Why don't cities drink their own water?

RALEIGH Over in Raleigh, the mayor insists the water is perfectly fine.

"Our water is excellent. If you saw the Health Dept. standards and so on - that's what I use. And I don't spend money on bottled water," Mayor Charles Meeker offered.

But Raleigh and other cities spend thousands of dollars a year on bottled water. It's often parked right next to drinking water fountains which offer the tap water that cities treat and say is safe.

"If though there's bottled water being given away where there's a drinking fountain nearby, that doesn't make sense. We ought to take a look at that," said Meeker.

The mayor could look at Raleigh's convention center which stocks Diamond Springs water for some paid meetings. There's bottled water in a park weight room just down the hall from the free fountain.

Raleigh's parks and recreation department alone spends thousands of dollars a year on bottled water.

"I think leading by example is really key here," said Neuse River Keeper Allisa Bierma - a clean water advocate. "A Culligan bottle five seconds away from a drinking fountain does not make sense."

Last year, the cities of Durham and Cary spent about $5,000 on bottled water. Mostly, they say, in areas where workers cannot easily access a tap. Raleigh is on pace to spend about $30,000 this year.

City leaders often say much of the bottled water they buy is re-sold to the public. They are not losing money. Others say these cities are encouraging an urban myth: that their own tap water is not good enough to drink. And they're feeding a needless over-consumption of more plastic."

"If you don't lead by example and you don't work in the small ways that you can, how are we ever going to accomplish the larger issues that we are facing," said Bierma.

The town of Chapel Hill has told employees not to spend public money on bottled water, because of the plastic. The City of Durham used to bottle its own water, but stopped because city leaders say they wanted to reduce their carbon footprint. Raleigh's mayor does not mind the city selling bottled water.

"In vending machines, I think the customer ought to have the option of whether to buy a soft drink or water. And then you recycle the container, whether it's a soft drink or water," said Meeker.

"That cheapens Raleigh's argument that their water is good and safe," said Bierma.

Raleigh water is bottled today, by Pepsi, under the name Aqua-Fina. It's re-filtered and sold, at a much higher price, in Raleigh's own convention center.

"A lot of our water does get bottled and sold. It's just that we aren't doing it," said Meeker.

Even Raleigh's public utilities department, which treats and delivers city water, is also buying bottled water. Outside the city, there's a remote office not connected to city pipes. Inside, there's a Diamond Springs cooler below a sign which says the city's goal is to provide cheap and safe tap water. A water fountain 8-foot away is hooked up to a well which offers up water with a metallic after-taste.

And over in Durham, the city says the clerks who take water payments drink bottled water because the nearest drinking fountain at City Hall is too far to walk.

Meeker says he'll look into whether Raleigh is wasting money when taps and fountains are putting out perfectly good - and free - water.

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