Tapping the Tap and Dropping the Bottle

By Matthew Green


Photo by Cheryl Koehler

If eating local foods is the path you have chosen, then put down that bottle of water and embrace your tap! A small but increasing number of the Bay Area’s sustainable-minded restaurants, including Berkeley’s iconic Chez Panisse, are beginning to do just that: They are filtering their own tap water and scratching the long list of fancy-sounding, pricey bottled brands off the menu.

“We decided to make this decision last year, but it’s been something that we wanted to do for awhile,” says Chez Panisse General Manager Mike Kossa-Rienzi. The restaurant, whose mission is to serve local and sustainably produced food, was going through nearly 25,000 bottles of water each year, much of which was imported from Italy. They first phased out bottles of still water, instead serving their own purified tap water. The bottled carbonated water supply was then dropped from the upstairs restaurant after they installed their own carbonation machine on the premises. While the downstairs cafe still serves the bottled seltzer water, they soon plan to phase that out as well.

“We just felt like we were wasting too much energy, spending too much money, sending water across the world to our restuarant,” explains Kossa-Rienzi. “The amount of waste and recycling we had to deal with at end of the day wasn’t necessary.”

The water the restaurant now serves, both carbonated and still, is free to patrons, as compared to the pricey bottled imports.

“The reaction among patrons has been nothing but positive,” Kossa-Rienzi adds, noting that the combination of cost savings and environmental responsibility wins quick approval with his patrons.  “It also helps that the water tastes good.”

Know Your Sources

This comes in the wake of a litany of exposés in recent years revealing that the water in many brand-name bottles is no cleaner—and in a few cases is actually less pure—than that which comes out of our kitchen faucets. In fact, despite the refreshing image of a glacial stream on the label that might make you believe otherwise, a striking amount of bottled water is actually just tap water, to the tune of 25 percent, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council’s four-year review of the industry. Some of it has been further treated, some of it hasn’t, they found. Among the culprits of filtered and repackaged tap water are two of America’s bestselling brands.

“Our conclusion is that there is no assurance that just because water comes out of a bottle it is any safer than water from the tap,” the NRDC reports on its website. One way to tell if your bottled water is from the tap or a natural spring is by looking at the bottle label and the cap, they add. If it says “from a municipal source” or “from a community water system,” that means you just paid a pretty penny for tap water.

Other concerns regarding the purity of bottled water include chemicals, including phthalates, from the plastic that could potentially leach into the water and be consumed.

A 2006 Earth Policy Institute Report found that global consumption of bottled water increased by more than 50 percent between 1999 and 2004, resulting in a huge increase in garbage and other major environmental costs. The United States, where most tap water is potable, is the leading consumer of bottled water. Americans drank 26 billion liters in 2004 alone. Last year, we spent $11 billion on it, according to the Beverage Marketing Corp., making bottled water the most consumed beverage in the country, after soft drinks.

The thirst for bottled water, the report adds, requires a huge amount of fossil fuels. Approximately 1.5 million barrels of oil are used annually just to meet America’s demand for the bottle, most of which comes in plastic. Worldwide, 2.7 million tons of plastic are used annually for water each year. In addition, a huge amount of fossil fuels are burned to transport the water long distances, often across national borders.

But this hasn’t stopped Californians from chugging it down. A 2002 survey by the Public Policy Institute of California found that nearly 40 percent of all state residents drink from bottles as their main water source. Thirty-five percent drink filtered water and less than a quarter drink straight from the tap. Residents with lower incomes and education levels are those most likely to drink bottled water.

While the report notes that the number of tap drinkers is slightly higher in the Bay Area, it is still strikingly low, especially given the purity of the water that we get by simply turning on the faucet.

State law requires local public utility districts to frequently test tap water and publish annual water-quality reports, a standard that bottled water companies do not have to fully comply with.

State Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, recently introduced legislation that would require bottled-water companies to make public the results of their water-quality tests and list the source of the water on the label. The consumer right-to-know bill is co-sponsored by the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) but strongly opposed by the bottled-water industry, who argues that it would put more requirements on bottled water than other food products and would do little to help ensure safety.

So now, back to the real question: Where does our tap water come from and how clean is it?

EBMUD, which provides water for most East Bay residents, gets 90 percent of its high-quality water from Sierra Nevada snowmelt—specifically snowmelt flowing into the Mokolumne River and captured at Pardee Reservoir, off Route 88, about 90 miles from the East Bay. From the reservoir it travels through the Central Valley via three large underground aqueducts that connect to a local distribution system and treatment plants. There are five smaller storage and emergency supply reservoirs in the East Bay.

“EBMUD water historically meets or surpasses all requirements, and this year we met them all as well,” says EBMUD Public Affairs Officer Andrea Pook, noting that regulatory limits are the agency’s minimum water-quality standards. They also use the latest science to test for more than 100 substances to ensure safety, she adds. And while bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, tap water must adhere to the requirements of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as well as the California Department of Health Services.

While EBMUD can insure the quality of water arriving at East Bay residences, Pook notes that individual homes may have different lead levels because of old household plumbing. Of particular concern is lead, especially in houses with old copper tube piping and leaded solder as well as very old houses with ancient fixtures.

Lead levels can be easily tested by using an affordable home kit, says UC Berkeley professor of geography Richard Walker, adding that because of the calcium carbonate introduced by EBMUD to coat the pipes, very little lead now leaches into the water. Hot water, he notes, is more problematic and should not be used for drinking.

“East Bay tap water is very good,” he says, and for consumers in South Berkeley, North Oakland, and Orinda, who get their water directly from the Sierra, it is “superb.” Other East Bay residents receive the same water after it has temporarily rested in local reservoirs. This supply can have some organic matter and leachates from the East Bay hills, “neither of which is of great concern, except that they add a lot of chlorine,” Walker says, noting that he thinks the chlorine levels are too high ever since the EPA upped the requirements. The excess chlorine can give rise to small amounts of trihalomethanes, which aren’t great, he notes, but can be extracted using a simple carbon filter.

“But really, the water’s still very fine—some of the best city water in the country,” he says, adding that the East Bay, San Francisco, and the city of Los Angeles all have excellent supplies. The quality of the water from the Contra Costa Water Agency, which mainly comes out of the Sacramento Delta, pales in comparison. So does the water reaching most Central Valley towns, which draw from groundwater sources that are often contaminated by agricultural fertilizers and pesticides at varying levels. Sacramento, he adds, “drinks the river,” which is not so great for the same reason.

Nationally, the biggest threats to clean tap water are farm runoff, especially nitrates from commercial fertilizers and animal waste, Walker says. Other major pollutants include industrial waste, particularly refinery and petrochemical, as well as municipal wastes, where household chemicals, pesticides, industrial effluents, and street runoff often go into storm sewers and run directly into local streams.

“So if city water is drawn from major rivers or lakes, it tends to be contaminated,” Walker says, pointing to New Orleans as a prime example. If the source is snowmelt or from headwaters of streams, he notes, the water is generally pretty good.


Photo courtesy of Seltzer Sisters

Having It Both Ways

But if you still view the straight tap with a wary eye, there are ways to drink purified (and carbonated!) local water from bottles that don’t add to the waste pile. One option is the Seltzer Sisters Bottling Company, a 30-year-old business based in Redwood City that delivers seltzer water to over 600 restaurants, cafes, and homes in the Bay Area. The “source” for this company is its local tap water, which comes from the backcountry of Yosemite National Park and through the notorious Hetch Hetchy reservoir on its way to the taps of San Francisco. At the Seltzer Sisters plant, it goes through a multiple filtration process, specifically aimed at removing chloramine and any chemical residues. The water is served in glass antique seltzer bottles, which are then collected and reused.

Seltzer Sisters President Kathryn Renz says that while her customers love the traditional syphon bottles—some are 100 years old—a bigger draw among many of her East Bay customers is having bottled sparkling water without adding to the waste stream. The old-fashioned service her company offers is becoming increasingly “in vogue,” thanks, in part, to environmental concerns, she adds.

“This is a major wake up call that we are abusing plastics and do not have an aftermarket that uses enough recycled plastic,” says Renz, noting the growing collection of plastic and foam debris floating in the ocean that is said to be twice the size of Texas. “We need to focus our resources on materials that are ‘truly recyclable.’”