Houston Turns Back to Tap Water
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."
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."
Lapidus mentions Mexico, where Coca-Cola has a stronghold.
"All the tourists in these countries, and the upper echelons of society can buy bottled water," she says, "so the political will to insure safe drinking water to the rest of the citizens declines."
She adds that "Nestlé gets their water from springs and underground sources, usually in economically depressed communities."
Lapidus resides in Boston, but went to Miami to attend the U.S. Conference of Mayors, where Resolution 70 had been up for consideration. Host Mayor Manny Diaz was a main proponent of the declaration, which "encourages cities to phase out, where feasible, government use of bottled water and promote the importance of municipal water."
"It passed with flying colors" Lapidus announces triumphantly.
Trahan says there are no propositions on the table in Houston that address bottled water.
"What we desire to do," Trahan says, "is see the cultural change occur. Though we have not ruled out creating ordinances, we would much prefer that the city culture and its leadership and environmental efforts encourage people to continue to use our water. We also recognize that people have choice, and if they're going to choose other water products, that they do so conscientiously and use products that are contained in recyclable containers."
Thirsty Mexicans, cloddish carbon footprints and the minutiae of municipal law may not whet the public's whistle, but one thing that has managed to muster outrage is the notion that 40 percent of all bottled water comes from the faucet — or, more specifically, from your tax-funded municipal water supply.
"People feel duped" says Denning. "We pay the money to get clean public water, and corporations are taking advantage of that and selling it back to us at thousands of times the price. We are, in effect, subsidizing the industry."
He is speaking here not of high-end imported waters, which are steeped in problems of their own, but those such as Coca-Cola Company's Dasani brand, which buys its water from the City of Houston.
Houston's Public Works spokesman, Alvin Wright, says that several companies use Houston tap water as source water, including Budweiser, Pepsi, Coke and Nestlé.
"We sell water to basically everyone," says Wright. "All the companies that make bottled water get their water from us."
Pepsi, for instance, pays Houston an average of $33,037 a month; Coke pays a monthly average of $20,380. Ozarka and Sparkle Ice each buy more than $10,000 of water a month.
Houston used to bottle its own water years ago, says Trahan. The high costs of bottling, however, forced the city to shut down the business.
Other than the beverage vending machines at City Hall, the city doesn't use a lot of bottled water. Not even during emergencies, like a hurricane.
Wright says that the water department has no plans to provide bottled water to residents during a disaster.
"In the unlikely event that one of our surface water sources became unusable," says Wright, "the utility would switch to using one of our other alternative sources, such as ground water, to supply our customers."
Thirty years ago, most folks if they were thirsty took a second to chug a glass of water before leaving the house. No longer.
"There are people who walk out of their apartments in New York City every morning of every workweek carrying a little bottle of water in a sling, as if it was a little baby," comedian Lewis Black rants during his act. "They're carrying a liter bottle of water with them as if they were crossing the goddamn Mojave!"
The late George Carlin also noticed the trend.
"What is it now in America; everybody's walking around with a water bottle. Tell me this, when did we get so fuckin' thirsty in this country?"
It's tough to find a single store in America, from supermarkets to mom-and-pop gas stations in the middle of nowhere, that don't sell at least one brand of bottled water. They are simply everywhere. A fact, according to experts, that explains why bottled water has become so popular. It's not so much a health concern as it is convenience and taste.
"You go to Barnes & Noble and get some chilled water, which is basically the same stuff you get from the tap, but it's there and it's convenient," says Houston environmentalist Ed O'Rourke. "It's a convenience and a sort of chic thing to do."
The bottled water industry does not pit itself against tap water. It heaps praise on city water, saying there's nothing wrong with it. Bottled water is just a healthy alternative to soda or juice.
"There's no question that our biggest competitors are soda companies," says Ozarka spokeswoman Catherine Herter. "People are on the go all the time, they're in their cars and it's something they can grab quickly and take with them and then recycle."
When asked if bottled water companies try to convey that their water is better than tap, Herter says, "No, no, no. Absolutely not. And it's sad it's sort of being portrayed as that, because it's absolutely not the case. We think everybody should drink more water...[bottled water] is just an alternative to caffeinated sugary beverages; that's really all it is."
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.
"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.
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.
"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.
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.
"It's just so wasteful," says McAnear.
Last year Americans tossed over 22 billion plastic water bottles into the trash. It is estimated that only 15 to 20 percent of these get recycled — and probably even less here in Houston. According to the trade magazine Waste News, Houston residents are the worst in the country, recycling only 2.6 percent of their waste.
"I have seen those newspaper articles talking about the sheer amount of plastic that is thrown away from water bottles, and that is a staggering number," says Karl Pepple, director of environmental programming for the city. "You know, we have more pressing issues right now, looking at our air quality. Bottled water hasn't boiled to the top yet. It's something that we haven't spent a lot of time looking at."
Marina Joseph, the city's Solid Waste Management spokeswoman, says that unless people recycle their water bottles, they get tossed into the landfill, which is not where the city wants them.
Easier said than done. Almost all of the restaurateurs that the Press spoke with said they do not recycle water bottles.
"We do consider ourselves a green company," says Kevin Haagenson, general manager at Voice, located inside Hotel Icon, "but unfortunately there still is the bottle that's wasted at the end. We are throwing them away right now..."
Lagrone at *17 says the same thing.
"We do try to do our part," he says, "[but] I don't really pay a lot of attention to it."
Kerr says that when he worked under Pope, recycling "eventually got to the point where it was so much work." Plus, he says, "there's no money in it."
What there is money in, depending on who you talk to, is selling bottled water at restaurants.
"There is quite a big profit margin," says Haagenson. "When you're going from a product where you normally charge nothing at all, to be able to add $5 or $7, and sometimes they'll do a couple of bottles, onto the tab, it's not real substantial, but it definitely is another avenue we have to create revenue."
Lagrone, on the other hand, says the sale of Ducale at *17 does not fatten up the bottom line all that much.
"The cost on the bottles is fairly high as well," he says, "so the bump up in revenue is not a large amount. I'd say that over a month's time, the revenue for bottled water reaches about $3,000."
For some diners, like O'Rourke, that's way too much.
"At restaurants," he says, "I want my water in a glass, not a bottle. Good God. Bottled water is a needless expense with ramifications all the way down the line. It's wrong environmentally, it's wrong for your budget, it simply costs more."
Bottlemania ain't dead yet. Three out of four Americans drink bottled water, 20 percent preferring it exclusively over tap; we consume more of it per capita than any other nation in the world. Last year this translated to our swilling more than 70 million bottles per day, and spending nearly $11 billion doing so.
Dasani was America's number-one selling brand, with wholesale sales of $1.6 billion, PepsiCo's Aquafina sopped up $1.47 billion for second spot, and together with Nestlé's three top sellers they comprised 60 percent of the U.S. market.
Not bad for the big boys of the beverage world, especially considering how slow on the sip they were: Pepsi didn't roll out Aquafina until 1994, and Coke took five additional years to answer with Dasani — an ice age for companies such as these.
Yet recently, sales have begun to go flat. In 2007, those 70 million bottles a day, when measured by volume, represented a 6.1 percent rise from the prior year — the lowest rate of growth since 1992. And Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc. recently cut its outlook for the quarter, the stated culprit a weak North American economy that has bottlenecked water and soda sales — especially 20-ounce single serving sizes.
In the 1990s, the sale of personal-sized bottles was growing more than 20 percent a year, says Hemphill of the Beverage Marketing Corporation. That number is also beginning to dip. In 2006, the growth rate was 18 percent, says Hemphill, and in 2007 it was about 10 percent.
"Some of it is the fact that the category at this point is just so large," says Hemphill, "and some of it is because of some of the recent publicity questioning it from an environmental standpoint and some of the comparisons made with tap water. I would expect the growth rate in 2008 to be slower. Given that, though, I still think the upside for growth is pretty solid for the years ahead."
Numbers aside, what has to be most distressing for the industrialists is that the cachet of bottled water, a product so iconic as to have once been described by Lisa Margonelli in The New York Times as "an iPod for your kidney," is slipping away slowly but definitely. The industry, meanwhile, is strenuously slogging to stem public backlash from swelling into a wave. And it is doing so by wielding the same weapon that stimulated the public's thirst in the first place.
Marketing: Now available in vibrant green.
"Sip with a clear conscience" read recent promos for Fiji water, a "truly eco-friendly" drink. Nestlé's Zephyrhills brand boosts itself as being "a celebration of what's most natural about Florida." PepsiCo really pours it on when touting its partnership with a Return The Warmth program "that transformed recycled Aquafina bottles into 100,000 fleece jackets for children." Dasani and Aquafina alone spent $43.4 million in advertising last year.
According to Hemphill, this is a departure for the industry.
"One of the things that I think is kind of interesting," he says, "is that the bottled water category has grown to a fairly large-scale size with comparatively minimal marketing in terms of the dollars spent versus some of the other beverage categories. Pepsi and Coke did some limited television advertising, and you might see some print campaigns in magazines or the occasional billboard, but it's pretty much been a consumer phenomenon based on the desire for healthier products and convenience."
Environmentally, more is being done these days than just superimposing eco-evocative words upon images of glistening mountain streams. The big three nowadays all utilize lighter-weight containers that use less plastic — Nestlé claims its Ozarka bottles are 30 percent lighter than the average bottles on the market, and an even lighter container is in the works. Aquafina indicates that its 35 percent slimmer bottle prevents 45 million pounds of plastic from landing in the dump each year. Coca-Cola's newly greened portfolio includes contributions to some 70 public water projects in 40 countries, and construction of the world's largest plastic bottle recycling plant, in Spartanburg, South Carolina (expected to open next year).
In one of its clearest victories to date, Think Outside the Bottle pressured Pepsi-Cola into agreeing to print "Public Water Source" on its Aquafina label.
"If this helps clarify the fact that the water originates from public sources, then it's a reasonable thing to do," said Michelle Naughton, a Pepsi spokesperson.
Ray Crockett, her counterpart at Coca-Cola, disagrees.
"The FDA's definition of purified water does not require (revealing) the source," he has been quoted as saying. "We believe consumers know what they're buying."
Or at least some do. Probably about the same percentage as those knowing that Evian, spelled backwards, is naive.
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