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Cities Tout Municipal Tap Water as Better Than Bottled

Municipal drinking water is safer, more cost effective and better for the environment -- three facts cities want their residents to know.

DC Water
Six years ago, the Fiji Water company made headlines for a cheeky advertising campaign that quipped, “The label says Fiji because it’s not bottled in Cleveland.” Naturally, the ads suggested, bottled spring water imported from the South Pacific must be better than tap water from northeast Ohio. Right?

Well, no. In response to the ads, Cleveland tested its city water against the Fiji brand. What it found was that the bottled water contained 6.3 micrograms of arsenic per liter; the city’s tap water was arsenic free. Fiji apologized for its faux pas -- or is that eau pas? -- but the story is still gleefully repeated by water utility directors, who will tell you that tap water is almost always better than bottled.

“[Tap water] is right for the environment, it is cost effective and it is tested more extensively than the water in a plastic bottle,” says George Hawkins, general manager of DC Water, the water and sewer authority for Washington, D.C.

Municipal drinking water is strictly regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Safe Drinking Water Act, and utilities test their drinking water at least once a week. Bottled water regulation is decidedly less stringent. DC Water, for example, conducts more than 30,000 tests a year, but the Food and Drug Administration has only 2.6 full-time positions to inspect and regulate the thousands of bottled water facilities throughout the U.S. Meanwhile, the waste produced from water bottles is an environmental nightmare. Only 25 percent of them are actually recycled, which means about 1 million tons of the plastic waste ends up in landfills, waterways or as roadside litter every year.

Efforts to sell residents on the virtues of tap water aren’t new. In 2007, San Francisco became one of the first municipalities to ban the purchase of bottled water with city funds and install refilling stations throughout the city. New York City has long promoted its tap water, recently touting its trendiness in a splashy marketing effort during fashion week. Some places have gone further: In 2009, the city of Venice, Italy, rebranded its drinking water as Acqua Veritas (“true water”) and launched a slick campaign mimicking bottled water ads.

Nevertheless, touting tap water is an effort that’s really only just getting under way. Hawkins says many of his colleagues in other cities probably haven’t given it much thought. But they should, he says. “We in the industry should fight hard for this product. People need to understand what we do and what their water bill pays for.”

Hawkins has become something of a tap water evangelist. Since taking over at DC Water in 2010, he’s rolled out a series of programs emphasizing the tap. He started by rebranding the agency, ditching the former wonky and bureaucratic name, D.C. Water and Sewer Authority. Last June, he joined the national TapIt campaign, in which cities work with businesses to get them to provide tap water to residents carrying reusable bottles. There are more than 150 TapIt locations in D.C., and the program is expanding into Maryland and Virginia. Hawkins has convinced a handful of local restaurants -- 19 so far -- to serve tap water in glasses bearing the authority’s logo. And DC Water has worked with all the major universities in the city to place signage at every drinking fountain reminding students they’re drinking city water. The agency has even slapped all of its trucks with advertisements reminding residents to “drink tap.”

Finding funds for these efforts has been a challenge. But it’s money well spent, Hawkins says. “We have aging infrastructure that we need to fix. If our customers don’t recognize what we do and what we provide to them, then we will never get support to pay for upgrades when the time comes.”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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