Eating local but drinking global

Frisco Whole Foods elevation sign

Wash down that local meat with a bottle of water from across the sea

By Allen Best

Whole Foods Market earlier this year opened a store in the Colorado mountain town of Frisco. Located at 9,097 feet, it can boast it’s the chain’s highest-elevation outlet.

And like each of the 393 other Whole Foods markets, the Frisco store goes out of its way to emphasize local connections. In a nod to the four local ski resorts, brightly decorated skis and snowboards direct customers to check-out lines, while local trees killed by mountain pine beetles have been fashioned into blue-stained wooden tables.

Local origins of food also get prime time on every aisle. This is especially prominent in the meat section. There, a giant wall poster explains that the store’s chicken comes from 109 miles away, its beef from 110 miles, and pork from 220 miles.Local meats Whole foods

Yet for bottled water, inverse logic prevails, and few of the 20 varieties come from Colorado. One comes from Mexico, another from Italy. You can also buy water from Northern California and that chimera of desert sizzle, Las Vegas.

That thirsty Las Vegas can export water is a strong statement about marketing or technological wizardry; its Get Real! brand boasts of negative ionization to “help your body restore balance, improve health and reach your full potential.”

Las Vegas gets only four inches of precipitation a year and long ago exhausted its aquifers from the last Ice Age. So nearly all of its water comes from the Colorado River, impounded behind Hoover Dam in Lake Mead. The specter of worsening drought has now made the reservoir so unreliable that the Southern Nevada Water Authority is boring a new tunnel into the reservoir — its third. Intake for the newest tunnel, drilled at a cost of $817 million, will emerge from the very bottom of the riverbed, should the reservoir dry up completely.

The irony is that some of Lake Mead’s supply comes from creeks around Frisco. Its new Whole Foods store is within a quarter-mile of Tenmile Creek, which roared with recently melted snow from 13,000-foot peaks when I visited in mid-June. Water from Tenmile travels some 1,000 miles before arriving at Las Vegas.

Italy is an even more significant supplier of bottled water at Whole Foods, and cases of Italian water clogged the aisles when I visited. I wondered: Did it rain a lot in Italy last winter? No; a promotional website called Life in Italy explains that “these waters spend years if not decades or centuries trapped underground, absorbing nutrients and minerals as they pass through rich soil, limestone or volcanic rock. …”

Water released by some Colorado mountains is mineralized, too. Hardrock mining has left some creeks with elevated concentrations of zinc, magnesium and other minerals. Most of it has been cleaned up thanks to federal Superfund legislation.

But Frisco’s water? I’d drink it in a second; in fact, I already do. Metropolitan Denver can boast that it gets most of its water from mountain creeks as pure as the driven snow. So why buy water from the other side of the planet when the best is local?

Whole Foods bottled waterShipping water great distances isn’t anything new. New York City’s water comes from upstate in the Adirondack Mountains. And there’s no way metropolitan Los Angeles could support 18 million people without the very expensive and energy-intensive pumping of water from Northern California as well as from the Colorado River.

Exurban areas of Denver and Colorado Springs, exhausting local sources, have even begun talking about pumping water more than 400 miles from a reservoir on the Utah-Wyoming border. Environmentalists call it a boondoggle, but really, is it any crazier than the swimming pool of water I see at my local Costco in the form of bottled water from France, the South Pacific and California?

Why would anybody think that California water is better than locally sourced Colorado water? I suspect it’s the same people who cheer the Los Angeles Lakers when they play the Denver Nuggets in downtown Denver. I’ll grant you that our liquor stores are full of water, in the form of wine, from around the world. I buy wine from Australia because it best matches my low income as a writer.

Whole Foods, aptly nicknamed Whole Paycheck, appeals to a higher-income crowd. Maybe the same customers who insist on local meat somehow assume that pricey imported water guarantees a better product.

The locavore movement has made its mark, and it’s evident everywhere from the omnipresent farmers’ markets to the big signs at Whole Foods. Studying those cases of water hauled across the ocean to the spine of the Rocky Mountains, I wonder if it’s also time for a locagua movement.

This column was distributed by  Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News ( 


About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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