, and factoring in what my wife paid from the grocery store bargain bin, 1 gallon of the imported water would cost slightly less than $3.90. At the risk of becoming even more tedious, a quick calculation shows that at $3.90 per gallon of New Zealand water, our April water bill would have cost us approximately $5,800 ($3.90 times 1,496). Ouch!

What other commodity — in this case, life’s most precious commodity — is priced so disjointedly? How does anyone determine, in dollars and cents terms, water’s true utility and worth? It is a puzzle.

The only answer that comes to mind is that water, life’s most precious commodity, is priced mostly upon geography and circumstance. In that regard, I feel blessed.

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