Water Works I

The Kitchen

    This program has long made a mission of exploring the plain, ordinary ingredients of everyday life: dried pasta, steak, potatoes, salt, biscuits, peas ... that sort of thing. And yet, we've never taken more than a sideways glance at the most basic and universal ingredient of them all. An ingredient that plays a role in every edible on earth.
    Say hello to dihydrogen monoxide, H2O; the simple, yet unfathomably significant, lop-sided arrangement of one oxygen and two hydrogens that we call "water". Life cannot exist without it, and yet, it can spread death and destruction and disease like nobody's business. It covers a great majority of our planet, and yet as our population grows, many folks worry we may soon run out. It is as ordinary as an utterly unique chemical compound can be. And although every cooking operation there is depends upon its successful management, cookbooks rarely discuss it.
    Well, on this program, we'll deal with water's various journeys to our home. What happens once it's here? Well, that'll have to wait for another show. Why? Because water is a mighty deep subject, not to mention ...

["Good Eats" theme plays]

The Kitchen

    If you were awake on March 30th, 1972, at 1:17 pm in Mrs. Baker's science class, then you probably know everything you need to know about the water cycle.

Water Cycle

    If, however, like myself, you were rendered unconscious by the old girl's drone box, then listen up. It all begins with evapotranspiration. Can you say that? Good. That is the evaporation of water from oceans, lakes, and seas, as well as "transpiration", which is from plants and animals—like you and me—into vapor, okay?



    Now "condensation" is the accumulation of said moisture into clouds [views television screen with clouds] Aww, they're pretty.


    When conditions are right, condensation turns into precipitation, some of which is absorbed into plants via interception. The rest either stacks up as snow, some of which becomes glaciers and polar ice caps, or it begins its long, gravity-fueled journey back to the oceans, seas, or lakes.



    Some of this water travels deep underground, and it's called, oddly enough, "ground water". The rest moves on the surface, via streams, creeks, and rivers. We call that—yeah, you got it—surface water.

Ground Water

Surface Water


The Outdoors

GUEST: Nymph
            Two Business Men

    Decades of beer advertising have conditioned us to believe that, when it comes to purity, you just can't beat a cold, fast-moving mountain stream. But the truth is, finding safe, drinkable surface water has always been something of a chore. Why? Well, because water supports every kind of microbial life there is: protozoa, parasites, viruses, bacteria. How do they get there? Well, you see, animals come to drink the water, and when they make withdrawals, they sometimes make deposits.
    [Reaches down into the stream] Hey, look. Somebody threw a quarter in here. You know, folks will throw a coin into a stream or a brook like this for "luck", but ancient peoples had another reason. They believed that they were buying favors or sometimes protection from a wide array of nymphs, sprites, and water fairies who supposedly populated [a hand reaches out from the bushes, AB gives it the coin] ...
    Of course since surface water moves, it's a really great place to put things that you want to get rid of. For instance, you could ... Look! Look over there! It's a rare pair of corporatus corruptis [two men wearing business suits are dumping waste from two blue barrels into the water] Oh my gosh, and we've caught them in the middle of their ancient dumping ritual.

AB: Hey guys! How are you doing?
SUITS: [they run away leaving the barrels]
AB: Aww, don't run away. Come on, I just want to ...

    Oh well. You know, large-scale industrial dumping is really pretty much a thing of the past. But surface waters like this are still vulnerable, especially to runoff, [from] things like insecticides and fertilizers from large-scale farming. And of course, surface waters have seasons to contend with.

AB: [to the Nymph] Hey, I want my money back!

City of Atlanta Watershed Management Facility, Atlanta, GA – 12:00 pm

    Although a great majority of surface water runs into lakes, oceans, or simply evaporates, some of it is channeled into reservoirs, like this one in Atlanta. Now this water looks pretty good right now. But heck, any residential pool owner will tell you that it's easy to keep water clean when temperatures are low. [takes a sample] That's pretty nice. But you know, when the mercury rises, all of a sudden the parasites and viruses and algae and what-not come out to play, and breed. Add a little bit of mud and some decomposing vegetation, and you've got yourself a potentially damaging, gastronomical soup of doom, so to speak.
    Now, you might think that ground water, being underground, would be a heck of a lot safer, but there be monsters there, too.

There are over 55,000 community water systems in the United States.

A Well

    Anyone who has ever pulled a bucket of water out of a well has tapped into ground water contained in a geological formation called an aquifer. Now the United States mainland sits over 11 aquifers which contain a staggering one quintillion gallons of H2O. That's "1" followed by 18 zeroes. [1,000,000,000,000,000,000] How do aquifers work? Well, I'll tell you.

Aquifer Animation

    Rain water and runoff from mountains, seep down into sand and gravel, and finally pool on top of less permeable layers like clay and shale. Now the top of this pool is called the "water table", and its level changes with the weather which is why wells that tap into it run the risk of running dry. Since pollution-like fertilizers also seep into the ground, these types of wells ... well, they could be less than pure. However, deep ground water can flow between the impermeable layers in the even deeper bedrock. These "confined aquifers" move very very slowly, and water drawn from them has often been underground for centuries, or even millennia.

Water Table

Clay & Shale

Confined Aquifer

    Now if you drill down into an aquifer, you've got yourself a "well". If you tap into an aquifer that's under pressure, the water will come to the surface all on its own, sometimes with considerable force. That would be an "artesian well". Most ground water, however, seeps to the surface in the form of "springs". We'll get back to those in a bit.


Artesian Well


A Well

    Since they're protected from seepage from above, and filtered by years of moving through sand and rock, waters from confined aquifers are considered to be as clear and as clean as water can get in nature, which is not to say that they are safe to drink. In fact, regardless of whether you are talking about surface water or ground water, clean drinking water is actually pretty hard to come by. Why? Well, it all comes down to 104.45 degrees, and I don't mean temperature.
    Oh and by the way, if you've got a well, the government is not going to regulate that water for you, so get it tested for safety every year.

The Federal government started regulating water in 1914.

The Kitchen

GUEST: Water Molecule

    104.45. This may be the most significant number in all of human existence, because it is the angle at which one oxygen atom bonds with two hydrogen atoms like this [draws]. Now that is not, in fact, the mascot from a famous amusement park [referencing Mickey Mouse]. It is a water molecule. And this particular exact arrangement means that we have a molecule that is polar in nature. That means it has a negative charge on one end, and a positive charge on the other. And that means that it is essentially a molecular magnet.


    Now just as a magnet can only pick up ferrous metals, water can only hydrogen-bond with other polar molecules. There are plenty of them out in nature: calcium, magnesium, radium, lead—dozens, if not hundreds of compounds. Some of them are bad for you in any amount. But generally speaking, even the ones that are good for you can be bad if there are, you know, too many of them in there. Of course, what's really important to cooks is that hydrogen bonding means that water can act as a very powerful solvent. It can extract, say, proteins from chicken bones for making a stock, or it can extract carbohydrates from a coffee bean. And as if water wasn't already a powerful solvent all on its own, get this; when water falls from the sky as rain, it is so desperate for molecular buddies that it will snatch carbon dioxide right out of the air.

WATER DROP: [to CO2] "Will you be my friend?"
Okay, I guess."

    But hold it. This union forms a weak form of carbonic acid, making the water even better at dissolving things. And of course, the more CO2 we pump into the atmosphere, the more acidic our rain gets.

City of Atlanta Watershed Management Facility, Atlanta, GA – 1:00 pm

    See those, those little blobs? They're called floc. And forming them is usually the first step in treating surface water like this. Alum, a form of aluminum oddly enough, is the floccing agent here, and it creates kind of these little sticky blobs that attract particulate matter in the water, as well as bacteria and other floating nasties. Now as water moves through these sluices, the floc gets bigger and bigger and bigger. But it doesn't settle down and out until it reaches the sedimentation tanks. Here the floc settles down to the bottom leaving amazingly clear water.
    Now before we move on, a word about disinfectants. Although there are plenty of mechanical and physical processes that can kill viruses, bacteria and what-not, good old chlorine is still the best and cheapest way for big systems like this to produce safe water. Chlorine is a powerful oxidant that can break down cell walls of microbial trouble-makers like siege guns pounding castle walls. And best of all, chlorine has what's called "residual effectiveness", meaning that, if the dose is right, it can continue killing nasties right up to the moment your water comes out of the tap.
    Oh, this is cool. The sediment, of course, will pile up on the bottom of these tanks, and get in the way. And so these giant stirrers move very, very, slowly and kind of rake all of the sludge down into a big drain. Then it's taken away and used as compost or fertilizer. Recycling, it's a good thing.

Some water treatment plants use ultraviolet light in place of chlorine.

City of Atlanta Watershed Management Facility, Atlanta, GA

    In the filter house, the water percolates down through a fine carbon powder and a big fat layer of sand, which removes most of the remaining particulate matter. If you have a swimming pool with sand or a diatomaceous earth filter, same thing just a whole lot bigger. Now at any point during this process, the Environmental Protection Agency can swoop in and run tests in order to enforce standards on 90 chemical, microbiological, radiological, and physical contaminants. Who gives them the right? Why, the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, of course. [spies a consol, he's tempted to push some of them] Shiny, shiny bright buttons. Shiny, bright ... No.
    Once the water has been filtered and disinfected, of course, it has to be delivered. Now in smaller communities, that usually means pumping the water up into a large tank on top of a tower. And in that case, gravity does the actual delivering by pushing the water to the end users; that is, folks with faucets. In a big old metropolis like this, though, you've got to have big pumps that are either powered by electricity, or by gas turbines. Of course, sophisticated systems like this must be monitored.
    A room like this can watch over the water loads flowing to hundreds of thousands of customers. In the summer, when consumption is up, operators can see exactly which pumps need to be turned up, and exactly where that water needs to flow. The end result? Well, America enjoys the safest, cheapest, tastiest, and most reliable tap water in the world. And still, as Dr. Malcolm put it in Jurassic Park, "life will find a way." And occasionally, even the best system does develop a chink in the armor. For instance, in 1999, a relatively new bug, called Cryptosporidium crept through a water treatment plant in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, leaving 50 people dead. Which may explain, at least in part, why millions are willing to spend billions on alternative sources of drinking water.

According to the World Health Organization over 3 million
people die each year from waterborne illnesses.

Whole Foods, Atlanta, GA – 2:00 pm

    [holds up a green water bottle with no label] Remember the first time you saw one of these? Well I sure do. It was 1979, and as I quaffed the bubbly contents, shipped all the way from a very famous source in France, I was certain that I was one of the hippest people on earth. Excuse me [takes a sip from the bottle]. Despite the fact that tap water costs the average American something like a hundredth of a penny a gallon, an ever-increasing number of us are spending bucks – big bucks, on bottled water. A new trend? No. Just like Shirley Bassey sings, "it's all just a little bit of history repeating."

Sparkling Water
Chips & Snack

Cave Springs, GA – 3:30 pm

    From the beginning of recorded time, waters issuing from deep within the earth have been credited with possessing medicinal, if not magical properties. Pliny the Elder, for instance, wrote of springs which supposedly could make women conceive, could change your voice, or convert black sheep into white sheep, which, I suppose, could be useful.

Spa, circa 1800's

GUESTS: A nurse
              Miss Mary Catherine, a child in treatment at a spa
              Mother (of Miss Mary Catherine)
              Mr. Somerset
              An unidentified man

    [as a 19th century doctor] Throughout the 18th and 19th century—actually, right up into the 20th century—it was not at all unusual ...

AB: Good morning, Nurse.
NURSE: Good morning, doctor

... for a respected physician such as myself, to prescribe my client to go off, sometimes hundreds of miles, to visit various spas and springs, in order to take the waters, as a form of treatment for many a malaise, some real, some quite imagined.

AB: Good morning, Miss Mary Catherine. How are we today?
MOTHER: She's much improved, Dr. Brown.
AB: Yes. No more fainting spells, then?
MMC: I really do feel ever so much better.
AB: Yes, well, tongue ...
MCC: [sticks out her tongue]
Mother: Is she cured?
AB: Well, her color is improved. But I'm afraid, no. She is only mostly cured. I want you to remain here for two more days. I wish you to have seven liters of water before ten in the morning. I wish you to have a dip in the tepid pool from 11:00 to 12:00, a nap in bed from 1:00 to 4:00, another two liters of water before dinner, and then a dip in the chilling pool. Then, you may go home.
MMC: Thank you, Dr. Brown. I feel certain that you saved my life.
AB: Oh, not at all, child, not at all. Well, maybe.

    The groovy thing is that these cures sometimes actually worked. You see, as it turns out, water with a lot of iron in it, is very good for treating what the doctors used to call "female troubles". Sulfur waters, good for skin diseases. Carbonic waters, or carbonated waters, very good for tummy trouble. And certain alkaline mineral waters are actually good at treating gout. Speaking of ...

AB: Mr. Somerset, how are we today?
SOMERSET: [soaking his foot in a mineral water stream] Oh, Doctor, the pain is simply intolerable.
AB: Oh, that's dreadful. Well, it does appear that your condition has worsened. Let's see, um, I want you to go to Aix-La-Chapelle (???) in Prussia. There are three pools there. I wish you to soak in pool #1 in the morning, pool #3 in the afternoon, pool #2 before dinner, and then do the entire thing in reverse before bedtime.
SOMERSET: Aix, de, de, de ...
AB: ... La Chapelle ...
Somerset: ... Le Chap ... uh, Prussia.
AB: Prussia.
Somerset: How long will it take me to get there?
AB: I'm a doctor, man, not a travel agent. [hands him a bottle of water] Drink this along the way, and call my office in the morning.

    Even if the substances available in the water weren't the right ones for the ailment concerned, odds are always good that the health of the patient would improve simply because the water from the springs was so much cleaner than that available in the cities. You have to remember, the concept of sanitation didn't really exist before the 20th century and in big cities, like I don't know, Paris, it wasn't unusual for wells to be dug right next to open cesspools. So in big cities up until the 20th century, everybody stayed sick all the time to some degree or another. And that is why in places like London, beer made from boiled water and preserved to some degree with hops, became the beverage of choice even in schools and hospitals. Although the rich could afford to come hang out at springs and spas for weeks, it didn't take long for the owners of said springs to get the idea of bottling the waters for distribution.
    By the 1880's, you could walk into a good store in just about any city in the world and buy water from all of the best spas and springs in the world: New York, France, Italy, you name it. But they were not cheap. In fact, it wasn't unusual for the prices of spa waters to be commensurate with fine perfumes. And what's funny is that the burgeoning middle class, who couldn't afford to travel, and couldn't take off the time for travel, were willing to cough up relatively big bucks for these waters because of their potential health virtues, and thus, the bottled water industry boomed, especially for ...

MAN: [approaches and hands AB an envelope with money]
AB: Thank you.

... the spring owners themselves, and of course, the wily physicians who endorsed their wares ...

AB: Thank you, Sir.

[looks inside the envelop with the money] Ha ha ha ha ha. But this is nothing compared to the money that the bottles bring in today.

19th century doctors prescribed spring waters to cure
hundreds of diseases they didn't even know existed.


GUESTS: Three E.P.A. agents

    Okay, we don't have a whole lot of time left here, but there are some things that everybody needs to know about bottled water. Okay, you have to understand that unlike tap water which is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency ...

AGENT #1: Bottled water falls under the watchful eye of the Food and Drug Administration, which is required to uphold the standards set for tap water by the Environmental Protection Agency. Although state governments may adopt higher standards, although there have been no incidents of food-borne illness attributed to bottled water, there is no reason to assume that it is safer than what is supplied by your municipality.

    Okay, labels. If it says "spring water", it must have been harvested from an underground aquifer, from which water naturally flows to the surface at a specific location.

Natural Spring Water
From Maine Since 1845

[taken from a Poland Spring
water bottle]

    "Well water" means that the water has been pumped out of a hole in the ground, drilled by man, right?

    Now if it says "artesian" or "artesianal water", then that hole in the ground hit an aquifer that was under pressure, so the water comes up to the surface under its own, sometimes like a big gusher.

Artesian Water Bottled at the Source

[picture from an Eden Springs bottle]

    Now if it says "naturally sparkling", that means that the water had dissolved CO2 in it, enough to be nice and bubbly when it comes to the surface, but it can't be added.

Naturally Sparkling
Mineral Water
High Mineral Content
Net 101.4 Fl. oz. (3 liter)
6 Bottles of 16.9 Fl. Oz. (0.5L)

    If the water has more than 250 parts per million of total dissolved solids—that means "minerals"—then you can label the water "mineral water". Most of your expensive European imports are mineral waters and they have a very distinct flavor that some Americans like and some Americans don't.

Italian Still
Minteral Water
33.8 FL OZ (1 QT 1.8 FL OZ) - 1 LITER

    Now here's the potentially surprising part. About 30% of the bottles behind me, including the top national brands: harvested from municipal sources, tap water.

The Kitchen

    Hey, America, before you pop the cap on your next dose of artesian, well, glacial, run off, spring, bubbly water, whatever, think about the bottle. This bottle and about 50 kajillion others just like it, is made from polytetrafluoroethylene [sic, Polyethylene terephthalate], or PET, which was developed by two British chemists, and patented in 1973 [sic, the patent for PET was in 1941, it's the bottle that has a 1973 patent].
    PET is strong. PET is light. PET is stable, chemically speaking. And PET is clear. Which is good for Americans, because we like to see what we're buying, especially when we're, you know, paying three bucks for a bottle of water. Best of all, though, PET is completely recyclable, okay? Run this little buddy through the chipper, and you've got yourself the makings of some very nice wall-to-wall carpeting.
    But, my fellow Americans, there is a catch. Despite what many of you have apparently been led to believe, PET bottles are incapable of rolling themselves to the recycling center, okay? Right now, forests, beaches, landfills, roadways, automobile backseats, and neighborhoods just like yours and mine, are starting to look a lot like this. [dozens of empty PET bottles fall from above] Ahh, ahhh, ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.
    See you next time, on Good Eats.

*AB should have said Polyethylene terephthalate. The abbreviation for polytetrafluoroethylene is PTFE and is trademarked as Teflon.

**The patent for PET was in 1941 by John Rex Whinfield and James Tennant Dickson, employees of the Calico Printer's Association of Manchester. It was the bottle that was patented in 1973 by Nathaniel Wyeth.

Transcribed by Michael Roberts
Proofread by Michael Menninger

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Last Edited on 08/27/2010