Ebb & Flow: Demystifying Drinking Water

Is the glass half empty or half full? It depends on what kind of drinking water is inside



Sources for illustrated statistics: Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, International Bottled Water Association, Beverage Marketing Corporation, Environmental Protection Agency

Illustrations by Jason Walton

UPDATE: Hear Mark Kurlyandchik discuss this article on Michigan Radio's Stateside with Cynthia Canty.

Think about your last drink of water. Where did it come from? The kitchen faucet? A communal office water cooler? A plastic bottle?

Regardless of the source, one thing is certain: Water is king, having recently toppled soda’s more than two-decade reign as America’s drink of choice, according to the The Associated Press.

While some credit for water’s rise is due to broader public trends toward health consciousness, much of the growth has been propelled by America’s wholehearted embrace of bottled water, specifically. On average, every one of us drinks more than 29 gallons of bottled water a year, 11 gallons more than we drank just a decade ago.

Meanwhile, municipal water systems — tap-water suppliers — have been struggling with public perceptions of their water quality and rising water rates, since money for infrastructure upgrades can often come only from consumers’ water bills, as is the case for the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department.

But bottled water also faces challenges, particularly from environmentalists, advocacy groups, and even local governments (the city of Concord, Mass., for example, banned single-serving bottled water earlier this year). Claims on both sides of the drinking-water debate are often contradictory and tend toward the extreme.

In celebration of Drinking Water Week (May 5-11), Hour Detroit attempts to demystify what can sometimes seem like a murky subject — so that you can decide whether the glass is half full or half empty.

HISTORICALLY SPEAKING///

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is one of the oldest municipal water systems in the country. With roots dating back to 1836, the current system pumps drinking water to 40 percent of Michigan’s residents across Detroit and 126 suburban communities stretching from Downriver to Flint.

The history of bottled water goes back even further, predating even America’s independence. The industry all but disappeared during the first half of the 20th century, thanks largely to chlorination of municipal water supplies that made tap water safe to drink. But the birth of the modern bottled water industry can be traced to 1976, when Perrier first brought its naturally carbonated spring water — supported by a $5-million ad campaign — to the United States. Evian followed suit the next year, perpetuating the image of bottled water as a “luxury” item for the upper classes. Today, bottled water is far more mainstream, with hundreds of brands that run the gamut of price points and tastes.

RULES AND REGULATIONS///

The anti-bottled-water crowd often repeats the claim that bottled water is not as regulated as tap water. That’s a somewhat dubious claim: The two are different products with different distribution systems, regulated by different federal agencies; the Environmental Protection Agency oversees municipal drinking water, while the Food and Drug Administration regulates bottled water as a packaged food item.

Chris Hogan is vice president of communications for the International Bottled Water Association, the industry’s main trade association and mouthpiece. “The [FDA], by federal law, has to regulate bottled water regarding health and safety to at least [as] strict a standard as the EPA regulates tap water,” he says. “And in some cases, with specific regulations, they regulate bottled water to a higher standard.”

While that might be true, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report in 2009 that noted key differences between the two agencies’ regulatory practices. “Of particular note,” the report says, “FDA does not have the specific statutory authority to require bottlers to use certified laboratories for water quality tests or to report test results, even if violations of the standards are found.” So while the regulations may be similar, the agencies’ authority to enforce the regulations differs.

“Bottled water goes through a stringent, multi-barrier filtration process,” Hogan says. “It has to meet very strict requirements to be called bottled water. You can’t take a garden hose and fill a bottle and screw the top on and say, ‘I’m now selling bottled water that meets FDA standards.’ ”

He also points out that bottled-water facilities aren’t allowed to average out their test findings, as many municipal water supplies can. “If a bottled-water product is found to be contaminated for any reason, the FDA has to be notified, [and] the ultimate outcome of that could be bottled-water products being pulled from a shelf,” Hogan says. “You can’t do that with a public water system.”

TRANSPARENCY///

Another point the GAO report brings up is the issue of transparency. While public water systems are responsible for providing annual water-quality reports, the FDA does not require the same of bottled-water companies.

Hogan says any attack on the industry’s alleged lack of transparency is disingenuous. “Every bottled-water product is going to have a phone number, an address, or a website where you can contact that brand,” he says. “Many bottled-water products have websites with their [quality] reports posted to the website. [With] many others, you can call and have it sent if you want it.”

Hogan contends that the reports are required of public systems because of a lack of choice, which isn’t the case for bottled water. “If you open up your tap, you’re getting your water from one and only one source,” he says. “You don’t have the choice to say, ‘I’m not really happy with what I’m getting here.’ ”

PUBLIC PERCEPTION///

Before retiring in 2010, Pamela Turner worked for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department for more than three decades, serving as department director for the last three years of her career. Much of the success of bottled water, she says, can be attributed to perception: “A lot of it is the public perception that bottled water is better than tap water.”

The multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns that depict bucolic mountain springs, punctuated with adjectives like “pure” and “fresh” can be found on nearly every bottle of water. But there’s no marketing message that can come from a faucet.

“Our industry doesn’t get press until something breaks,” says David Koch, director of the Michigan section of the American Water Works Association, a nonprofit that supports the public water community.

Koch says the AWWA spearheads campaigns that spread the gospel of safe, quality tap water but “the reality is that we’re not — either our association or the utilities — corporate conglomerates with large advertising budgets. Our resources are limited.”

QUALITY AND SAFETY///

Beneath the claims of incongruous regulations and manipulated public perceptions lies the core issue — that of drinking-water quality.

There are three water intakes for Detroit’s system: two in the Detroit River and one in Lake Huron. “When you start with good source water, that puts you in a good position for the treatment process,” Turner says. “We have some of the best [tap] water in the country — probably in the world.”

Although bottled-water companies may not all readily publish water-quality reports, the bottled-water industry can claim one very important defense: There have been no major outbreaks of illness caused by bottled water in the United States in modern times.

“In the vast majority of cases,” Koch says, “[bottled and tap water] are both safe, healthy choices.”

THE BOTTOM LINE///

Turner agrees with Koch on the safety aspect, but says that bottled water comes at an unnecessary cost. “Tap water is perfectly safe,” she says. “People spend a lot of money on bottled water because they’re concerned about the tap water. And, for some, that may be an [extra] expense that you don’t need to incur if you’re on a limited budget. … If people find the chlorine taste objectionable, then they can use a filter. But it isn’t necessary for health purposes.”

Koch says he hopes people don’t take their tap water for granted, despite rising water rates. “What’s happened in many places is cities and municipalities may be reluctant to raise rates to a level that is truly sustainable to maintain the system and have gotten behind the eight-ball,” he says. “It’s led to, in some instances, what are perceived to be outrageous rate increases, when they’re really just kind of catching up to a level they need to continue operating.”

Even at the higher rates of recent years, tap water is extremely economical, Koch says. “If you compare what it costs — that rate that we all pay on our quarterly or monthly bills — to the amount of water we use, it’s pennies per gallon. … It’s about the best deal in the world that you can get.”

Bottled water, on the other hand, comes at a premium. Koch says people are willing to pay sometimes hundreds of times more for the packaged product because of the convenience factor. “We don’t have taps in our cars,” he says.

Turner, too, agrees that the popularity of bottled water “is because of the ease of transport. You can pick up bottled water almost anywhere.”

Hogan echoes that sentiment, adding that it’s also a healthier choice. “If you have your kids out, if you’re on a day trip, if you’re getting on a flight and you want to grab something to drink when you’re on a plane, many people want to drink bottled water,” he says, “because it’s the healthiest packaged beverage that you can take out of the cooler.”

When talking about cost, though, the toll on the environment must also be weighed. Hogan points to the industry’s progress on that front: “Most of the bottles that you’re going to get out there are made with, in some cases, up to 50 percent recycled PET. Even from a recycling standpoint, most recycled PET manufacturers are begging for supply. We’re actually importing rPET — the acronym for it — because they can’t get enough in the U.S. to make products using recycled PET.”

There are other positive developments: Recycling rates for polyethylene terephthalate water bottles have been on the rise, and the average weight of a typical 16.9-ounce PET plastic water bottle has been nearly halved in the last decade. It’s also worth noting that of all the plastics produced in the United States, PET plastic bottled-water packaging makes up less than 1 percent.

WORKING TOGETHER///

But perhaps the biggest myth in the bottled vs. tap debate comes down to the crux of the argument itself — that the two industries are at odds.

“We don’t have any qualms with the bottled-water industry,” Koch says. “There are a lot of bottled-water companies that take water from the municipal tap. For the most part, we’re happy to supply them, because we’re doing it economically. Feeding that kind of industry does help keep costs down on an overall system basis.”

Hogan agrees. “If people want to drink tap water, we have absolutely no problem with that,” he says. “I drink tap water. Most people who drink bottled water drink tap water. … As our critics also like to point out, as though we’re hiding it: Some bottled-water products come from tap water. We use municipal supplies to make purified water. Obviously, you want a strong municipal infrastructure, because we’re users of tap water, too.”

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