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Your water: Via tap or bottle, it may well be municipal

If you live in Minneapolis, you probably smelled something funny in your tap water weeks before you heard the news.

My water (I live in southwest Minneapolis) didn’t smell, but starting in early July, it acquired a vaguely earthy taste. I found it kind of pleasant.

Earlier this month, after a carefully worded city press release reached newsrooms, the smell made local headlines. Stories mostly focused on the taste, almost universally described as somewhere between yucky and nasty (my words), and on potential blows to Mayor R.T. Rybak’s much-touted plan to wean city residents off water bottles.

Buried between the lines, though, were two fairly serious suggestions worth exploring: One, that Minneapolis water isn’t safe, and two, that bottled water is a smart alternative.

If you’re time-starved (or an Internet-and-Google-broken reader), here’s the bottom line:

Yes, the water’s safe. And those who opt for bottled water as an alternative may well be drinking – yep – city tap water.

Yes, you can drink it (and not just because the mayor wants you to)
Minneapolis draws its water from the Mississippi, so water taste, smell and color are annual, if not more frequent stories, usually in the spring, when all sorts of things are blooming (algae) or decomposing (leftover fall leaves) in the river.

Chances are you tasted something this spring and you’ll taste something different next spring. And the spring after that. And sometimes in the summer. And so on.

That organic matter is filtered out through the city’s systems, all but a few parts per trillion — enough that you can smell and taste it, but not enough to cause any effect.

City spokesman Matt Laible told me that, in response to complaints, the city has increased the levels of certain chemicals used to treat the water. The chemicals altered not quality but aesthetics (the perception of quality). That’s a pretty typical response for many municipal plants, which, along with filtering out any dangerous elements, deal with all sorts of harmless but possibly offensive impurities.

No water is perfect, and there are always going to be public-health debates about municipal water, including mandated levels of fluoride. And groundwater quality is increasingly threatened by everything from agricultural pesticides to industrial chemicals, not to mention other chemicals that have come to define modern life.

If that’s enough to make you nervous about what’s coming out of your tap, there’s always the alternative: bottled water.

From the tap to the bottle

‘Course, there are the usually cited anti-bottled-water statistics: Petroleum-based plastic bottles that don’t degrade when thrown away, shipped thousands of miles across the country and then sold for thousands of times more than the cost of tap water.

Add one more to the list: You’re probably just drinking tap water, anyway.

Aquafina, Dasani, several brands of gallon jugs — it’s all from municipal water sources. Various studies have estimated that anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of the bottled water on the market is tap water. And the bottled water that comes from springs, aquifers and other sources is still subject to the same quality issues that municipal water is.

On top of that, studies by the National Resources Defense Council and others have found that the majority of bottled water is tested less frequently than tap water. The regulations are different – municipal water is monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency, while bottled water is considered a food and monitored by the Food and Drug Administration — and in some cases, less stringent.

This isn’t to suggest that tap water is necessarily safer than bottled water, or vice versa. There are too many constantly shifting variables at play to ever make such a claim.

It’s just that the next time you turn on your faucet and the water’s a little funky, your choice is more clearly defined: tap water, or tap water.

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