Bottled Water Gets the Boot

As containers and costs mount, tap water is the rule in eateries.

They've got a million of 'em.

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 for one of six people on the planet, there is water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.

When conversation drifts back to the domestic, Denning notes that Nestlé typically gets its product from "underground sources in economically depressed communities." A young couple seated at the next table, sipping from bottles of Nestlé's Zephyrhills water, casts resentful expressions our way, no less disdainful than had we been flashing slaughterhouse photos while they were trying to enjoy steak dinners.

WASD assistant director Ralph Terrero says tap is just fine.
Jacqueline Carini
WASD assistant director Ralph Terrero says tap is just fine.
Chef Jonathan Eismann sells bottles no more.
Jacqueline Carini
Chef Jonathan Eismann sells bottles no more.

Thirsty foreigners, cloddish carbon footprints, and the minutia of municipal law might not whet the public's whisker, but one thing that has mustered outrage is the notion that up to 40 percent of all bottled water comes from the faucet — or, more specifically, from your tax-funded municipal water supply.

"People feel duped," Denning says. "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 brands, which are steeped in problems of their own, but those such as Coca-Cola-owned Dasani, the water for which is fished from Broward County aquifers and bottled on Pembroke Road in Hollywood.

3. Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing

The Pembroke plant is a foreboding structure: huge, windowless, and sealed by tall chainlink fencing that in one section is crowned with barbed wire. A barricade of red tape likewise protects the property; protocol for getting past public relations is seemingly more stringent than that of the Pentagon's War Room: no interviews with management granted, no access to the premises permitted.

The Coca-Cola Company's guardedness is in keeping with the surreptitious nature of the industry regarding its product sourcing (which isn't specified on labels) and safety (unlike public water systems, there is no requirement to report breaches in quality). In other words, the water biz lacks transparency.

Dasani's Florida stock comes from Broward County, which buys its water from the City of Hollywood Water Treatment Plant, which secures its supply from the Biscayne and Floridan aquifers. It has been estimated that the average bulk cost paid for public water is between one and two cents a gallon. At a Publix supermarket in Miami Beach, a 20-ounce single-serve bottle of Dasani costs, with tax, $1.50 — or $10 to $20 a gallon, about 500 to 1,000 times the price.

Coca-Cola doesn't sell the water as is, because then it would have to attach the dull "bottled water" label. By putting the product through a secondary purification process known as reverse osmosis, the company can call it a more pedigreed "purified." "Each water has its own flavor due to mineral content and that sort of thing," says Martha Harbin, executive director of the Florida Beverage Association. "Reverse osmosis removes all of that and takes water down to its natural essence. Then some of those minerals are added back in to create a product that tastes the same, regardless of where you purchase your water from."

Consistency is indeed one of two irrefutable advantages that bottled water has over tap; convenience is the other. Harbin, who at the behest of Coca-Cola called New Times from Tallahassee as a stand-in spokesperson (one who "couldn't speak for The Coca-Cola Company, only for the industry"), was stymied when asked if there were any additional reasons for people to purchase something they can otherwise get for free.

"Well, it's healthy that you should be drinking water," she said, "which isn't a reason to drink just bottled water, but to drink water in general."

Convenience can also be had with refillable water bottles — many efficient models are now on the market — or even with a return of public drinking fountains. But what about the consistency of "free" water? Traveling from Tallahassee to Tampa, you'll be tapping into many very different sources — and some municipal systems are more efficient than others. What's in your faucet?

If you live in Miami-Dade, what's in your faucet isn't much different from the stuff that glugs from those large plastic jugs of Publix-brand water. "All they do is put it through a carbon filter and bottle it," says Cuban native Ralph Terrero, who for the past two and a half years has served as assistant director of water operations for the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department (WASD). Terrero, age 43, is part of the team charged with ensuring enough potable water to quench the needs of a quickly overflowing population.

Miami's drinking water, like much of Hollywood's, originates from the Biscayne Aquifer, a porous limestone formation located just below the ground's surface (barely a few feet down in most spots). The water that seeps through the aquifers' nooks and crannies becomes the "groundwater" that provides county residents with approximately 347 million gallons of drinkable H2O a day.

But as water ever-so-slowly flows through the aquifer (at a rate of about two feet per day), it dissolves naturally occurring minerals and picks up unsavory waste from animals and humans. Because of its proximity to the ground's surface, the Biscayne Aquifer is especially susceptible to such contamination, and to potential pollutants such as hazardous chemicals, storm water runoff, waste disposal sites, and underground storage tanks.

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