Bottled Water to Disappear at MaLode

Several years ago, when we made the decision to eliminate the use of bottled water at Mother Lode and use coolers and cups instead, we had our reasons. Those reasons, and a lot more, were included in this article on bottled water Emily wrote for The High Country News as an intern there. Although Emily has moved on and is now the Neuroscience Reporter for Science Magazine in Washington, DC  (you can see her articles regularly in the print magazine ($10 per copy) or for free on the online version at ScienceNow), I thought this was an informative article that folks might be interested in. I am now reposting it as a MaLode blog favorite. Scott the RiverDoc

Tell Me Sweet Little Lies…
by Emily Underwood

Bottled water has never made sense. The fact is it has always been an elaborate PR scam, both an invented necessity and a bizarre symbol of luxury. Nevertheless, I buy bottled water sometimes, especially on long car trips. When I do, I often buy “Fiji” water. I don’t know why. I just like its square shape, snazzy palm frond label, and the frosty coolness as I pull it out of the service station refrigerator.
I have always known, vaguely, that I am being seduced by the phrase “natural artesian water,” and by the company’s more shameless greenwashing: “Every drop is green.” I know better than to believe such nonsense, but I enjoy forgetting what I know as I listen to the gurgle of gasoline filling up my tank and eat a frozen Snickers bar. Most of us know that feeling.

Every bottled water company has a special spin: Evian has tried for years now to convince us that drinking its bottled water will make us thin and sophisticated, possibly even French. Dasani, by Coca Cola, goes for mystery with its shapely blue bottle and “mouthwatering” mineral formula. Nestle’s brand name, Pure Life, shares its name with a prominent Christian group whose mission is to deliver believers from sexual sin.

Something all the bottled water companies have in common these days, however, is aggressive greenwashing. It turns out Fiji runs one of the most surreal and manipulative of the campaigns.
“We are proud to offer a fine artesian water that is good for people and good for the environment,” they say. Nonsense. A recent study by the Pacific Institute, Energy Implications of Bottled Water has forever ruined Fiji water for me.

The study, published in the February 2009 peer-reviewed Environmental Research Letters, finds that bottled water takes *up to 2000 times more energy* to produce than drinking water from the tap. The two biggest energy sucks are production of the bottles (it takes the energetic equivalent of 50 million barrels of oil per year to produce the bottles) and transportation of the bottles to their final destination.

“Artesian” means that Fiji water is from an authentic spring– and the spring is indeed on the island of Fiji. The company has promised to reduce its emissions and packaging, use more renewable energy, and use carbon offsets, as well as protect their source’s watershed, the Sovi Basin Rainforest. They have even set the goal of becoming carbon negative…someday.

However, none of those intentions can diminish the fact that Fiji bottled water travels over 5000 miles by air or boat to get to San Francisco. Fiji can’t realistically claim to be any more environmentally responsible than companies who transport water a shorter distance. And they don’t come close to being as green as municipal water, which skips the carbon-heavy bottles altogether.

To say Fiji water is “good” for the environment is quite a stretch. There is also the question of resource allocation–the island of Fiji is historically vulnerable to catastrophic drought. In past decades Fijian farmers have starved because there wasn’t enough water for irrigation, which calls into question the wisdom of shipping Fijian water overseas to be sold as a luxury item. (For a thoughtful discussion of the impact of the bottled water industry on communities in the U.S., see Christina Ammons’ 2007 HCN story, “Watershed Moment” about the controversy surrounding Nestle’s bottling enterprise in McCloud, California.)

Finally, there is little evidence to support the idea that bottled water is any better for you than tap water. Food and Water Watch in their aggressive anti-bottled water and anti-water privatization campaign, point out that quality testing standards are far less stringent for bottled water than for municipal supplies. For example, whereas municipal water must be tested for fecal coliform bacteria 100 times per month, a little over 3 times a day, bottled water plants only have to check once a week. A study by the Natural Resources Defense Council found more than the allowed amount of bacteria in more than one fifth of 103 tested brands. And bottled water, unlike constantly moving municipal water, is stagnant, and therefore more conducive to bacterial replication.

I’m not one to get paranoid about bacteria in bottled water, although the leaching phthalates, which are also unregulated, are a bit creepy. But considering the environmental costs of producing bottled water, the fact that there is no proven health benefit to drinking it makes it even crazier to choose bottled water over tap.

Americans spent $11 billion on bottled water in 2006, and drank over 33 billion liters in 2007, which works out to about 30 gallons per person. The rising rate of consumption speaks to the success of bottled water company PR campaigns.

More seriously, however, it reflects Americans’ fundamental distrust of public water systems. Concerns about deteriorating public water infrastructure, and trace contaminants that the EPA doesn’t regulate are harder to dispel than misleading advertisements. $6 billion of the stimulus package was set aside for local clean and drinking water infrastructure improvements, which have been neglected for far too long. But it will take more than infrastructure improvements to regain America’s trust in the tap.

For one thing, we need better risk assessment. Reverse osmosis, which forces water through a selectively-permeable membrane, is theoretically the best technology for purification, and companies like Aquafina and Dasani use it in their plants. However, it is also the most energy-intensive form of purification, and is no real guarantee of quality since the membranes themselves are susceptible to bacterial colonization.

In the long run, we can’t afford the bottled water solution socially, environmentally, or economically. We need better information about how much purification is actually necessary for health, and then we need to find ways to make that technology efficient and affordable to use in our public systems. Otherwise, we will be increasingly forced to drink water that isn’t significantly safer, but still costs us more than gasoline. And those of us who can’t afford bottled water will be stuck with a broken system– a situation reminiscent of Marie Antoinette’s disastrous pronouncement, “Let them eat cake.” Except this time it will be, “Let them drink Perrier.”

Cheers from Colorado,


Imagine Simpler Living – Visit our Yurt This Summer

Our sedentary culture seems to nurse a love of thick-walled boxes that makes us leery of impermanent housing. Who hasn’t sneered at the man who lives in a van down by the river? But river guides will attest to the freedom and joy of transitioning from a stuffy winter box every spring into an airy, riverside bedroom. Ditching moldy roofs for translucent tarps stretched over wooden frames, and linoleum and carpet for leaf-strewn platforms, we set up house by stringing a few thrift store sheets up for privacy and hanging up a pair of board shorts. The more domestic of us arrange a few potted plants in front of the sheet-door and call it good.

This simplicity, self-sufficiency, and connection to the natural world embodies the spirit of the yurt, a lovely example of which has now arrived at Mother Lode. With no corners for the wind to catch, the earliest yurts were built to endure the wind-raw steppes of Central Asia, and yet their basic elements – circular lattice walls, cone shaped roof, and rafters that meet in a central ring – could be assembled in thirty minutes and taken down just as quickly. Two or three camels can comfortably carry a medium sized yurt and all of its household goods, just as one beat-up Subaru Legacy can carry a river guide’s wordly possessions with a kayak strapped to the top. (All this info on yurts, and more besides, can be found in the book Yurts: Living in the Round, by Becky Kemery)

Guides don’t get to live in yurts for the summer at Mother Lode –yet. But guests and guides alike can enjoy the spacious, 20-foot diameter yurt as a space to imagine a lighter, less cumbersome existence, and ponder the following quote: “If in our lifetime we suppress nomads, we shall have done by human harshness what natural harshness could not do. To abolish nomads because they have other skills, know other things, hold other aspirations, and live by other customs than ours – in short, because they are different – is as unwise as it is unworthy… There is a place for nomads in the world, often enough a place we cannot use without them. We must not steal it from them, for if we do, we reduce the richness of human life – we rob ourselves.”

Neville Dyson-Hudson

Health in Nature: The Science

The following article was recently published in “The Current”, the American River Conservancy’s quarterly newsletter. Enjoy!

In his book, “The Creation”, Dr. E.O. Wilson engages in a dialogue with an imaginary preacher in order to argue persuasively that both science and religion have compelling reasons to support the good stewardship and preservation of Nature. He defines Nature as “the original environment and its life forms before human impact”.

As one of the world’s foremost ecologists, Dr. Wilson shares the concern of many climatologists and other scientists, that the current activities of humankind threaten over half the world’s species with extinction by the end of the century. Not only do these organisms have practical value as natural ecosystems providing us with clean air, water, energy, food, etc., Dr. Wilson argues they are important to preserve for their own sake, as part of God’s Creation.

But what is the evidence that the experience of Nature benefits human health directly? Should we preserve it for that reason as well? Let us explore some recent science.

1. The Experience of Nature Reduces Stress
Medical science has established that stress plays an important role in 80% of all illness. As you de-stress and connect with the sights and sounds of Nature you boost your immune system, lower your blood pressure, reduce levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, increase release of pleasure mediators such as endorphins and promote your physical and mental health.

2. Exercise is Great for Health and Exercise in Nature is Even Better!
No doubt you knew that aerobic exercise is good for your health. What is surprising is that the setting in which exercise occurs is an important determinant of the health benefits of exercise. Subjects who exercised in a “green” environment surrounded by the sights and sounds of Nature have greater reductions in blood pressure, higher elevations in HDL (the good cholesterol), and greater improvements in mood and self esteem than those who exercise the same amount in urban, non-green environments. Mitchell and Popham, Lancet, 372: pg. 1655-60.

3. Nature is Good for Your Brain. The City Hurts Your Brain.
Ever felt like your brain was on overload? Chances are you were in a crowded city or caught in traffic. Activities in Nature allow your brain to unwind from urban life and actually improve mental functioning. So says Marc Berman, a psychologist at the University of Michigan and lead author of a new study that measured cognitive deficits caused by urban environments. Marc says that the brain is a limited machine and “we are beginning to understand the different ways a city can exceed those limitations.” By contrast, even fleeting glimpses of Nature improve brain performance.

4. Children Benefit Greatly from Experiences in Nature, the Longer the Better
Those of us who raft rivers know what a thrill it is to watch our children whoop and holler through a whitewater rapid. Often timid at first, by the time you reach takeout the kids are asking, “where are the really big ones”, and then beg for more. Children these days are often more stressed than adults. In part this is because they are highly empathic and mirror the emotions of their parents and other adults who are dealing with the stresses and strains of modern industrial society.

It is therefore good news that researchers have found children benefit from exposure to Nature with a dose related reduction in their stress levels. The longer the exposure to Nature, the lower the levels of stress in the child. Those of us who have experienced an extended raft trip on the Grand Canyon certainly know the feeling: What day is it anyway? Leaving home your TV, computer and cell phone helps too. (NM Wells and GW Evans, Environment and Behavior, 35(3): 311-330.)

5. Experiences in Nature are Great for ADD and ADHD
Attention disorders have become one of the challenges of the current age. The percentage of children on Ritalin and other drugs used to treat ADD and ADHD (which is generally ADD in males) is truly astounding. Theories abound on the causes and appropriate treatment of these children, but recent evidence has found that one treatment improves the symptoms in virtually all cases. That treatment is exposure to Nature. The data is so compelling that some have suggested that ADD and ADHD are actually “Nature Deficit Disorder” in disguise. If our children were to grow up in an environment more similar to the one in which their nervous system evolved, the problem might disappear. This may be hyperbole. Nevertheless, what is clear is that children diagnosed with attention issues have better functioning after activities in natural or “greener” settings. Furthermore, the greener the setting, the less severe the child’s attention disorder. ( AF Taylor, FE Kuo and WC Sullivan. Environment and Behavior, 33 (1):54-77) Also Taylor and Kuo, Journal of Attention Disorders, August 2008.

These are just a few of the studies that increasingly suggest that John Muir was right, not only is “in God’s wildness .. the hope of the world”; it is a primary condition for the preservation of human health. Both the scientist and the preacher agree. Keep it wild!

Scott Underwood M.D., ABIM, ABEM trained at U.C. Davis before his retirement from a career in Emergency Medicine. As the longest serving member of the ARC Board of Directors, he now volunteers at the Mother Lode River Center in Coloma where the vision is “to promote healthy people, living in equitable and sustainable societies, in balance with the natural world.” Visit or send comments to

NEW! Sustainable Practices Course Offerings at Mother Lode River Center

In keeping with the Mother Lode River Center’s commitment to environmental stewardship, we are proud to announce the most recent addition to our Outdoor Education curriculum: Sustainable Practices; Experiential Education for a Changing Planet.

Beginning in 2007 the Mother Lode River Center enacted a Greenhouse Gas Action Plan (GAP) as a means of reducing our carbon footprint. Since then we have “walked the talk” and reduced our overall carbon emissions by 30%. This puts us ahead of our 2012 goal of a 20% reduction, and well on our way to achieving our 2020 goal of a 40% reduction.

In the process folks have been noticing our rapidly multiplying fleet of 100% waste vegetable oil powered vehicles which began with Eco-Bus, but this year will add Eco-MiniBus, Eco-Truck and Eco-Passat. Solar hot water heaters of various design types, and photovoltaic panels applied in a variety of ways, have been installed to illustrate the full spectrum of solar power technology. This year our on-site organic garden adds a new solar powered root zone heating system and a high-tech greenhouse augmented by thermal mass. Our current goal is to achieve a 50% overall reduction of our carbon footprint by the end of the 2009 season and to ultimately create an “Eco-Village”. (Check out the ECOS blog for details.)

When many of our guests expressed interest in these different projects, the decision was made to share our experiences with you. Guided by our solar guru, Allen Carrozza, who is a true solar expert with over thirty years of experience in the field, we comparative rookies are acquiring lots of practical knowledge. We are enthusiastic about passing it on to others. The more we learn though, the more we realize that most of these ideas aren’t new. The ancient Greeks used solar hot water heating, organic gardening is how the ancients used to do it, and the first diesel engine was designed by Rudolf Diesel in 1897 to run on peanut oil.

The real challenge is to learn to live in ways that adapt to the needs of a changing planet. Our Manager, Greg Hawkins, put it well: “A revolution does not begin with the formation of a new idea, but with its implementation.”

How Sustainable Practices Works:
As with all our programs, Sustainable Practices is designed to be hands-on and can be tailored to meet the needs of youth and/or adults. You can combine it with one or more of our other programs to create fun and informative multi-day adventures. Or, spend the day at our camp on the American River and learn how a little creativity and initiative can result in dramatic changes in your use of energy, and the various ways we can all reduce our impact on the ecosystems that support us all.

Come Join Us at Mother Lode and Help Build Tomorrow, Today!
Sustainable Practices home page

MaLode Urges Eco-Approach to Health

Toward an Ecological Approach to Health
Scott Underwood, M.D.

In the United States human health has traditionally been viewed in isolation from its ecological context. During my medical training and subsequent career in Emergency Medicine, issues such as climate change, habitat destruction, species extinction, pollution and the depletion of fresh water supplies were treated as primarily environmental issues lying outside the realm of the medical industry. Equity has been seen as a primarily political, economic and social issue. Sustainability was rarely considered.

I believe this view must be changed and that not only physicians, but all Americans, have a responsibility to effect this change. Achieving health requires that we address all these elements in an integrated, ecological approach. Our goal should to be “healthy people, living in equitable and sustainable societies, in balance with the natural world”. Ignoring any of these elements has profound and unacceptable consequences.

Few people have anticipated these consequences better than my biology professor at Stanford University, Dr. Paul Ehrlich, considered by many to be the father of American ecology. Winner of the Crafoord Prize, the equivalent to the Nobel Prize for his pioneering work in the field of ecology, Dr. Ehrlich delivered an extraordinary speech that was, in effect, an urgent call for an ecological approach to health. I encourage you to click here to listen to this speech delivered in 1970. I think you will be amazed at how contemporary and compelling it is today, nearly forty years later.

I would argue, however, that one of the best examples of the implementation of some of the elements of an ecological approach to health actually anticipated Dr. Ehrlich’s speech by several decades. As a U.S. Army dependent, I traveled to Japan in 1946 with my family to spend three years as my father participated in the effort led by General Douglass MacArthur to implement the Marshall Plan in Japan after World War II. Although most Americans have understood the Marshall Plan as a program of financial assistance, it is less well known that its approach was systems based, comprehensive and consisted of three distinct components: Democratization, Decentralization and Demilitarization. In order to implement the “three Ds”, MacArthur took sweeping actions that affected every aspect of Japanese society. For example, his approach to Decentralization reflected an understanding that the concentration of wealth and power in the giant family run industrial monopolies, the Zaibatsu, had played a crucial role in the genesis of Japanese fascism. These monopolies controlled the Japanese economy and had, among other things, eliminated labor unions. MacArthur dissolved these monopolies and addressed their extreme concentration of wealth by imposing a minimum wage, a maximum wage and by redistributing the Zaibatsu’s wealth. He also brought about universal access to health care. The eventual result of these measures was the transformation of Japan from a nation with one of the largest gaps between rich and poor and the worst health indices (longevity, infant mortality, etc.) in the world, into the Japan of today. Japan is now the nation with the best health indices, and the smallest gap between rich and poor in the industrialized world.

Given the present challenges we face as Americans, let us consider what has happened in the United States during this same period. While our nation was 5th in the world in 1950 in terms of health indices, and had a relatively small gap between rich and poor and a growing middle class, these trends have since been reversed. Today our comparative health indices are no better than 21st, below all other developed nations, Costa Rica and Cuba. The gap between rich and poor in our country is now the largest in any industrialized nation. During the same period our expenditures on health care have exploded. The United States now spends over half of all the money spent on health care in the world, the highest per capita of any nation, while representing only 4% of the world’s population. By contrast, Japan spends the lowest amount per capita on health care among the industrialized nations of the world, while achieving the best health indices.

Another very different society that employs important aspects of an ecologically sound approach to health is the nation of Bhutan, located in the Himalayan Mountains near Nepal. Although Bhutan admits very few visitors in an effort to preserve its cultural traditions, over the past two winters Mary and Phil of DeRiemer Adventure Kayaking were granted permission to lead groups of kayakers to explore the rivers of Bhutan. I encourage you to visit their website for details of their travels.

The importance of their experience from the perspective of an ecological approach to health is that the Bhutanese people, who are materially poor by American standards, are comparatively physically and spiritually healthy. To paraphrase Mary and Phil, “the definition of happiness in Bhutan is not ‘having and getting,’ rather in their culture wealth has little to do with being happy. On the contrary, they believe that desiring and wanting often cause suffering. This principle is an underlying motivator of behavior with the result that their culture is open, loving, curious and accepting. Their government pursues the ‘gross national happiness’ and to promote happiness the government engages in implementing model educational, social and environmental programs that take into account the desire to protect the country’s environment and cultural traditions.”

The far off Kingdom of Bhutan and the concept of the “Gross National Happiness” may seem esoteric to many Americans. Nevertheless, over 400 respected U.S. economists including Nobel Laureate Professor Herbert Simon contend that it would actually be more realistic and useful to substitute for our use of the Gross Domestic Product (the total of all goods and services produced) the measurement of the Genuine Progress Index, which attempts to measure the quality of our lives. Comparing these measures during the period since the 1970s is revealing. While the conventional GDProduct more than doubled, the Genuine Progress Index declined 45% during this period. Measuring the GPI would have warned us that, contrary to the many assurances to the contrary, the U.S. economy was actually undermining our health during this period. Not only was our prosperity unevenly distributed and unsustainable, it was not performing its most important function. That function is to support improvements in the health of our population.

Clearly, an ecological, scientific approach to health demands that we define what health is, how best to measure it, and then promote the conditions that achieve it. If we do not do these things, it stands to reason we will be unsuccessful in attaining health. We must recognize that health is more than just the absence of disease. On the contrary, it requires doing things that actively promote it. It is not enough to attempt to correct the effects of doing things that destroy it.

At Mother Lode it is our continuing commitment to contribute toward this effort, one river based experience, one letter, one environmentally and socially responsible act at a time.  We hope you will bring your ideas and suggestions, and help explore the possibilities. Remember, recreation is just that: “re-creation”, a process by which meaningful, constructive change occurs and a vital part of an integrated and ecological approach to health.

See you on the river!
Scott the RiverDoc, Charlie the RiverDog and the MaLode Ecowarrior Clan