Pouring fresh water on drinking glass over nature sunlight morning background

If you're hiking in the wilds or just strolling through your backyard, it’s easy to see the water gushing or seeping up from the ground and distinguish it from the water coming from the pipes in a well’s pump house. But life would be difficult if you had to travel to the local spring for the water to cook your pasta. Instead, you get to stand in front of the shelves filled with bottled water at your local grocery, reading labels, and looking at illustrations of waterfalls and forest ponds. Water can be a confusing topic.

Study Federal Spring Water Guidelines

The federal government sets the criteria that establishes the definition of spring water. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, spring water must be safe and drinkable as-is, without any additives, although it can receive some treatments for safety. Spring water must come from water that flows naturally to the surface; it must be collected either at the surface or through a borehole; and it must have the same quality when collected through a borehole as when collected at the surface.

Drink in Other Federal Definitions

Spring water naturally flows to the surface, but well water is piped to the surface from an aquifer, water trapped in layers of rock and dirt. “Artesian” well water differs from regular well water because it has more pressure in the aquifer, which helps push the water up when a water company taps the aquifer. Well water or spring water might also be classified as mineral water, which must, by law, naturally contain at least 250 parts per million of dissolved minerals. Those minerals may provide you with some health benefits. Tap water, which is really a type of well water, refers to water from a city system that is also classified as “purified water.”

Learn the Industry Definitions

While most companies conform to federal standards for the definitions of water, disagreements exist, sometimes spilling over into lawsuits. A lawsuit filed in 2017 argues that the “springs” promoted on a bottler’s label don’t, in fact, exist. When you see the term “purified water” on a label, it means that the water received safety treatments to remove harmful bacteria. Purified water may or may not have minerals added for taste. In effect, purified water is well water, because otherwise the label would read “spring water.”

Stay Safe

Spring water may sound like a term for pristine, safe water, but beware, because that is not always the case. Spring water in the wilds may contain the deadly Cryptosporidium parasite, which can cause serious gastrointestinal illness, especially if you have a compromised immune system. Commercial purified water and spring water are safe only if one of three phrases appears on the label: “reverse osmosis,” “distilled” or “distillation,” “filtered” or “filtration with an absolute 1 micron filter.” Outdoors, use a purification system on all water you gather in streams, lakes or springs.