Anne Arundel County's water has won awards in tasting competitions for years, and now it's being viewed for its potential to boost county revenues.
County Councilman John Grasso, a Glen Burnie Republican, has proposed bottling and selling the water. "Parks, schools, all the county contracts [with vendors] that have anything to do with county government will be required to have county water in there," he says. "I am going to promote Anne Arundel County. Why shouldn't we make money, bring in some revenues?"
The idea has drawn interest from other county officials. However, turning a profit is far more complicated than just opening a spigot.
Across the nation, some utilities and localities use private-label water for promotions. Others have rejected selling their own branded water for a number of reasons. It's not always cost-effective. It competes with private business. And persuading vending-machine owners to stock the water can be difficult.
Baltimore, whose water routinely wins taste contests, had a brief fling with Clearly Baltimore bottled water in the mid-2000s. But it came up against issues tied to bottling, and the effort ended, said Kurt Kocher, spokesman for the city's Department of Public Works.
Austin, Texas, got into — and then out of — the bottled water business. In 1999, it began bottling water in case of Y2K problems, and kept it up for promotional purposes. In 2003, the program ended because the enterprise was losing $13,000 a year. Austin was paying a bottler $3 more per case than the retail price of commercial bottled water.
Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold is open to exploring the idea. "The county executive is open to any ideas that help create revenue for the county. The devil is in the details," said spokesman Dave Abrams.
County Council member Peter Smith, a Severn Democrat, said of Grasso's proposal, "I am excited that he is thinking outside the box."
Grasso discussed the plan with a bottler recently but said they have yet to crunch the numbers to determine the profit potential. There also may be a promotional value, and Grasso has suggested giving away Anne Arundel-brand water at county events. In addition, he said, retailers who carry the water would be showing their support of the community, and residents who buy it would be helping their county's bottom line.
Anne Arundel gets "raw" water from wells that range from 120 to 1,150 feet deep, said Christine Romans, an assistant director of Public Works. From there, it goes through a series of processes that include filtration, chlorination with liquid chlorine, removal of iron and aeration.
"I was happy to hear Councilman Grasso mention [bottling]," said Jim DiPietro, a deputy director of the Department of Public Works, recalling that the idea was suggested about 12 years ago.
County lawyers frowned on it, he said. As a result, the department did not forecast the profitability of the proposed venture, he said. But the department, which funds its water and wastewater systems with customer payments, may consider a fresh look at the idea, he said.
Joseph Doss, president and chief executive officer of the International Bottled Water Association, said the organization has not been involved in the issue of localities selling their own bottled water.
But he noted that tap water at home is not the same as bottled water, which must meet other federal regulations. Because of purification processes that are required, and any mineral additions, bottled water typically tastes different from the tap water it began with, he said.
Louisville, Ky., branded its tap water 16 years ago as "Louisville pure tap" — but the city-owned water company doesn't sell its bottled water, instead using a small amount for school, educational and related uses. The campaign, which includes providing water for events, costs $140,000 annually, but the city says it gets promotional value from it.
"We don't support bottled water. We believe tap water is the way to go," spokeswoman Kelley Dearing Smith said. "It would taste different; it wouldn't be the recipe that our customers get every day."
Big and small outfits buy municipal water, which they treat, bottle and sell under their own or private labels.
Beaver, Utah, population 3,000, which took top honors in the 2006 National Rural Water Association's Great American Water Taste Test, used the victory to lure a bottling company to the city.
The first one, a small operation, quickly sold out to a larger company, which is overhauling the plant to produce 1 million bottles a month filled with water it will buy from the city, said Beaver city manager Brent Blackner. That operation could bring the city as much as $100,000 a year, including taxes and utilities, he estimated.
The plant's product will promote the contents as the city's award-winning water. However, Blackner said that despite talk of a golden egg, "there has been no hatching yet."
Hamilton, Ohio, invested close to $25,000 in equipment and facilities and has been in the bottling business since 2010. The city eked out a small profit, but it recently dropped the price from 35 cents to about 20 cents a bottle in a move to promote the water, which averages 26 cents a bottle to produce.
"It wasn't going to solve our budget problems," said Mayor Pat Moeller.
Its value is in bragging rights — judged best tap water in the nation in 2009, and in the world in 2010 in the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting — and in promoting the city and economic development, he said.
Moeller thinks in the long run, it will make money for the city, which lies some 26 miles from Cincinnati.
Hamilton has reached out to local retailers as Grasso said he would do in Anne Arundel, and a few now carry it. The local hospital, the city's largest private employer, uses it in administrative offices. Donating it to victims of natural disasters generates good will. And nonprofits, such as local sports groups, typically sell it for $1 a bottle at concessions to raise money.
"It is truly one of the conversation pieces about our entire city," said Moeller, who added that the town is ready for another taste challenge:
"I would challenge Anne Arundel County to a taste test with our water," he said. "I'll bet a case that we would win."