Ryan Buchan / Tribune intern

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August 12, 2009
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Water wars: Bottled vs. tap

Lake Tahoe is known for its clean, clear water. And the tap water at the South Shore is among the cleanest in the state, as well as the country.

But that doesn't stop bottled water from flying off the shelves at Tahoe grocery stores.

"I have been in the (grocery store) business for 22 years, and the water section continues to expand and become one of the larger sections stores have," said Steve Parker, manager of Lira's market in Meyers. "When we opened our store (the water aisle) used to be 12 feet and it is now 20."

And that, according to some, is a waste.

"The crazy thing about bottled water: The high price you pay, the waste that it produces, in a country where we have clean, extremely cheap drinking water that comes into every house," said Shelly Barnes, a water conservation specialist for South Tahoe Public Utilities District, which provides tap water for much of the South Shore. "It's like buying air."

From an environmental standpoint, tap water is better, said Bruce Olszewski, an environmental studies professor at San Jose State University.

"There is no comparison: Tap water is by far environmentally superior," Olszewski said. "It doesn't have to be trucked, bottled; it is not in contact with contaminants like plasticizers. It does not have nearly the carbon footprint, and you don't have to worry about hauling away plastic bottles."

Tom Lauria, vice president of communications for the International Bottled Water Association, said tap water plays an important role in society and it is not the goal of bottled water to compete against it.

"People make the assumption bottled water competes with tap," Lauria said. "It competes with other packaged products, like coffee and soda. ... Bottled water is the healthiest packaged beverage."

Lauria said bottled water is just as safe as tap water if not safer.

"It may start out clean at the reservoir, but after all the pipes, you don't know what is in tap water," Lauria said.

He pointed out a study printed in the "Journal of Water and Health" that stated that from 1991-2002, 73 deaths were reported due to waterborne disease outbreak in either drinking water or exposure in recreational water.

Lauria added that in that same period there were no deaths due to bottled water.

The association has more than 125 members, including Crystal Geyser, Fiji Water and Nestle Waters North America. As members, they have to undergo additional stringent testing, Lauria said.

Sales of bottled water have grown more than 6 percent over the last five years, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Web site.

Lira's market in Meyers sells an average of 180 one-gallon bottles of water every week, according to Parker, the store manager. The gallon bottles sell consistently throughout the year and do not drop during the slow season.

But during the summer, sales of 24-packs of bottled water doubles to about 180 cases a week, he said.

"The bottled water industry has done a masterful job at marketing because they have many people convinced that their product is safer than tap water," said Dennis Cocking, spokesman for South Tahoe Public Utilities District. "In the Lake Tahoe basin, that is not the case."

Different departments regulate bottled water and tap water. The FDA regulates bottled water, while the Environmental Protection Agency regulates tap.

Mary Ellen Taylor, a public affairs specialist for the FDA, said the FDA adopts the same standards as the EPA in regulating different products, including bottled water.

Tap water, however, also goes through additional regulations from the federal and state government that bottled water does not, Cocking said.

"Community drinking water from public water systems is very, very highly regulated by both the U.S. EPA and California," Cocking said. "Whatever the government says, California likes to one-up it. So in California, we meet stricter drinking water standards than anywhere in the world. California prides itself on that."

And Tahoe's tap water is among the cleanest in the state, Cocking added.

"Deep ground water like ours, the reason it has a lot less in it is because it literally takes hundreds of years for the water, from the snow melt and everything else, to slowly percolate down through the different layers of strata until it gets to the water-bearing areas," Cocking said. "It may take hundreds of years for it to get there. That process acts like a huge filtration system."

He added that unlike the Bay Area and the Central Valley, Tahoe is away from a lot of industry and farming that produces chemicals that can leak into the water and contaminate it.

A study published in the "International Journal of Hygiene & Environmental Health" in 2008 tested multiple samples of both bottled water and tap water and found 76.6 percent of bottled water was contaminated with at least one form of coliform or indicator bacterium and/or at least one pathogenic bacterium, while tap water showed the coliform or other bacteria 36.4 percent of the time.

According to the Santa Clara Valley Water District's Web site, the Natural Resources Defense Council did a four-year study and found one third of bottled water tested had levels of contamination that exceeded standards set by either the state or FDA.

Another problem with bottled water is the cost. A one-gallon bottle of Arrowhead Purified Water is on sale for 89 cents at Lira's Market while a gallon of tap water is .75 cent, according to Cocking.

John Kiefer, a resident of Lafayette, Calif., said he normally does not drink bottled water except for when he is on vacation in Tahoe.

"We hardly use bottled water because we are concerned about the plastics," he said. "When we are on vacation up here we drink bottled water because the water here tastes like sulfur."

Keifer added that his cabin in Tahoe gets its water from a private well and not from the Utilities District.

South Tahoe resident Jean Gurney said she always drinks tap water.

"Tahoe water is fabulous," she said. "You can't beat Tahoe water."


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Tahoe Daily Tribune Updated Aug 12, 2009 02:17AM Published Aug 12, 2009 02:11AM Copyright 2009 Tahoe Daily Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.