Tap vs. Bottled – a Water Scientist Explains

Women in Water with Brenda Meyer, Principal Engineer at Western Municipal

Brenda Meyer, water scientist at Western Municipal Water District.
Brenda Meyer, water scientist at Western Municipal Water District. Photo courtesy of WMWD.

This was a question Brenda Meyer, principal engineer for Western Municipal Water District, never thought about growing up. Her childhood was spent on a small farm in rural Idaho. “We had a well and all of our drinking water was untreated groundwater,” she recalled. “We would never have conceived of buying water in a bottle.”

Brenda says her parents would be confused by America’s bottled water craze. “Water comes from the tap and it’s perfectly safe. Why would you buy a small bottle if it’s no better that what you get from the tap and you pay so much more for it?”

Now, she’s in charge of ensuring that tap water meets all state and national safety standards at Western Municipal Water District, which supplies water in concert with the cities and agencies within its 527-square mile territory for nearly 1 million customers in western Riverside County. Water safety is her sole focus.

Before coming to Western, Brenda worked in the private sector, installing hundreds of groundwater monitoring wells and performing investigations of hazardous waste in soil and groundwater. Your SoCal Tap Water sat down with her for a discussion on the safety of tap vs. bottled.

Tap water is tested constantly to ensure safety.
Tap water is tested constantly to ensure safety. Photo courtesy of WMWD.

SoCalTap: What’s the difference between the safety of tap vs. the safety of bottled?

Brenda Meyer: I don’t think bottled water is “unsafe”, but I know from all of the laboratory testing and field monitoring potable water systems perform that tap water is safe and well regulated.

Tap water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and bottled water by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Municipal water agencies like Western must test our water weekly and daily and report our findings on a monthly, quarterly and annual basis. We’re regularly inspected for our compliance with regulations by the Division of Drinking Water, and we must send water quality reports to our customers every year.

SCT: What about bottled water?

Meyer: California is one of the more tightly regulated bottled water markets. Bottled water companies must test for bacteriological contamination once weekly. We test many times weekly and some daily and have many other kinds of tests as well.

Photo Credit: Liz West, Flickr Creative Commons, edited: http://tinyurl.com/lvcogsa
Photo Credit: Liz West, Flickr Creative Commons, edited: words added.

SCT: Is there anything special about the sources that bottlers use that’s different from the sources of tap water?

Meyer: There are bottlers that simply draw water from municipal sources, put it through their own process and sell it at a much higher price. If you see “PWS” on the back of the bottle, it means it comes from a “Public Water Source” – it was drawn from the same water mains as your tap water.

SCT: What do you drink?

Meyer: I have been known to buy a bottle of water for convenience when I am out and about.  In the office or at home, it’s only tap water. I give tap to my cats, and they thrive on it. One of them, China, is 20 years old!

Photo Credit: scott1346, Flicker Creative Commons, edited: http://tinyurl.com/nj3e3a6
Photo Credit: scott1346, Flicker Creative Commons, edited: words added.

SCT: Do you have any particular reason for “tap only” at home?

Meyer: It’s safe, economical and much easier on our environment that the mounds of bottles that are wasted from bottled water. What really bothers me personally is the amount of unnecessary waste generated by plastic bottles. For example, in the Grand Canyon alone, disposable plastic bottles are an estimated 20 percent of the waste stream and 30 percent of the park’s recyclables. That’s huge.

SCT: What would you say to someone who didn’t drink tap because they thought it was less safe than bottled water?

Meyer: Read the label on the bottled water – where does that water come from?  Ask your bottler for his water quality data then compare it to the tap water data.  Check for yourself.