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Drink From the Faucet

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Back in the old days, folks used to go to the sink to get a glass of water. Now Silicon Valley residents spend millions of dollars a year for filtered and imported drinking water. The local water district promises to spend $20.4 million to clean up the tap water by the year 2000. But is it too little, too late?

By Eric Johnson

SEA MONKEYS--the fabled creatures advertised for decades in the back pages of comic books--cannot live in the water that comes out of the faucets of many Silicon Valley homes.

A local mom whose 8-year-old sent away for the miraculous primates (they're actually brine shrimp) says her son was deeply hurt when he couldn't "Watch them come to life," as promised. They were probably killed off by the chlorine which the San Jose Water District uses to disinfect the drinking water supply, following federal regulations.

"He was so disappointed--it was as if it proved all the worst about the world," she says. "It was as if he'd discovered that there is really no magic."

It also changed the way she felt about the tap water in her household. Ever since, that disillusioned family has been on bottled water--like thousands of similar households throughout the valley.

The local municipal water supply is so distrusted, 26 bottled-water companies have sprung up to serve the needs of the thirsty citizenry of the San Jose area.

According to Jane Lazgin of the Perrier Group--which owns the brands Calistoga and Arrowhead--Silicon Valley is in the heart of the biggest market for bottled water in the country.

The International Bottled Water Association reports that households in Northern California spend more than $100 million on safe drinking water every year.

Local sales figures for home water-filtration units like Brita and P-ur are unavailable, as are figures for sales from water vending machines at supermarkets. But it is clear that many area residents would rather spend a quarter per gallon--the approximate cost of both home- and store-filtered water--than risk drinking straight from the spigot in their kitchens.

While ads for these alternatives generally pitch their superior taste and sparkling appearance (promising better-tasting coffee), many customers cite health concerns as their main reason for steering clear of unfiltered tap water.

Lazgin says her company figures that consumers choose to shun local tap water "in equal measure because of taste and a desire for predictable quality." Health concerns, she says, are an important factor.

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Metro reporters dip into the waters of the bay, the underground aquifer and the tapwater of Silicon Valley to reveal what's real and what's imagined in the local H2O.

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Water district officials say these fears stem from a series of toxic spills into the aquifer that were discovered during the 1980s. The result of this contamination is 29 identified Superfund sites in Silicon Valley, more than any other in the nation.

Most local water is pumped from an aquifer deep under the valley floor. The aquifer is protected by a thick layer of clay, which fairly effectively seals it off from above. But that barrier has been broken. (See "Deep Trouble.")

Leftover contamination from the early chip-making industry's careless use of solvents, first discovered after the notorious Fairchild case 15 years ago, still may be present in the underground water supply. (See "Leak No Evil.") More recent solvent leaks from dry cleaning operations may also have found their way into the aquifer.

SANTA CLARA VALLEY'S dubious ground water is scoured by three purification plants. The Rinconada facility, built in 1967, treats 75 million gallons a day; the Penitencia facility, built in 1974, treats 35 million gallons a day; and the Santa Teresa facility, built in 1989, treats 100 million gallons a day.

Together, the plants provide drinking water to 1.6 million drinking, watering and flushing Silicon Valley residents.

"They have state-of-the-art equipment," says Mike Di Marco, water district spokesman, "but state-of-the-art is changing quickly."

For example, Di Marco notes the Milwaukee cryptosporidium outbreak was caused by amounts of the bacteria so small they would have been unmeasurable until a few years ago.

No doubt the water treatment plant in Milwaukee was considered state-of-the-art until then.

Despite the ever-evolving technology, the single most effective aspect of the valley's water treatment regime remains the chlorine vat, where thousands of pounds of the chemical are stirred into the local cocktail known as tap water every day.

The water district points out that as the population of the valley grows and water regulations become more numerous and complex, the task of providing drinking water that is safe, affordable and good-tasting becomes more difficult.

Chlorine's deadly effect on sea monkeys and its noxious assault on the senses may not be the worst of its flaws as a household drink. Scientists have learned that chlorine mixed with some organic compounds creates a carcinogenic compound called trihalomethane.

The Santa Clara Valley Water District is spending $20.4 million to update its three water purification plants by the year 2000 to reduce the amount of chlorine used in the purification process. The improvements include additional particle counters and "total organic carbon analyzers" to ensure compliance with increased federal water quality regulations.

The new system, Di Marco says, "would still use chlorine to a small degree toward the end of the process."

A stalemate currently holds: Water company officials point out that their product already tests well within federal regulations; conservationists and consumer advocates, holding reams of new scientific studies, say the guidelines are inadequate to ensure clean, healthy water.

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition proposes that a better solution to the valley's ongoing water crisis would be to keep the pollutants out of the water in the first place.

The group staged a press conference earlier this summer in Cesar Chavez Park, in front of the future site of the Museum of Technology, to urge local companies to adopt newly designed "closed loop" systems. These cutting-edge technologies reuse water rather than flushing it and, according to Coalition director Ted Smith, would save money in the long run.

Cutting off the contamination at its many sources would go a long way toward making drinking water safe, and also yield an added benefit. The valley's streams would come to life. Where they now function as sewers, and must be posted to keep fishermen away, the Guadalupe River, Coyote Creek and Los Gatos Creek would revert at least partway to their natural functions as the key elements of the valley ecosystem.

The effect would stretch even further: The southern reaches of San Francisco Bay, now blighted (see "Liquid Assets"), would become thriving wetlands, where kids could go on field trips to see ospreys, herons and rare shorebirds and maybe get a feel for the world's magic that is their birthright.

As a bonus, sea monkeys would flourish.

Native people worldwide see water as one of the basic elements of life. In this issue--the first in a four-part series on the elements of the Santa Clara Valley--Metro reporters examine the state of the valley's water, the ways it affects people's lives and the possible ways it can be brought into a state of health.


Michael Learmonth contributed to this article.

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From the Sept. 11-17, 1997 issue of Metro.

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