Springs Eternal Hope

Just how pure is that bottled water you're drinking?

Andrea Goodman loves her Sparkletts® bottled water because, she says, it's pure and clean and from a deep protected well. As a North American spokesperson for Danone Group, the planet's largest water bottler, she likes to say nice things about the company. Where all that water comes from, she can't say. That might not be nice. "It's proprietary," she says. Why all the hush-hush? "To prevent issues of contamination" and "competitive advantages," she says.

There was a time when effete water bottlers such as Perrier and Evian touted the source of their waters as a selling point to connoisseurs, sniffing at glasses held by the stem. Today, most bottlers consider the source location of their wells closely held secrets.

Jane Lazgin, North American spokesperson for the number two global bottler, Nestle Corp., says she can't release source locations because Nestle, owner of the Arrowhead and Poland Springs brands, is worried about terrorists. "I don't think you'd find any bottler that would tell you the location of their wells, especially the addresses," she says.

One might be led to believe these are exclusively pure and remote sources easily disturbed in a fragile ecosystem.

But to find the Arrowhead source supplying bottled well water for Tucson stores, one need travel just outside of LA to the intersection of Interstate 10 and Interstate 15. Arrowhead's well and bottling plant sit together off these two interstate highways south of NASCAR's California Speedway and approximately half a mile from Ontario municipal well #31, closed due to mercury contamination from a nearby toxic clean-up site. That site is currently the focus of state-regulated toxic waste removal and a pending lawsuit between the City of Ontario and Kaiser Steel.

Ken Jeske, Chino Basin water master, public overseer of the competing interests for the region's aquifer, describes the area of contamination as an old industrial district. "You had plants that operated there before World War II. As a country we did things differently then. We didn't know what we know now."

Should you care to visit the district with its long industrial history, the address of the Arrowhead well's ostensibly secret location is 5719 E. Jurupa St., Ontario, Calif.

Also in vicinity of the toxic plume is Arrowhead's neighbor to the north of well 31, Niagara Bottling LLC. Navigating legal definitions, Niagara labels the source on its water as an "artesian well." Jeske says that because of expanded demands on the aquifer, conditions for artesian wells in the Chino Basin haven't existed for decades.

Nonetheless, Niagara water analyst Chris Sasanto insists that Niagara's well adheres to the regulatory definition for an artesian well. "We're within the definition. The wording's very important," says Sasanto. As a supplier to both Wal-Mart and Costco, the Niagara plant pumps an average of 100 gallons per minute around the clock seven days a week. This amounts to more than four million gallons per month processed for distribution. The Niagara bottling plant stands above its well at 5675 Concours, Ontario, Calif.

Since the skyrocketing growth of the bottled water industry in the 1990s, information on source locations has gone underground. The secret location for the Sparkletts well and bottling plant serving Tucson can be found in Phoenix near the intersections of I-10 and I-17, just off Grand Avenue. Sparkletts' independent well at 3302 W. Earl Drive taps into the Phoenix aquifer, located approximately 400 surface meters from the edge of a federal Superfund toxic plume.

Al Jackson manages Sparkletts' plant in Phoenix. He's familiar with both the contaminant plume and recent testing in the area by the Arizona Department of Water Quality. "The ADEQ was around here but they never came knocking on our door," he says. Although the plant operates in accordance with regulators, he reasons that public perceptions in having a Superfund cleanup site for a neighbor are a different matter,

"Public perception of all drinking water is the same: Suspect," Jackson says. When it comes to drinking water, whether municipal or bottled, "They're all in the same bucket."

ADEQ plans to release its study of the area in January.

Unlike Sparkletts, Safeway uses municipal water as the source for its drinking water. Safeway has been filtering, packaging and reselling Central Arizona Project, or CAP, water to Tucson residents for years.

The introduction of Central Arizona Project water into the Tucson municipal water supply was opposed by various groups during the 1990s. CAP water originates from the Colorado River and runs through Arizona along canal. Over the last 10 years, the battle over CAP water shaped the course of Tucson water policy. One result has been CAP water's forced recharge into the Tucson aquifer as a means of introducing the controversial liquid into Tucson's water supply.

Today, as during the '90s, Safeway continues to draw its bottled drinking water directly from the source many people turned to bottled water to avoid. Price at tap: 0.5 cents per gallon. Safeway price: 69 cents per gallon.

The important difference between tap water and Safeway Select brand drinking water is filtration. Safeway filters its Tempe tap water through a membrane requiring pressurization. This process, called reverse osmosis, is common among bottlers and eliminates various levels of dissolved material in the water.

Such filtration methods don't necessarily satisfy the thirst of hydrologist Janick Artiola. Artiola, an associate professor with the University of Arizona's Soil Water and Environmental Sciences Center, laments the quality of bottled water. "You can get dissolved solids down to 10 parts per million, sure. What was there originally? There are pollutants you wouldn't want at any level. But if you're claiming to start with a clean source to begin with, then what are you selling?"

Artiola's belief in the purity of bottled water runs cold. "Personally I always take my chances with the local ground water."

Although adhering to state and federal regulations, water sources for many bottlers may counter the public perception that bottled water originates from cleaner sources than water from the tap.

In January 2001, Arrowhead settled a lawsuit without admission of fault stemming from conditions with spring water dating back to 1995. As part of the settlement, Arrowhead's parent company at the time, Great Spring Waters of America, agreed to pay $4.75 million over five years to charities and $1 million in discounts to consumers.

Arrowhead additionally agreed to increase monitoring and reporting on turbidity (muddiness), rain patterns near open-air springs, dissolved solids, microscopic particulates and surface water influences at the springs' source. The settlement document, while emphasizing no finding of fault, points at the difficulties faced by bottlers in maintaining spring-water quality during rainstorms. According to Monte Montgomery, director of the Tucson hydrology consulting firm L. Montgomery and Associates, springs are vulnerable to the effects of airborne contaminants, rain and runoff as a result of their being open to the air.

When they occur, water recalls from high capacity plants have proven large. In August 2000, 183,960 gallons of bottled water were recalled to the Tempe Safeway bottling facility because, as the FDA recall notice described, "The products are unfit for food since they contain particulate matter." Reasons for other recent recalls by other bottlers have included mold, bacteria, excess chlorine and broken glass.

The Environmental Protection Agency sets base standards for all water in the United States. It then polices municipal water supplies with required weekly testing and regular onsite inspections. Rather than the EPA, it's the Food and Drug Administration that directly oversees the bottled water industry. The FDA maintains a different protocol.

According to FDA spokesperson Kimberly Rollings, FDA inspectors typically make onsite inspection of bottling plants and their records every five to seven years. To take up the slack, the bottled water industry polices itself through the International Bottled Water Association. Based in the metro Washington, D.C. area, the IBWA claims the dual role of watchdog and lobbyist. It has written model bottled water regulations and sends inspectors for onsite inspections of member bottling plants once a year.

About 85 percent of U.S. water bottlers are members of the IBWA.

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