When people in central Oregon’s Madras, Culver and Metolius turn on their taps, untreated spring water flows forth. It costs them less than a penny per gallon.
A company in California buys that same water and sells it in big glass jugs for up to $8.60 a gallon around Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The jugs are flying off the shelves.
“The water’s been doing really well,” said Edwin Diaz, manager of Erewhon Market in Calabasas, a small city northwest of Malibu. “It’s kind of a specialty item.”
Fans are quenching their thirst for “raw water” – water with no chemicals or other treatment that passes federal regulations because it’s clean at the source.
“It’s a no-brainer,” said Lee Sayer, a musician in San Francisco and anti-fluoride activist who has been drinking raw water for months. “You have water that’s processed through the earth through natural processes – it’s cleaned. And being that water has memory, it has a memory of tumbling through the rocks. It has micronutrients and I believe it’s alive.”
But don’t look for raw water in Oregon stores.
Only a few companies are selling untreated bottled water in the United States and their sales are small. The supplier that uses the central Oregon spring water touts its natural probiotics to promote a healthy digestive system, but doesn’t yet offer it here.
Industry watchers don’t foresee untreated water becoming a new trend in bottled water, which surpassed sales of carbonated beverages in 2016 and accounted for about $37 billion in sales last year, according to Beverage Marketing Corp.
“We view it as a bit of a gimmicky fad,” said Gary Hemphill, the marketing group’s managing director of research. “There is the potential to have some interest and appeal with a small number of consumers, but by and large I think the market is driven by traditional bottled water, which is likely to have the greatest growth and the lion’s share of the market.”
‘IT FELT LIKE PERFECT ALIGNMENT’
Christopher Sanborn started his raw water venture three years ago as a one-man operation. He hiked through the snow to mountain springs in California, filling up glass jugs and then delivering them to customers around Los Angeles.
In 2015, the same year he founded Fountain of Truth Spring Water, he came upon the artesian water from Opal Springs, fed by an underground aquifer at the bottom of the Crooked River Canyon.
“I was on a road trip looking for springs and thinking about moving to Oregon because I enjoyed my time there so much,” Sanborn said via text message. “When I realized how amazing the water was, it felt like perfect alignment.”
Another company, Summit Spring Water Inc., sells untreated spring water from an ancient source on a hilltop in Maine.
“We’re the pioneers of the untreated water concept in the United States,” said Bryan Pullen, Summit Spring’s president.
The bottler registered the name Raw Water in 2009, he said. In 2016, it created the brand, Tourmaline Spring, to get away from the term “raw.”
“That name causes a lot of confusion,” Pullen said. “It’s good for you because of what’s not in it. It’s naturally pure.”
The company sells 300,000 gallons of spring water a year for about $3 a liter to East Coast customers, including in Florida. The water is also sold on Amazon and shipped nationwide, including to Hawaii, Pullen said.
“It’s a niche product,” he said.
Mountain Valley Spring Co. in Arkansas also sells untreated spring water, but a spokeswoman said it’s run through a charcoal filtration system before bottling.
Sanborn, who unofficially goes by the name Muktande Singh, calls his version “Live Water” and touts its beneficial microbes.
“Anxiety, weight gain, fatigue and countless other ailments are linked to an imbalance of proper gut bacteria,” his website says. “Living spring water is the key to unlocking a perfect microbiome balance.”
One Facebook fan called it the “nectar of the gods.” Another wrote: “Just holding the crystal glass jug energized me.”
His website links to an independent analysis of the Opal Springs water in 2015 and says the report’s findings show the water has “exclusive” probiotics.
But the bacteria listed in the testing report aren’t anything out of the ordinary, said Dr. John Townes, head of infectious diseases Oregon Health & Science University.
They’re common in the environment, widely found in soil and water, Townes said. They’re mostly harmless to people, though a few infections have been linked to the bacteria in studies.
Experts say if you want more probiotics look to yogurt or other fermented foods like kefir.
They also caution against drinking untreated water that doesn’t come from a known, vetted source like the Opal Springs.
Most drinking water is treated in the United States to prevent people from getting sick from harmful bacteria, parasites and other toxins. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last year that in 2013-14, the latest statistics available, more than 1,000 people got sick, nearly 125 were hospitalized and 13 died in drinking water-related outbreaks.
A majority were due to legionella, bacteria that cause Legionnaires’ disease of the lungs. The others were attributed to parasites – cryptosporidium and giardia – along with chemicals and other toxins that got into the water systems.
Sanborn said his water has never made anyone ill.
OPAL SPRINGS PASSES TESTS
The Food and Drug Administration regulates bottlers and requires companies to test samples of the source water and finished bottles for harmful microbes, chemicals and other compounds.
The Opal Springs water has consistently passed state and federal drinking water tests, Oregon data show.
“When he’s saying he’s selling his customers raw water, he’s right,” said Ed Pugh, general manager of the Deschutes Valley Water District, the community utility that owns the rights to Opal Springs. “But I’m also doing the same thing with my Culver, Metolius and Madras customers. They’re all getting raw water.”
The water district conducts multiple tests a month for bacteria that might indicate the presence of fecal matter. State regulations also require annual tests for harmful chemicals and screenings every four years for radiological contaminants, like uranium.
In test after test, the water has come out clean. There have been a few temporary exceptions, but follow-up checks did not confirm the presence of harmful bacteria, state data show.
Opal Springs, discovered by homesteaders at the turn of the 20thcentury, feeds the Crooked River. Access to the springs is blocked off by a locked gate. The only other way to access it would be to hike down the canyon or kayak in on the river.
No one knows its age. Engineers have tested the water and determined that it lacks tritium, fallout from a nuclear explosion. That means it predates the first nuclear tests and bombs.
The water district pumps water from the springs and three artesian wells nearby through steel pipes to storage tanks, serving about 12,000 people.
It also supplies two water bottlers. Earth2O sells throughout the Pacific Northwest and a small family-owned bottler, Opal Springs Water Co., serves central Oregon. Both of them treat their water with UV light and ozone gas to increase shelf life by neutralizing bacteria that might multiply and turn green over time.
Opal Springs Water Co. also supplies untreated water for Sanborn’s operation, shipping it in bottles from its plant in Culver via semi-trucks to California.
OTHER SYSTEMS IN OREGON
Opal Springs isn’t an anomaly. There are nearly 1,300 water systems in Oregon that pipe untreated ground water to homes and businesses, said Kari Salis, technical manager of Oregon’s drinking water program.
Like Opal Springs, they have exemptions or variances from the state that allow them to bypass traditional treatment requirements because the water is pristine.
Most provide water to small communities, like mobile home parks or subdivisions.
Avion Water Co. is one of the largest, serving about 33,000 people in the Bend area. It draws from the same aquifer that feeds Opal Springs.
“We drill down to the ground water table,” said Avion President Jason Wick. “It’s the same drainage basin.”
Avion, like the Deschutes district, doesn’t chlorinate or otherwise treat the water.
The untreated Opal Springs water sold by Sanborn’s company is popular at the few natural food stores where it’s available.
At Rainbow Grocery, a worker-owned cooperative in San Francisco, the Fountain of Truth water has sold for $36.49, including $22 for Sanborn’s signature 2.5-gallon glass dispensers.
“People want it,” said Paul Knowles, who’s on the coop board. “It just sells on its own.”
At three Erewhon Markets in the L.A. area, it sells for $43.49, including the deposit.
Sanborn said he hopes to offer it in Portland and Seattle by the end of the year.
That there’s even a demand for Opal Springs water in California amuses Christine Carpenter, an organic farmer in the Madras area.
“On our farm, we water our crops with Opal Springs water,” Carpenter said.