Houston Turns Back to Tap Water

That stuff flowing from the faucet is safe, cheap and environmental

Erica Campbell doesn't want to die from drinking tap water. She doesn't trust Houston's public water system, and as a homeopathic doctor, she says she doesn't believe in the supposed benefits of the fluoride contained in city water and wants nothing to do with the chlorine used to treat it.

Instead, Campbell shops for bottled water.

"I like just pure water," she says. "In life, I try to control the factors that I can, and then do the best I can with all the rest."

Think Outside the Bottle is a national organization trying to get people to kick bottled water and turn on the tap.
Think Outside the Bottle is a national organization trying to get people to kick bottled water and turn on the tap.
Wrapped in yards of plastic, this bottled water stands ready for the next natural emergency or sports event.
Margaret Downing
Wrapped in yards of plastic, this bottled water stands ready for the next natural emergency or sports event.

On a Friday afternoon, Whole Foods is bustling with people. The water aisle, however, is virtually empty of shoppers. Campbell is one of only seven people to buy bottled water there in an hour. The shelves are stocked with more than a dozen brands, some infused with added oxygen, others with electrolytes, and that's not to mention all the varieties of sparkling water.

The incredible array of choices signals what for years has been the indomitable surge of the bottled water industry. It's been one of the great trends in recent eras. Americans downed more than 8.2 billion gallons of it in 2006, a 9.5 percent rise from the previous year.

Recently, however, a rising resistance has been splattering cold water upon the hitherto omnipotent (and still hot) ­industry.

Tap is coming back. It's cheap, healthy and, in Houston, safe.

Consumers griping about rising gas prices, which hover around $4 a gallon, are becoming more aware that the bottled water they're buying can cost more than $8 a gallon. That's compared to less than a cent per gallon for Houston tap water.

Environmentally, it takes millions of barrels of oil to make all those plastic bottles, most of which end up in landfills. It takes a lot of gas to drive those bottles to retailers across the country, too.

Tap water, on the other hand, simply flows forth with the flick of the faucet.

The Sierra Club, World Wildlife Fund and other earth-friendly societies urge subscribers to consume less bottled water. Presbyterians for Restoring Creation and the National Coalition of American Nuns have adopted resolutions asking church members to abstain from purchasing water on moral grounds: Essential God-given resources should not be privatized.

As if renunciation by nuns isn't bad enough news for the bottled water producers, politicians are also hopping onto the little green bandwagon.

Mayors in San Francisco, Miami, Los Angeles and Austin have banished bottled water from their city budgets, saving taxpayer money that was being spent on bottled water and encouraging people to drink tap. Houston Mayor Bill White's spokesman, Patrick Trahan, says the city has a deal with Sparkletts to provide large water-cooler jugs for employees to drink from at City Hall. Trahan says the contract is worth about $6,000 a year.

Last year, the bottled water industry showed the slowest growth in its relatively brief history.

It may be that water-in-a-bottle has finally jumped the shark.

"Water is water," once wrote that old Prairie Home Companion Garrison Keillor. "If you want lemon flavoring, add a slice of lemon. You want bubbles, stick a straw in it and blow.''

This is more or less the message of Think Outside the Bottle, a national campaign aimed at swaying city officials, businesses and the public at large to turn on the tap. Twenty-six-year-old Deborah Lapidus is the national organizer for Boston-based Corporate Accountability International, the organization leading the Think Outside the Bottle efforts.

Lapidus first dipped her toes into the bottled water morass in Texas during the summer of 2006. She helped launch tap water campaigns in eight cities, including Houston and Austin.

"Hardly anyone had heard of bottled water being an issue back then," she recalls "I had to do a lot of public education. We chose Houston as one of the original cities because it has really high-quality tap water and it brings home the absurdity of people drinking bottled water."

Nick Denning, 23, is Corporate Accountability International's Assistant Director of Environment in Florida. He and Lapidus take turns discussing what they say are the rumbling dark clouds of waste, cost, pollution and privatization caused by the bottled water industry.

"Four billion plastic bottles end up in landfills each year," starts Lapidus, "at a cost to cities of over $70 million."

Denning notes that "Production of plastic water bottles produces more than two-and-a-half million tons of carbon dioxide, and requires the energy equivalent of 17 million barrels of oil per year" — enough "to generate fuel for over a million cars."

Lapidus steers the stream of thought toward the pocketbook.

"A family of three who rely exclusively on bottled water will, by the time the first child is 18, have already spent on that water the equivalent of that child's college education in a public university," she says.

Because of their backgrounds in international studies, the two are quick to place corporate control of water in a broader worldwide context — which can be summed up by saying that there are an increasing number of places on the globe with water water everywhere and not a drop to drink.

"With the amount of money Americans spend on bottled water," says Denning, "we could provide every citizen on this planet with access to safe water."

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