Municipal water utilities are tapping into the bottled water market to fight competition from profit-making companies.
The utilities' message to consumers: Our product is as good as what is found on store shelves -- and less expensive. The utilities hope to make a few bucks and help ratepayers in the process.
"People should not have to spend an exorbitant amount for quality water," said Ken Blomberg, executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Water Association, which promotes the sale of bottled municipal water as a less expensive alternative to the commercial product.
Consumers often buy bottled water thinking it is safer or better than tap water, Blomberg said, when as much as 70 percent of bottled water sold commercially comes from a municipal tap.
"However, water is a very local thing," said Greg Kail, senior public affairs manager for the American Water Works Association, which includes water treatment plant operators, scientists, environmentalists, regulators and others.
Kail said there are thousands of water utilities around the country, using many different sources for their product and with different types of treatments. There is no organized national effort to promote utilities' bottled tap water over commercial water, he said.
Nonetheless, some other major cities have started selling bottled tap water, including Kansas City, Mo., which provides retailers with cases of 24 20-ounce bottles, each for $9.50 (retailers set their own prices) and San Francisco, which offers its water in 16.9-ounce bottles for $1.25 each.
Louisville has given away empty reusable sports bottles for eight years with the message: "If you want really great bottled water in our community, all you need is the bottle." The city has filled smaller bottles with its municipal tap water and distributed them free for seven years to community groups and at events.
Blomberg's group, which represents rural water utilities, began pushing the sale of bottled municipal water about two years ago after hearing of a successful effort in the Milwaukee suburb of Oak Creek. The group's push is at the front end of the trend nationally, said Mike Keegan, an analyst for the National Rural Water Association.
"I think a lot of others will follow," he said.
Beverage Marketing Corp., a consultant to the industry, said bottled water consumption in the nation increased from 101/2 gallons per capita in 1993 to 24 gallons in 2004.
Judith Thorman, vice president for state and local affairs for the American Beverage Association, a trade group that represents commercial water companies and producers of other nonalcoholic beverages, said she did not have figures on the percentage of bottled water that comes from municipal taps.
"Obviously, the public thinks it is a good product and a good value, because they are buying it," she said of the commercially bottled water.
Although municipal and commercial bottlers must meet government standards for the water they sell, Thorman said commercial bottlers each set their own standards for the product as well.
Twig's Beverage Inc. in Shawano, which has bottled soft drinks for more than 50 years, has joined with several other Wisconsin communities, including Shawano and the state rural water association, to bottle water. Those sales have increased about 40 percent during the last two years to about 15,000 cases in 2004, company president Dan Hartwig said.
In addition to promoting consumption of municipal water, Steve Yttri, general manager of the Oak Creek Water and Sewer Utility, and Andy Onesti, general manager of Shawano Municipal Utilities, said they hoped to make money to keep water rates down.
But both said the sales have not yet produced much profit. Yttri said his water system made about $27,000 on bottled water last year.