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Source of water would be clear under new law

A bill on the governor's desk spells out what bottlers must disclose about their H2O.

September 27, 2007|Marc Lifsher | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Is the bottled water you drink any better than what comes out of the tap? Is it from the tap?

Most companies that sell H2O hate the idea, but the California Legislature wants to make it easier for people to find out what minerals, chemicals or bacteria are in the water they buy and whether its provenance is a well, artesian aquifer, spring -- mountain or otherwise -- or municipal reservoir.

"People pay a premium for bottled and vended water because they believe it is healthier," said state Sen. Ellen Corbett (D-San Leandro), author of a bill that is on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's desk. "But in many cases, it is the same water that is coming out of the tap."

The bill would impose labeling and reporting mandates on purveyors of bottled water and operators of commercial water-purification machines.

The companies essentially would be required to do what the state compels water agencies to do: make details about their products' contents and sources readily available. The water districts do this with posts on their websites and inserts in water bills; bottlers would have to include contact and source information on their labels.

"Consumers have a right to know and understand the quality of their drinking water," said Edgar G. Dymally, a senior environmental specialist with the Metropolitan Water District. "Frequently, there's confusion about where it comes from and what's in it."

The confusion has put some companies in hot water. PepsiCo Inc.'s Aquafina brand and Coca-Cola Co.'s Dasani were slammed by consumer and environmental groups for failing to clearly note that their products came from water systems.

Aquafina, which adorns its bottles with a snow-capped mountain design, recently said it would revise its labels to include the phrase "public water sources." A Coca-Cola spokeswoman said there were no plans to put similar disclosures on Dasani bottles. Both companies cite local supplies as their water's source on their websites, though neither provides a detailed water quality analysis.

Right now, they don't have to. Bottled water is regulated as a food product by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, unlike public water systems, which fall under state regulation. The federal government doesn't demand the level of disclosure that the bill in Sacramento would.

Schwarzenegger hasn't taken a public position on the bill and has until Oct. 14 to make up his mind on whether he will sign it.

The bill's proponents complain that the FDA doesn't set very high standards.

"FDA rules allow bottlers to call their product 'spring water' -- which seems to carry cachet with consumers as being especially natural and pure -- even though it may be brought to the surface using a pumped well, and even though it may be treated with chemicals," the Natural Resources Defense Council says on its website, which contends that "about one-fourth of bottled water is actually bottled tap water."

Also supporting the bill are the Sierra Club, the Consumer Federation of California and other environmental and consumer groups, as well as many municipal water agencies throughout the state. They say the need for full water disclosure has grown along with consumer demand. (Per-capita U.S. consumption of bottled water jumped 50.5% between 2001 and 2006, according to Beverage Marketing Corp., an industry consultant, and 70% of Americans drink bottled water.)

On the other side are most bottlers, backed by the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Grocers Assn. They don't want to be burdened with costly reporting and labeling requirements that, in their opinion, are unnecessary.

Many water bottlers do provide on their websites much of the information that would be mandated by the bill.

In any event, "people can contact the company for any information they like," said Chuck Hurst, president of the California Bottled Water Assn. and the owner of a Culligan franchise in Santa Maria, which posts a comprehensive breakdown of Culligan water (purified water from public systems) on the Internet.

Hurst may oppose the bill but Culligan International Co., which makes commercial water vending machines and home water purification systems and sells bottled water, wants the governor to sign it. So does Glacier Water Co. of Vista, another major water vending machine company.

Culligan and Glacier back the Corbett bill because they reached a compromise with the senator, persuading her to, among other things, push back the effective date by one year.

Specifically, the bill would require bottlers of water sold in single-serving containers to include on the label or on a package insert the name and contact information for the bottler or brand owner, the source of the water and an Internet address or other means to obtain a water-quality report.

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