As published in the Lake Travis View, October 2021.
Let’s talk about the water cycle for a second: when rain falls, it gathers in bodies of water such as lakes and aquifers. The types of rocks found in these bodies of water begin to slowly enrich the water with dissolved minerals. The greater the amount of dissolved minerals in the water, the “harder” the water is. Texas has some of the hardest water in the U.S. thanks (in large part) to an overabundance of limestone, which is soft and easily dissolvable. It is primarily made up of calcium carbonate and magnesium carbonate, the main compounds that make water “hard.”
Now, obviously most of us are not collecting water directly from these natural sources for consumption. We’re relying on our water provider to treat and clean the water, then safely store it and distribute it with adequate pressure to reach our faucets when we need it. In summary: water utilities make sure potable water is safe for consumption. These providers are required to produce and distribute a consumer confidence report (CCR), or water quality report, each year detailing the source of the raw water, types of contaminants in in the water, and results of water quality testing done throughout the year (most local water providers meet or exceeded all quality standards). The minerals that make water “hard” are not removed because hard water is not a health risk. In fact, the National Research Council (National Academy of Sciences) states that hard drinking water generally contributes toward the total calcium and magnesium needed in the human diet.
However, hard water can be a nuisance because of the mineral buildup it causes on plumbing fixtures and poor soap and or detergent performance. To counteract the impact of hard water, some homeowners opt to install a water softener, which typically replaces the calcium and magnesium (and other positive ions) with sodium or potassium chloride. Homeowners who choose a “point-of-entry” (whole house) water softener, may also choose to install a reverse osmosis system to remove the sodium added by the water softener to tap water lines used for drinking or cooking. Because skin irritation is another potential side effect from hard water (causing it to become dry and itchy), a water softener can alternatively be added exclusively to water lines that service just certain areas of the home, such as bathrooms and the laundry (known as “point-of-use” water softeners). Alternative salt-free water treatment solutions, such as “water conditioners” have also been gaining popularity in recent years to combat the effects of hard water.
Whatever you choose to limit the impact of hard water on your home, we encourage you to choose tap water over bottled water for consumption. Unlike the annual reports supplied to customers by public water systems, getting information about the quality of bottled water is difficult. Consumer Reports has stated there is no single source that maintains a list of quality reports from the manufacturers of bottled water. Besides that:
- Bottled water is wasteful: Single-use plastic bottles are the third most common item found in ocean debris and represent 15 percent of marine waste (only 14 percent of all plastic gets recycled).
- Bottled water is expensive: On average, buying 20-ounce bottles of water costs $10 per gallon compared to tap water which costs most of our customers $0.0025 per gallon.
- Tap water and bottled water are generally comparable in terms of safety…we’d argue tap water is safer!
- Taste varies depending on the source: Minerals and other compounds determine a water’s taste.
Unlike bottled water, however, public water systems are required to maintain a presence of disinfectant in all water found throughout the distribution system to keep it free from disease-causing pathogens, such as bacteria, viruses, and protozoans, that can grow in water supply reservoirs, on the walls of water mains and in storage tanks. Chlorine or chloramines are used by most public water systems in the U.S. for this purpose. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) assures that “while these chemicals could be harmful in high doses, when they are added to water, they all mix in and spread out, resulting in low levels that kill germs, but are still safe to drink.” Chlorine in drinking water can cause water to smell like the chemical, however drinking water is considered safe as long as the chlorine/chloramine levels do not exceed 4 milligrams per liter. Customers concerned with the taste can simply fill a container with their tap water and let it sit uncovered for 24 hours in the refrigerator. For a faster solution, pitchers with charcoal carbon filters are effective at removing chlorine as well as particles such as sediment, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), taste, and odor.
Written by Stephanie Threinen, public information liaison for the Lakeway Municipal Utility District (LMUD). Earl Foster is the general manager of LMUD.