Baltimore campaign to put city in a bottle

Promotion: The award-winning municipal water will be packaged for festivals.

January 23, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Should their palates tire of fizzy French waters or the stuff that springs from Maine's ancient aquifers, discriminating bottled-water drinkers have another source: Baltimore taps.

The city plans to bottle municipal water, which recently won a regional award for taste against several other tap varieties.

"It tastes great and it's good for you," Mayor Martin O'Malley said this week as he announced plans to have a bottling company package the water under the name Clearly Baltimore.

The effort is mostly about boosterism - "Believe" in a bottle, so to speak - and is not a serious attempt to enter the bottled-water business.

The water would be available, for sale or as a giveaway, at festivals such as Artscape. And city agencies, which sometimes offer bottled water and soft drinks at meetings with business leaders and others, will serve it.

But the mayor did not rule out going retail. "We would consider it," he said.

The city's water won a contest held by the American Water Works Association in Havre de Grace in the spring. Baltimore water was judged best-tasting in the surface water supplies category, edging out competitors from elsewhere in Maryland, Delaware and the Washington area.

The folks at Perrier are not worried. They wonder whether Charm City carries the same cachet as Vergeze, France, where naturally bubbly mineral water has filled bottles since 1863.

"Do people think of Baltimore as a great place for water?" asked Jane Lazgin, spokeswoman for Nestle Waters North America Inc. of Greenwich, Conn., which bottles Poland Spring and Deer Park waters, in addition to Perrier.

"I think a lot of people choose bottled water because they're choosing a source that's well known for its high-quality water," she said. "Unless people make that connection, I'm not sure it will really resonate."

The label on Baltimore's prototype bottle evokes a pristine natural setting, with water gushing over an unidentified dam. It turns out to be the Jones Falls, which once was a source of city drinking water but is too polluted these days for anything but a Clean Water Act mandate.

The label also bears in black and white the word "believe," the trademark of O'Malley's campaign to fight drugs and boost the city's morale.

City officials say they hope to break even. This month, they asked private companies to bid on the bottling contract. Bid proposals are due Feb. 11.

A poor, gritty city overflowing with urban ills, Baltimore is not the most obvious entry into the world of bottled water, a luxury that inspires reviews about "mouth feel" and the importance of serving the right water in the right glass.

"A wide variety of wine glasses are also often used as water glasses. This is not appropriate," one reviewer writes on the Web site

Because bottled water, a $7.7-billion-a-year industry in the United States, is as much about image as taste, commercial bottlers infuse their products with storied history.

Perrier's Web site describes a spring known since Roman times, developed as a water source in the days of Napoleon III. Poland Spring dates back 10,000 years to a glacier retreating from the Maine woods, where spring rains and winter snows are purified as they percolate "drop by drop through layers of fine sand and gravel," the company Web site says.

The story of Baltimore's municipal water system is shorter. It was created in 1808 and treats water from the Loch Raven, Prettyboy and Liberty reservoirs through a series of complicated steps: pre-chlorination, coagulation, flocculation, sedimentation, filtration, fluoridation, post-chlorination and corrosion-control treatment.

Municipal water might lack for romance, but it can be cleaner than some bottled waters, according to a March 1999 study by the National Resources Defense Council, which found "major gaps in bottled water regulation." Industry leaders dispute the findings.

Baltimore is not the first city to bottle its water. Austin, Texas, started bottling in 1999 to prepare for Y2K problems, then continued to do so as a promotional effort, said Laurie Lentz, spokeswoman for that city's water department.

Austin turned off the spigot in June to save taxpayers about $13,000 a year, she said. The city was paying a bottler $9 to produce every 24-bottle case, while commercial bottled water was retailing for $6 a case, she said.

Facing a budget crunch, Austin could not afford to keep bottling, even though the water was popular with people looking for a handy, if less-than-exotic, thirst quencher, she said.

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