Tap water wears a bow tie when it's put in a bottle and sold

It would be the most ironic of ironies, but we'd probably be too dehydrated to laugh.

Should Atlanta plum run out of water – even though the state says we've prayed enough to avoid it – we'd most likely turn to the dolled-up, overpriced, bottled variety. And how rich it'll be when folks learn that often what swishes around in the plastic container is a slightly altered version of what we were watching dwindle away all along.

Like Dasani. The Coca-Cola brand is the second best-selling bottled water product in the United States, right behind Pepsi's Aquafina. And both are, essentially, glorified tap water. Dasani, for example, is the product of what the company calls "reverse osmosis." According to a dazzling animation on the product's website, water is taken from a municipal source – which usually means it's the same water the local community also uses. It is then filtered, purified, treated and tinged with trace minerals such as potassium chloride, salt and magnesium sulfate. Voila – Dasani.

And right up in Marietta, just before where U.S. 41 crosses Canton Road, the soda-pop giant has a plant where humdrum municipal water, pulled from Lake Allatoona and the Chattahoochee River, is morphed through the process, bottled and then shipped throughout the Southeast.

"If people in Atlanta knew that they need to go to the store to buy bottled water because they're asked to conserve, and find out they're buying municipal water that's bottled in a Marietta plant ..." says Gigi Kellett of Corporate Accountability International, a big-business watchdog group. "And then these corporations are turning around and selling it to these individuals when they're taking it directly from their source."

This summer, Kellett's group influenced Pepsi to agree to change its labels to more accurately reflect the water's origin. Coca-Cola has said it doesn't think Dasani consumers are confused about the source and continues simply to label the water as "purified."

According to Marietta Power and Water, the Marietta facility at 1091 Industrial Park Drive used nearly 8.4 million gallons of water in November. That's a huge improvement from the same month last year, when it gulped 9.8 million gallons, and a far cry from the Pepsi Gatorade plant in southwest Atlanta – the city's biggest water user – which gobbled up 70.8 million gallons in September alone. The only customer in the Marietta district to top Dasani's consumption was Tip-Top Poultry, a chicken plant three miles down the road. Wellstar-owned Kennestone Hospital followed.

Commercial water users in Marietta get a sweet deal by paying less the more water they use. There is a graduated grid of rates. The first 2,000 gallons a commercial user such as Coca-Cola uses cost a total of $10.61; once that usage reaches a million gallons or more a month, the company pays $2.02 per 1,000 gallons.

Use more, pay less. It's a pricing structure that stands to change later this month when Marietta Power and Water's board considers doing away with the different block systems and charging a flat rate to commercial customers. The Metropolitan North Georgia Water District has urged municipalities to adopt such conservation pricing, but most of them are just now getting around to doing so.

Bottled water is one of marketing's great success stories. According to the Pacific Institute, an Oregon-based environmental-policy center, the $15 billion industry is enjoying tremendous annual growth: 10 percent every year, far outpacing paltry gains for fruit drinks and soda. And water's a moneymaker, too; it doesn't cost much to buy and industry analysts have predicted that after advertising and production, bottled water makes double the profit of carbonated beverages. A 1.25-pint bottle of Dasani costs $1.19 at a local gas station. Compare that with the $2.02 Coca-Cola pays for 1,000 gallons of municipal water to bottle it.

"We have to ask ourselves," says Allen Hershkowitz, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, "is it fair to subsidize a company with public water supplies that they then turn around and market, at a time when those public water supplies are at crisis levels?"

The drought has hit at a time when Coke already is embroiled in an international controversy over water rights and findings that global warming may be exacerbated by the plastic industry's energy-intensive business plan. That recently added to a backlash from water works in the United States that launched a massive PR campaign aimed at informing the public that tap water wasn't just safe to drink, but vitally important in terms of health, quality of life and economic development.

And while Gov. Sonny Perdue in late October ordered municipal water providers to cut back 10 percent compared with their average consumption prior to the drought restrictions – a goal that Atlanta and DeKalb County failed to meet – there's still neither a deadline for compliance nor a penalty for missing the cuts.

But records show Dasani cut back and did its part. Coca-Cola, as well as big water users, already are cutting cut back. The company says it's done so at the Dasani plant and across the board, claiming conservation programs since 2002 have cut its water use worldwide by 19 percent. Coke spokeswoman Michele McKillip says the Marietta facility – which also bottles Coca-Cola Classic, Sprite and other drinks – had already reduced water use by 8 percent from 2005 to 2006 and was continuing to cut back by using air-powered rinsers, fixing leaky pipes, ceasing truck washes, and using "dry lubes" on the conveyance line.

"Coca-Cola takes the drought very seriously," McKillip says. "And we share the state and community's concerns. The issue of water is something we've been looking at for a long, long time."

Late Thursday night last week, visible through a plate-glass window to motorists driving by, the bottling operation was humming along. The bottles were in motion. And in the parking lot sat another idling tractor trailer, ready to roll out more of that purified water.