Minneapolis spending $200K to promote tap water

Mayor R.T. Rybak can lead Drudge to water but can't make him think
photo composition by City Pages

"Minneapolis spending nearly $200,000—to promote tap water..." read the headline on the Drudge Report. A simple click took the reader to a story by Fox 9's Tom Lyden, who questioned the project, mocking the fact that, during tough economic times, our fair city had spent $75,000 on a website called "TapMPLS" with the goal of encouraging more folks to drink the water from their faucets. The story argued it was "money down the drain."

A prominent critic was Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who had previously taken on artistic drinking fountains.

"They were looking for someone to provide a comment in opposition to the spending," says Johnson. "And at a time when we as local governments are looking at places to cut back, this sort of spending seems questionable to me. So I gave them the interview, though I try not to meddle in Minneapolis affairs."

Yet these critiques ignore a simple fact: Minneapolis is in the water business. Like all companies, the city needs to spend money promoting its product.

The funds for the TapMPLS project, totaling $180,000, were approved back in 2006 and were included in the 2007 budget. The money came directly from the Water Fund, a purse filled by user fees, with an annual operating budget of $40 million. All the hubbub was over a slice of pie that represents about .04 percent of the budget.

"The water fund is one of five funds we operate with user fees," says Pat Born, Finance Director for the city. "And all five of the funds use part of their budgets to communicate and/or promote their services."

For comparison, Solid Waste and Recycling dedicates about $96,000 a year toward products like the recycling calendar and letters on community cleanups, while Storm Water and Sewers spends $235,000 a year on communicating the need to improve lake quality.

The critiques also ignore the fact that promoting tap water has the ability to make the city millions. Due to our wealth of water, Minneapolis is able to sell its H2O at wholesale prices to Bloomington, Edina, Golden Valley, Crystal, New Hope, Columbia Heights and Hilltop, and the Metropolitan Airports. Our humble tap water nets $10 million a year, a sum many would like to see increased.

"We have the ability, and need to get more wholesale customers, and we need to find ways to sell more water," says Councilmember Elizabeth Glidden (DFL-Eighth Ward). "So I think there is some crossover in the effort to educate people about the quality of our tap water."

Because Minneapolis draws its water from the Mississippi River, groundwater sources stay full. And the effort to wean people off plastic water bottles also prevents added waste from heading toward the local incinerator.

"I do think it is really about awareness," says Steve Kotke, Minneapolis's director of public works. "To inform people about our good, clean, safe water is worth it."

Taking up the promotion with vigor has been Mayor R.T. Rybak. He began the charge when a former St. Olaf graduate, Amber Collett, met with his policy director back in the spring of 2007. "I was working for the Think Outside the Bottle campaign at the time," recalls Collett. "We met at the Espresso Royale in Dinkytown, talked for an hour, and found out that we totally agree on the issue. Then Mayor Rybak took that opinion to a national level."

In the summer of 2007, Rybak went to the annual mayors' conference and presented a resolution calling for a study on the negative impact of bottled water on city waste. He followed that up with a resolution in 2008 calling on mayors to phase out spending tax money on bottled water. This summer, he returned with yet another resolution that calls for a study to look at the implications bottled water has on municipal water supplies. Meanwhile, he's been an ardent supporter of the TapMPLS project.

"Mayor Rybak has been a great champion of the public water system," says Deborah Lapidus, senior organizer with Think Outside the Bottle. "Many cities are running campaigns. But I don't know any cities that have done it to this scale."

For Rybak, the mission is a matter of principle. An environmentalist, he's frustrated that people will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on bottled water, especially when his city has invested millions in ultra-filtration technology that provides some of the cleanest and safest city water anywhere in the United States.

"The issue to him is as clear as water," says Rybak spokesman Jeremy Hanson. "He leads by example and has been very outspoken to encourage people to drink out of the tap rather than out of bottled water."

The position isn't just hype. Last January, the city put forth a new purchasing policy that prohibits it from buying bottled water, unless specifically needed for public safety officers out in the field, like police and firefighters. In 2008, those departments spent a combined $4,225 on bottled water.

But while the mayor continues to blaze a public trail on the virtues of tap water, he might want to double back for a look at his own city government, an institution that last year spent $17,440 on "water-cooler water" from corporate bottled-water giants that include Culligan and Premium Waters.

"Government is not necessarily the solution," Hanson says "In principle, we like to lead by example and not by mandate." 

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