Houston Turns Back to Tap Water

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

"The water delivered from the treatment plant is quite clean," Clifford says, "but then it goes through miles and miles of pipe and the pipes may not be so clean. The water picks up contaminants, particularly in your own house from plumbing that may be corroding."

Filters, however, can combat the problem, Wright says.

But filters, especially the commonly used ones containing carbon, can pose their own set of issues, particularly if they are not replaced frequently.

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.

Clifford says that when a filter is used for too long, it no longer keeps unwanted particles out of the water. In fact, old filters actually compound the problem.

Contaminants, such as chloroform, are picked up by the filter and then essentially stored inside the device, says Clifford. When the filter gets too old, those contaminants are released back into the water in greater number and strength than they originally existed in the unfiltered tap water.

"It's actually more dangerous to have such a filter if it's beyond its useful life," says Clifford.

Even though it passes federal muster, drinking tap water can be risky. The chances of getting sick, however, are quite low.

Chlorine is used to treat natural contamination caused by decaying vegetation found in surface water from sources such as Lake Houston, says Clifford. The byproduct of chlorine, at least in rats, is carcinogenic.

Tap water is "regulated to one cancer death in a million in a lifetime," says Clifford, "which means there's a one in a million chance of getting cancer if you drink two liters a day for 70 years. Your chances [in general] of getting cancer is 25 percent, so yeah, there's a risk, and some people don't want to take the risk, but it's not a significant risk."

Bottled water is by no means immune to such concerns.

Plastic bottles should not be used over and over, and drinkers should keep their bottles out of the scorching heat. Over time, the plastic begins to disintegrate and chemicals dissolve into the water.

"Any material, whether it's plastic or wood, is going to leak some contaminant," says Clifford. "I know some situations where companies have claimed that storage houses got too hot and their bottled water had an off taste. Well, it didn't come from the outside."

Nothing is perfect. It's all a game of calculated risk. But if you ask scientists like Clifford, he'll say, "I drink both tap water and bottled water. I don't have any real fear of either one."

After being seated inside Houston's posh *17 restaurant, diners are asked whether they'd like a glass of wine or something nonalcoholic, like a soda or iced tea. If they say yes to the second option, then the waiter does not always offer water. If the diner just wants water, then the server lays out the options: Italy's Ducale brand bottled water, sparkling or still, for $7 a pop, and tap water.

"There definitely is an emphasis, especially in the evening, with the bottled water service," says the restaurant's manager, Heath Lagrone. "We do a bit higher end of clientele, so bottled water does take precedence more times than not."

Jason Kerr of Café Rabelais, also a frequent contributor to the Houston Press, has been in the restaurant business for more than 20 years. He says he remembers a time, not more than a decade ago, when no one at restaurants was downing bottled water. Those days are long gone.

"In restaurants, they push it a lot," he says. "It's almost like they try to sell it to you. Some people have come to expect that when they sit down, they have the option. Then, of course, there's those people who the last thing they want is to be sold some overpriced water. But almost every restaurant has it."

In some cities, such as New York and Miami, residents can stroll into a chic eatery and peruse a water menu to find just the right brand to pair with their food. That trend has yet to hit Houston.

"I've never seen that here before," says Kerr. "That's ridiculous. I don't think it'll ever get that bad here, but I think it could get to the point where that's all people will drink when they go out to eat."

Not all restaurants, though, force bottled water down customers' throats.

"Our standard is tap," says Susan Bennett, an operating partner at The Grove. "We deliver it automatically to diners, but we also offer bottled water. It's mainly something we do more for visitors from other countries, or conventions sometimes request it, but we really don't want people to feel obligated to buy water."

Think Outside the Bottle runs a campaign in which they get restaurants to pledge not to serve bottled water. Spokeswoman Sara Joseph says no restaurants in Houston have signed up.

At Beaver's, there is no obligation to buy bottled water

"I don't even offer it," says chef and general manager Dax McAnear. "We just give you a glass [of tap water.] So far, it's going well. I haven't had any complaints."

Beaver's is partly owned by award-­winning chef Monica Pope, one of the biggest names on the Houston culinary scene when it comes to shunning bottled water and embracing the environment. Kerr, who used to work for Pope at Bistro Boulevard, says Pope recycles everything from glass bottles to vegetables. It's her commitment to the environment that is partly the reason why Beaver's doesn't ever serve bottled water.

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