Restaurant Reviews

Kick the Bottle

Page 3 of 5

If you live in Broward or Miami-Dade, what's in your faucet isn't much different from the stuff that glugs from those large plastic jugs of Publix-brand water. "All they do is put it through a carbon filter and bottle it," says Cuban native Ralph Terrero, who for the past two and a half years has served as assistant director of water operations for the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department (WASD). Terrero, 43, is part of the team charged with ensuring enough potable water to quench the needs of a quickly overflowing population.

Miami's drinking water, like much of Hollywood's, originates from the Biscayne Aquifer, a porous limestone formation located just below the ground's surface (barely a few feet down in most spots). The water that seeps through the aquifer's nooks and crannies becomes the "groundwater" that provides county residents with about 347 million gallons of drinkable H2O a day.

But as water ever-so-slowly flows through the aquifer (at a rate of about two feet per day), it dissolves naturally occurring minerals and picks up unsavory waste from animals and humans. Because of its proximity to the ground's surface, the Biscayne Aquifer is especially susceptible to such contamination and to potential pollutant sources like hazardous chemicals, stormwater runoff, waste disposal sites, and underground storage tanks.

That's why public water passes through numerous purifying stages before getting released. "We do about 15,000 tests a year," touts Terrero, who is quick to proclaim that Miami-Dade "exceeds both state and federal drinking-water standards." His boasts are backed — and itemized — by a quality data chart contained within the 2007 Water Quality Report, mailed this summer to every Miami-Dade home receiving a water bill.

WASD's two main water treatment facilities are the John E. Preston plant, which serves residents north of Flagler Street to the Miami-Dade/Broward line, and the Alexander Orr plant, which replenishes those living south to SW 248th Street. Each plant pumps water from the wells, softens it through lime treatment, filters it, disinfects it, and finally sends it through 7,000 miles of pipe (and some meticulous metering), after which it falls (with a flick of the wrist) in a final cascade into our sinks.

Terrero is so impressed with the WASD purification system that he drinks unfiltered tap in his house. "The filter people will try to sell [filtration devices] to you, but the water is clean and soft enough that you don't need it. You shouldn't spend your money on that."

If the Environmental Protection Agency is a sturdy bowl filled to the brim with safety regulations regarding public drinking water, the Food and Drug Administration is a leaky colander of bottled-water oversight. "Their sampling is a lot less than what we do," Terrero says of the FDA. Worse, water packaged and sold within the same state is exempt, allowing 60 to 70 percent of all bottled water purchased in America to escape FDA rules entirely.

In the case of Dasani, however, along with most other brands, the argument about underregulation doesn't hold much you-know-what. And that's because taxpayers foot the bill to filter it before the bottled-water producers ever lay their hands on it.

The City of Hollywood Water Treatment Plant undergoes the same eagle-eyed EPA monitoring as that in Miami-Dade. As a matter of fact, the Hollywood plant was a 2007 Drinking Water Treatment Plant Award winner, cited for its dedication to public health and the environment by Florida DEP's Division of Water Resource Management. So the water Dasani puts in its bottles has already been tested many times by the EPA, whether it gets a scant secondary scan by the FDA or not.

Again, just like the water from your tap.

But can anyone even taste the difference between bottled and faucet? In 2003, an NBC 6 news team gathered samples from a dozen neighborhoods served by various water systems, along with three bottled waters, and took them to STL Labs in Miramar. Each specimen was subjected to 126 different tests, and all easily surpassed the minimal government standards of purity; bottled scored better in some categories, public-sourced water in others. The TV station also conducted a blind taste test with Dasani, Zephyrhills, and plain old tap. One out of three participants could differentiate among them.

The same odds as a guess.

4. Unfiltered Opinions

Eduardo "Lalo" Durazo, managing partner of Jaguar Ceviche in Coconut Grove, was the first Miami restaurateur to kick the bottle. "I thought, 'Why pollute the environment when in the end, it's really just tap water inside?' It doesn't make any sense." Lalo first got the idea a couple of years ago while perusing People magazine. "There was an article about a restaurant in San Francisco that served their own filtered water. I said, 'I think that's good. We should do it.' So we installed a very high-tech filtering system." He is speaking of Natura, a $6,000 European machine that not only charcoal-filters the water multiple times, purifies it, and chills it to 38 degrees but also produces carbonation to whatever desired degree of effervescence.

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Lee Klein