One of the first things a Santa Fe visitor is told upon setting foot in the high desert is, "Drink water. Lots of it."

So they grab a bottle of Dasani or Arrowhead or Fuji and trek through the adobe jungle. Locals, too, are attached to their water, whether it's a cool bottle snatched after yoga class or a plastic-wrapped stash of half-pints under the sink. Extra hydration is necessary at 7,000 feet, so to the bottle it is—because the best way to make sure you're drinking it is to always have it with you.

But is there a better solution? Mounting evidence suggests bottled water—between the waste produced by the bottles and the energy consumed to produce and transport it—is a considerable threat to the environment. Green-minded Santa Feans have been trying to find alternatives to plastic bottles, but the alternatives are few—and raise environmental questions of their own.

Foremost, national statistics estimate that as little as 17 percent of all plastic water bottles in the US are recycled.

New Mexico's  figures are even lower. According to the New Mexico Recycling Coalition, the state recycles only 11 percent of its recyclable materials. To reduce plastic bottle waste, many turn to reverse-osmosis (RO)-purified water, available from bulk vending machines at virtually every supermarket in Santa Fe.

While filling up a reusable jug is effective in reducing plastic bottle waste, it can be harmful to the desert's diminished water resources. A little-known fact about the RO process is that, for each gallon of purified water produced, one to three gallons of water are wasted; some estimates put that number closer to 11 gallons. As the fine membranes in an RO system cleanse water of contaminants, the system also flushes out large amounts of water along with those contaminants.

Audrey Jenkins, a water treatment specialist at Santa Fe By Design, further suggests that while the RO process removes contaminants, it also removes water's natural nutrients.

"Have you ever heard of a stream that was reverse osmosis? We're eating natural vegetables–shouldn't we be drinking natural water?" she asks.
Santa Fe By Design, which markets a variety of water filtration systems, handed out 3,100 bideogradable corn cups of filtered Santa Fe tap water at the July 4 Pancakes on the Plaza. She says she also was in negotiations with the City of Santa Fe to install City Hall to install point-of-use filters in City Hall sinks and water fountains, but says the idea was eventually shot down for fear that it would give the impression that Santa Fe water was unsuitable for drinking.

Jenkins insists her desire to filter Santa Fe's water was not an implication that it's undrinkable; on the contrary, she wants to urge people to drink it more. "If we could enhance Santa Fe water by filtering it in City Hall, we could start a trend of people abandoning bottled water," she says. "We need to be the change."

While that change hasn't come in the form of point-of-use filters in City Hall, it has reached city government buildings. Pursuant to an anti-bottled water resolution he signed at the US Conference of Mayors on June 24, and at the suggestion of Councilor Chris Calvert, Mayor David Coss unofficially "banned" bottled water from city council meetings.

"It was more of a verbal commitment not to use bottles at meetings," City spokeswoman Laura Banish says. "It's more environmentally friendly, and Santa Fe has such good drinking water," she says, noting that city employees can often be seen filling up reusable bottles at water fountains.
Councilor Chris Calvert says his proposal to eliminate bottled water from Council meetings was similarly motivated. "If we're saying city water is good water, why aren't we drinking it? It sends the wrong signal if we're drinking bottled water in a public forum. People may have issues with the taste, but in a blind taste test, I think they wouldn't be able to tell the difference between bottled water and tap water. But that's just my cynical self." Calvert continues, "We're supposed to be leading by example, and here's a good, easy chance."

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But, even as "green" as we'd like to be, can Santa Fe handle a tap water-only diet? Teo Insognia, assistant store manager of La Montañita Co-op, doesn't think so.

"The Park Slope co-op in Brooklyn removed the whole category of bottled water from their store," he says. "We've discussed doing it here, but we feel the community's not ready for that–there would be a pretty hardcore backlash if we were to do away with it."

Insognia also notes that, as wasteful as bottled water may be, municipal water standards simply aren't up to par for many Santa Feans.

While it's keeping bottled water on the shelves, La Montañita is working to decrease the environmental impact of its RO system, which it recently tested and discovered it wasted 2.3 gallons wasted for every 1.7 gallons vended. Subsequently, Insognia says, it was decided that the store would begin to reclaim the 3,000 gallons of RO waste water produced every week. The water will then be recycled into the landscaping of the entire Solana shopping center, as well as used in the six toilets in the co-op.

Reclamation, Insognia believes, is the wave of the future. "Water purity is really sliding," he says. "We can do what we can at the municipal level, but it will really be an issue in the future. People want to wrestle water back from the major companies that take it from natural sources and sell it back to them. There's an increase of reclamation on the community level—and they want to see that their food retailers are doing it too. There's a high level of accountability for co-ops, and this lets us be role models for people who shop here. We seized the opportunity at store level. It's a no-brainer; it should have been done earlier."

That accountability extends to the company that provides La Montañita with its RO water system. President Greg Friedman and General Manager Ramón Lovato of National Water Services, a Santa Fe-based company in business since 1991, counter the anti-RO speak with some statistics of its own.

"There are hundreds of thousands of potential chemicals in municipal water, and the Safe Water Act only tests for less than 150," Friedman says. "That's way less than 1 percent. We don't really know what's in our water. The nice thing about RO technology is it will remove thousands of different chemicals, so even if you don't know what's in the water, you know that when it comes out of there, it's clean."

When it comes to why people tend to prefer RO water over tap water, Lovato says, "Taste is a huge issue. The mineral content of our water, plus the things that stay in it in tap water, make it taste bad. When the water tastes bad, people drink less of it. And when they don't drink water, what do they do? They don't buy water, they buy sodas. Or they buy bottles of water."

As far as the environmental footprint is concerned, Friedman says that, for every gallon of water delivered to a store, at least six gallons of water was wasted in its production and shipment. While there is waste water created in the RO process, Lovato contends, "With the impact from our system on the number of empty bottles that don't make it into the waste stream, the number of water bottles that don't have to be trucked in from 2,000 miles away, I think it balances out very well. Bottled water carries a much higher cost than what we do locally."

While there are varying points of view on the pros and cons of bottled water, RO water and tap water, there does seem to be a general consensus that improving municipal water systems nationwide is the long-term solution.

"We need to work on our infrastructure and our distribution systems," Lovato says. "It's going to cost billions, if not trillions of dollars to fix all the utilities in this country. There isn't a politician in the United States today who wants to tell Mr. and Mrs. Consumer that they have to tax them trillions of dollars. Nobody's going to get elected that way. But I'd rather spend the money on the infrastructure than spend the money in Iraq."

Read this story's companion piece: Water on the Brain