S.F. officials dilute prestige of bottled water

Bottled water has become the quintessential accessory for today’s health-conscious urbanite. While Smart Water promises enhanced electrolyte technology, Vitamin Water boasts “responsible hydration.” New bottles made by Arrowhead are designed to fit better in your hand when you’re on the go. For San Francisco city officials, however, nothing compares with water that flows from the tap.

The City's tap water travels hundreds of miles from Yosemite National Park to Bay Area households and businesses.

Last week, Mayor Gavin Newsom announced a plan to phase out all bottled-water purchases at the city level. A citywide campaign has been launched to encourage more people to drink from the tap and stop buying bottled water, which officials say is less regulated than tap water, costs too much and hurts the environment.

In the last few years, the multibillion-dollar bottled-water industry has exploded, said Gina Solomon, a San Francisco-based physician and senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Globally, people drank 41 billion gallons of water in 2004, up 57 percent from 1999. Americans have been fooled, officials say, by marketing campaigns that promote bottled water as the cleanest form of hydration.

Bottled water and tap water are, in fact, regulated by two separate federal agencies, leaving major discrepancies in the way the two forms of water are tested for bacteria.

Tap water supplies for major metropolitan areas, for example, must be tested for bacteria hundreds of times each month, while bottled water has to be tested only four times a month. San Francisco’swater supply was tested more than 88,000 times in 2006, according to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

The recent campaign against bottled water is also driven by its cost. In San Francisco, residents can purchase up to 1,000 gallons of tap water for the price of one gallon of bottled water, officials said.

People who work and live in San Francisco seem split on the water debate. Daryl Rance, a cartographer who works in the Financial District, said bottled water makes more sense for his lifesytle.

“It’s more convenient to carry a bottle that’s disposable,” he said, adding, “The water that comes out of the tap has a lot of sediments in it. It kind of grosses me out.”

However, according to a 2005 taste test in San Francisco, many would disagree with Rance. Half of the 300 people who participated in the taste test preferred tap water, according to the utilities commission. Another 25 percent of people said they couldn’t tell the difference.

arocha@examiner.com


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