All Wet

In any other burg, the decision over which fancy-label bottled water to sell at the local opera house would cause scarcely a ripple of comment. But this is Aspen, Bub, where no official action is too small for parsing by folks who think globally, snipe locally.

Town leaders in the Prada-padded wonderland are accustomed to micro-managing a wide range of issues, from resolutions on global warming to proposals to ban charcoal lighter fluid for home barbecues. Yet even they couldn't anticipate the cascade of environmental, economic and moral controversies -- let alone the name-calling -- flowing from the award of a $3,000 contract to supply water to the city-run Wheeler Opera House.

The contretemps has generated numerous attacks and counterattacks in both Aspen dailies. Executives at one local bottled-water company demanded an investigation of the bidding process, only to find their firm ridiculed, vilified and accused of crass exploitation. The entire affair has raised indignant questions about the practices of the $8 billion-a-year bottled-water business -- an industry that markets a transparent product densely wrapped in upscale imagery.

Aspen's image-conscious opera house attracted three bidders when it opened up its water concession last fall. Fiji, a premium brand featured in many tony restaurants and boutique hotels, offered to supply its designer H2O at $14.40 a case. Aspen Pure, a rival local company, bid $12.50 a case. Coca-Cola, which distributes Evian and Dasani, made the thriftiest pitch, offering Evian at $9 a case and Dasani at $6.10 a case.

The Wheeler opted to go with its established vendor, Fiji, even though it was the high bidder. Many of the opera house's patrons and performers prefer Fiji, staffers explained, and its distinctive squared-off bottle wouldn't roll if dropped on the sloping floor of the place. Also, the company agreed to donate dozens of cases of water for charitable events, bringing down the overall price.

None of the explanations sat well with the Aspen Pure faction, who felt they'd been hosed by the very town whose hip, crystalline image they were trading on in their marketing campaign. Their company had offered to donate to charitable events, too. Their slim-waisted, "ergonomically desirable" bottle was, arguably, less likely to slip through somebody's hands and fall on the floor in the first place.

Yet the Wheeler had ignored all that. Worse, they'd gone with the local boys' most bitter competitor. Aspen Pure was launched last spring by three Aspen residents, with backing from a founder of the Pizza Hut chain. The company spent thousands of dollars retooling its label after Fiji's lawyers accused the company of infringing on its design. "While we disagreed completely with their claims, we agreed to make some changes to avoid a confrontation," says Mark Friedland, Aspen Pure's chief executive officer.

An established heavyweight in the premium-water market, with sales in excess of 70 million bottles a year, Fiji can boast of local ties, too. The company is based in Basalt, less than twenty minutes' drive from Aspen. But its water comes from an artesian aquifer on the island of Viti Levu, prompting Aspen Pure execs to complain that the city was getting soaked for a foreign product when a more reasonable alternative was available closer to home.

"Fiji may not be the best product for a city that prides itself on being green," Aspen Pure chairman Jerry Bovino told the Aspen Daily News.

Bovino asked Aspen's city council to review the Wheeler's decision. But the city manager declined to intervene in the bidding process; on contracts for less than $10,000, city employees are allowed to consider other factors besides price in weighing bids.

Rebuffed by bureaucrats, Aspen Pure soon found its own claims of being green and homegrown under attack. Although the company's label boasts that its water is "bottled at the source in the Rocky Mountains," it's actually drawn from an aquifer below a former potato farm outside Alamosa. In a column laced with alarming insinuations about declining aquifer levels and rising traces of arsenic in Alamosa's city water, Daily News writer Steve Skinner pilloried Aspen Pure for sucking precious fluid from the beleaguered San Luis Valley -- or, as he put it, "pressuring an over-exploited, drought-stricken, poisoned aquifer in Alamosa."

Bovino shot back in a piece written for the Aspen Times, denying the presence of arsenic or any other impurities in his company's water and denouncing Skinner's column as "a pathetic attempt to smear Aspen Pure." Bovino added, "You have to wonder who fed Steve all the valuable 'facts' in the article, and what their motivation might be in destroying a young company by spreading lies. Could it have been a competitor?"

Skinner denies any smear campaign. "I attacked Aspen Pure because they got up on a pedestal and pronounced their water a better choice based on environmental reasons," he says. "As soon as I started digging, I discovered just how transparent their claim was."

In a subsequent column, Skinner blasted the entire bottled-water business as decidedly un-green because of its use of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles that are rarely recycled: "By the time the bottles make it into our landfill, it doesn't matter what the label says, it's Aspen pure trash."

Aspen Pure CEO Friedland has opted to take the high road in the controversy. No, he says, he doesn't feel betrayed by Aspen's snubbing of Aspen Pure. "I was a little disappointed," he says, "but they have the right to make their own decision."

As for the charge of "exploiting" Alamosa, Friedland responds, "The water we're using is equal to or less than the water that would otherwise be used to irrigate the fields for farming."

Although the company doesn't own the bottling operation, its contract has created jobs in Alamosa, he adds: "We're providing jobs for people who have families, jobs that people want, in a clean, healthy, aesthetically pleasing environment."

Friedland also notes that every bottle of Aspen Pure carries the message "Please Recycle." "You can't force someone to recycle, obviously," he says. "But if you don't use plastic -- that argument taken to its extreme -- you might as well not go to the grocery store. People don't carry around glass bottles for a lot of reasons. PET has become the desired container of the 21st century. The alternative is to tell everyone to drink tap water."

Tap water fared well in a blind taste test utilizing the jaded palates of a group of Westword staffers. Participants preferred Aspen Pure over Fiji by a three-to-one margin, but a significant minority -- 30 percent -- preferred Denver tap water to both of the premium brands.