Melvin Money knelt to get his fill of mineral water gushing out of a mountain spring in southeastern Kentucky.
"It's the purest water you can find," he said, holding a plastic jug beneath a spout that flows constantly on the shaded campus of Clear Creek Baptist Bible College. "It's supposed to be really healthy water. My mother drank it. She lived to be 95."
In a routine that harkens back to days of old, Money, spry at 73, makes frequent treks to the spring. He prefers the pure mineral water with the distinctive, earthy flavor to the purified municipal brand that is piped into his home.
People in Appalachia are rediscovering the natural springs that were the primary water supply for early settlers in the mountain region. Some springs, such as the one on the Clear Creek campus, have become so popular that people drive from Virginia and Tennessee to fill up.
This has caught the attention of government regulators, who warn that some springs could be polluted with contaminants that might make people ill.
"When it comes to spring water quality, it's a tricky subject," said Rob Blair, a geologist who monitors groundwater for the Kentucky Division of Water. "You see a lot of variation in quality. You can pull a sample one day, and it be clean. Go back tomorrow, and it could be the most contaminated water you've ever seen."
That, Blair said, depends on the source of the water going into the underground reservoirs that feed springs. If it is surface water percolating underground from a farm, he said pesticides, herbicides and harmful bacteria from animal waste could be fed into the spring water.
"There are springs out there that are relatively safe, but if people asked me point-blank if they should drink from a spring, I would say no," Blair said. "If you're drinking raw water right out of the ground, you are running a risk of getting sick. It runs the gamut from stomach cramps to worse. If it's real bad, it could be fatal."
About 130,000 people in Kentucky who rely entirely on spring water for drinking, bathing and other needs might argue otherwise. They raise concerns about the safety of water drawn from polluted lakes and streams by municipalities, treated with chlorine, and pumped into homes.
Concern about the safety of tap water from public sources has helped to fuel the interest in alternative sources, whether bottled water from retail stores or from a natural spring down the road, said Bill Miller, president of the National Spring Water Association in Johnson City, Tenn.
What people may not understand, Miller said, is that bottled spring water comes from commercial springs that have passed stringent government testing, not from small springs that regulators might not even know about.
"I wouldn't drink from just any spring I came upon," Miller said. "I cringe when I see somebody filling a jug from a pipe coming out of the ground.
Miller said the spring water trend may also be an outgrowth of the search for more healthful water. Instead of deciding among various brands of bottled water on store shelves, they are choosing to bottle their own, straight from the springs.
"They hear the controversy about whether what they're buying in stores is actually spring water," Miller said. "When they go get it themselves, they know what they're drinking is real spring water."
Miller said a natural spring would create a small pool of water that would support frogs, fish and other aquatic life. He said that although such a pool could be easily contaminated, it could just as easily be protected against contamination by building a protective enclosure around it, as has been done at the Clear Creek spring, which is encased in concrete.
The Clear Creek spring has always been a focal point on campus -- a gathering place for students, especially on hot days, said Jay Sulfridge, director of alumni relations at the Bible college. Now, they gladly share the space with people from off-campus who come regularly, plastic jugs in hand, to get real spring water.
Right or wrong, most believe the water is healthful for them.
"We may ultimately find that the best way to get your water, the healthiest way, would be straight from the spring," Miller said.
Until then, he said, people might be better advised to attribute longevity to good genes.
"There is, however, a mystique to spring water that gives it an intrinsic value," Miller said.