Mercedes Thorpe and Ryan Martin are exactly the type of customers the Philadelphia Water Department hoped to reach on Wednesday at City Hall: Those who refuse to drink the water it supplies.
Thorpe and Martin, both of the Northeast, were cutting through the courtyard when they stopped to sample tap water being handed out to passersby.
“One hundred percent surprised," Thorpe said of the taste after taking a sip.
“Absolutely surprised,” said Martin.
Welcome to the Water Bar. The Water Department set up coolers of water taken from inside City Hall taps and handed out samples in an effort to get more residents to drink city water. The Water Bar will be open each Thursday from noon to 1 p.m. starting May 2.
Why the effort? Nearly 40 percent of city residents drink bottled water at home, many in the belief that tap water is unsafe or doesn’t taste good.
“Philadelphia actually delivers drinking water that’s treated to standards stricter than those required by the Safe Drinking Water Act, and we’ve been doing that for nearly 25 years,” said Sarah Stevenson, acting Water Department commissioner.
Stevenson said residents hear confusing news reports about the quality of tap water, often from out of state. They get misleading marketing. And some come from other countries, where drinking water may not be safe.
What they don’t hear about: tap water is about half a penny per gallon. And using tap water also cuts down on single-use plastic.
However, Thorpe said she doesn’t drink the water from her apartment’s taps because of the chlorinated smell. She relies on bottled water. A former lifeguard, she said she is tuned to sniff out the chemical odor, but was willing to give tap water a try again after drinking the sample.
Hailey Stern, an outreach specialist and planner at the Water Department, said results of the first survey of city water customers conducted in 2016 were surprising.
“The results have been pretty consistent over three years,” Stern said in a recent interview. “We were really surprised by how many Philadelphians say they drink bottled water most often at home. In 2018, that was 39 percent. We’ve tried to understand why that is the case.”
The majority of Philadelphians say they drink tap water at home. Around 70 percent rate the quality as excellent or good. Stern said the people who are most likely to drink bottled water tend to be minorities, women, or those who live in lower income areas.
“We know we’re providing a good product,” Stern said. “But we see that gap.”
Stern said people responding to the survey say they drink bottled water for various reasons, such as it’s something their parents told them to do, or they find bottled water more convenient. She said they also might hear rumors about poor water quality that aren’t supported by data locally. For example, the lead issue in Flint, Mich., several years ago might have had an impact.
However, more than half of those respondents said they would drink tap water if they were made aware it was safe.
The Water Department is required to test a sampling of homes with lead service lines or lead solder in pipes every three years. To date, the department says, lead levels have met EPA standards, according to its most recent annual report.
The city gets its drinking water, about 230 million gallons a day, from two intake pipes on the Schuylkill and one on the Delaware River.
Officials say the Water Department has 2,000 employees dedicated to ensuring the water is safe and tested for 100 compounds.
The water is treated in multiple steps: It is allowed to settle, is disinfected with sodium hypochlorite (a chlorine compound), has its pH adjusted, is allowed to settle again, has fluoride added, is filtered, and is disinfected a second time.
Stern said a water ambassador program was launched as a pilot program in January. The ambassadors are being hired to promote the high quality and low cost of Philly tap water to their communities, said Tiffany Ledesma, public engagement team manager for the Water Department.
“It’s very different to hear a message of ‘Don’t worry, you can trust the water’ from somebody who works for the Water Department than from someone who lives around the block from you,'" Ledesma said last month.
Eventually, 25 ambassadors will be sent into 25 neighborhoods in North and West Philadelphia.
“We hope that they engage a good number of people in their communities, go to events, church groups, and talk about tap water," Stern said.
They will try to convince people like Alexander Royster of Germantown, who sampled water Wednesday. He, too, has been cautious about drinking city water, largely, he said, because the water coming out of his apartment tap is sometimes brown.
“I’m a spring-water person,” Royster said, conceding he might change his mind after sipping the sample of water. The pipes in his apartment were recently replaced, he said, and the once-brown water is now clear.
Officials acknowledge that how water tastes and looks can change depending on where it travels, including through older pipes far from a main.
Gary Burlingame, director of the Water Department’s laboratory charged with making water clean, said he just had the water lateral to his Northeast home replaced. All Water Department employees must live in the city, he said, so they have a vested interest in keeping the water quality high.
“When I tell a neighbor in the city I work for the Water Department, I want to be able to hold my head high,” Burlingame said.