Bottled vs. tap water

Should Rogue Valley residents trust their tap water more than store-bought brands?
Dennis Burg reads the water levels in an overflow gauge at Big Butte Springs near Butte Falls.-Photo by Denise Baratta

There's "paper or plastic" when you go shopping. But when it comes to drinking water, the question seems to be: "Plastic bottle or out of the tap?"

In the Rogue Valley, the answer might be easier than you think, and less expensive.

Need more convincing that our local water supply is top-notch?

Judges at the regional conference of the American Water Works Association in May said Medford has the best-tasting tap water in the Northwest. It was the Medford Water Commission's first time entering in the taste test.

Competitions were held among water utilities in Oregon, Washington and Western Idaho, and winners from those competed at the Northwest conference. A panel of four water-industry volunteers judged the entries on clarity, flavor, scent and aftertaste.

Bob Noelle, MWD water-quality superintendent, says he guesses it's the slight mineral content that brought home the prize for Medford.

"Pure water is pretty flat and tasteless," he says. Big Butte Springs water, the source of MWD's supply, has traces of calcium, magnesium, silica, sulfates and chlorides.

"Our water is not highly mineralized. Perhaps it's just a unique combination of those compounds," Noelle says.

The Medford commission is now shooting for best in the nation at the annual AWWA conference in Atlanta this month.

— Meg Landers

The water coming out of household taps in the Rogue Valley is scientifically proven to be a safe bet. In fact, an April analysis of the Medford Water Commission's Big Butte Springs drinking water supply shows that local tap water may be better than those expensive bottled waters with the healthy sounding names, four-color labels and huge advertising budgets.

Big Butte Springs, about 30 miles northeast of Medford in the shadow of Mount McLoughlin, is MWD's main water supply, serving 115,000 valley residents. It peaks at 26.4 million gallons of water per day, and it's been the main supply since 1927.

Rogue River water is used as a supplement during higher-demand summer months, but it goes through a full treatment process at the Duff Water Treatment Plant, unlike the chlorine-only treatment at the Big Butte Springs source.

Water-quality testing in 2007 on more than 120 parameters showed that both water sources exceeded state and federal health standards in all areas, according to the report.

Which raises the question: Why are we spending so much money on bottled water?

"The main things with bottled water are the convenience factor and the ability to make a personal choice," says Laura Hodnett, public information coordinator for the water commission. "But if you're going to (buy bottled water), evaluate your reasons. If you think it's going to be of a higher quality, don't count on it."

As far as cost is concerned, you can't beat the savings from the tap versus bottled water, Hodnett says.

"We charge 53 cents for each 1,000 gallons. That's well less than a cent per gallon for clean, fresh water," she says.

Many brands of bottled water are simply tap water from a municipal source, so unless a consumer asks for water quality data on that particular brand, it's all guesswork. The bottled water, however, can be disinfected and capped at the bottling plant to improve taste, while Medford water must be treated with chlorine all the way to the tap, Hodnett says.

"But it is, in effect, spring water," she says. "There is spring water out of the tap in Medford six months out of the year, some places 12 months. We can't call it spring water because we treat it, but it really is spring water.

"Internal plumbing could be a factor," she notes, "but that's beyond our control. It got delivered to their location in good condition."

The commission sends out 60,000 water-quality reports annually, not just to people who receive a water bill, but to apartment complexes, assisted-living centers and other multiple-dwelling locations. MWC also posts its more-comprehensive water quality analysis online.

Maria Katsantones, a community outreach assistant at Ashland Food Co-op and a member of the co-op's social responsibility committee, says she is conflicted when it comes to drinking water.

"Tap water gives me the creeps, but I've done it all: tap water, bottled water, a filter," she says. "I drink more water than anyone I know. Lately, I haven't been able to afford a filter."

Katsantones says clean, clear tap water should be a right of all citizens, like good public schools. While she's not sold that local tap water is completely safe — even in the face of hard data provided by MWC — she says she'd drink it from the tap before buying bottled water.

"Buying someone else's tap water sold as drinking water in a plastic bottle — that's like paying for air. Plus, the containers are bad for the landfill," she says.

Hodnett says MWC has mulled bottling its Big Butte Springs water, but building a bottling plant at the spring's source likely would be too environmentally tricky.

"It's an area that we have locked up (through land easements and land purchases) and we would have to open it up a bit more," she says. "It's pristine now, and we want to keep it that way."

Big Butte Springs' isolated location, along with the few number of property owners living above the Rogue River treatment plant, limit concerns about manmade chemicals and compounds entering MWC's drinking water supply, Hodnett says. Recent news reports have focused on pharmaceuticals found in public water supplies, but the April analysis by MWC shows that 22 of 22 volatile organic compounds tested at both sources, including benzene, styrene and the gas-additive MTBE, were non-detectable, and disinfection byproducts from chlorination were as much as 10 times below the maximum allowed.

"We probably are going to do some testing (for pharmaceuticals), even though we believe we're at a very, very low risk," Hodnett says.


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