Houston Turns Back to Tap Water

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

Gary Hemphill, Managing Director of Beverage Marketing Corporation, a beverage industry consulting group in New York, says there are two distinct bottled water markets: one made up of people replacing tap water completely, and another comprised of people using bottled water as they would a soda.

The first category is dramatically smaller, growing only 1 to 2 percent a year, says Hemphill. These customers either don't trust the city water or don't think it tastes good, and they buy bottled water in bulk. This segment is also affected by the economy, as bottled water is seen as somewhat of a luxury item.

The large majority of bottled water drinkers, however, buy water instead of soda.

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.

"It's driven by a demand for healthier refreshment," says Hemphill. "Portability is important to consumers, and the packaging is important to them, the lightweight plastic and the resealability. I guess if consumers could carry their kitchen sinks on their back, the market for bottled water would probably be a lot smaller than it is."

Of course, if it doesn't taste as good as, or even better than the free stuff, there probably wouldn't be much of a market, either.

The Houston Press recently asked 20 people to take a blind taste test between tap water; Dasani, which is filtered municipal water; and Ozarka, which is natural spring water. Ozarka won in a landslide. Dasani came in a distant second, and Houston's finest came in last by only a few votes.

The results do not surprise University of Houston professor of environmental engineering Dennis Clifford.

Two years ago, he conducted a similar test with 23 students who were taking Clifford's water quality class. He used distilled water, Ozarka, Evian and tap water. Clifford says the distilled water and Ozarka finished on top, while Evian and tap water were the least favorite.

The reason, Clifford says, is simple science. The fewer minerals present, the more people seem to prefer the taste.

(The Houston Press had its own tests done. Click here for a chart and here for the full results.)

Drinking water contains a number of solids and minerals, including calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium. Taste is determined by how many of those solids are present and left undissolved.

For example, says Clifford, spring water may have only 20 or 30 parts per million in it, whereas city water levels hover between 100 and 300 parts per million. Evian, on the other hand, has more than 400 parts per million, which is right at the taste-limit of 500 parts per million. In these quantities, the minerals are perfectly safe, says Clifford. The 500-parts-per-million­ number is not a health limit.

Therefore, Clifford reasons, it makes sense that the more popular waters in his class and in the Press taste test were the ones with the least number of minerals present.

The Coca-Cola Company doesn't bottle the municipal water as is, because then it would have to be duly affixed with the dull "bottled water" designation. Putting it through a secondary purification known as reverse osmosis turns it into the more pedigreed "purified water."

Clifford says companies such as Dasani filter city water and extract all the minerals and salts, and then add in a mixture of the two that makes the water more ­palatable.

"Generally," says Clifford, "the taste preference is for lower-mineral-content waters like Ozarka and Dasani. Most brands pretty much cut the mineral content pretty low. The popularity of bottled water I don't think is so much a health issue. Many people can taste the difference. Bottled water is a taste thing and a convenience thing."

For the last five years, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has rated Houston's drinking water "superior," the highest ranking.

"We deliver a much higher quality of water than is required by the government," Wright says. "We check the water daily and monitor for taste, color, clarity and all that good stuff."

Houston's drinking water comes from several nearby sources. The city owns 70 percent of Lake Livingston and Lake Conroe and all of Lake Houston. Water also comes from the Trinity River and from the Evangeline and Chicot aquifers.

Surface water is fed into one of three purification plants for treatment and disinfection. Groundwater is also pumped from wells, on average 750 feet deep, and delivered to one of five re-pump stations, where the water is treated and distributed. All drinking water is chlorinated and has fluoride.

Each year, the city distributes more than 146 billion gallons of water to nearly three million customers through 7,000 miles of pipeline. In addition to Houston, the city provides water to Pasadena, Friendswood, Webster, Clear Lake, League City, Clear Brook, La Porte and South Houston.

Wright says that the pipes are constantly checked and treated. Every month, city workers sample more than 600 locations, looking to wipe out any traces of bacterial residue. Less frequently, the city also checks consumers' taps for lead and copper residue.

The most common cause of water problems, Wright says, comes from users' plumbing systems in their homes or offices, where contaminants can build up.

Professor Clifford agrees. He says, for example, that during his taste test at UH many students noticed that the city water had a yellow hue, due in large part to the rust in the university's pipes.

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