Philly ‘water bar’ back at City Hall to let you taste the tap water

The water bar is an ongoing effort by the Philadelphia Water Department to build trust in the city’s tap water, which officials say meets state and federal standards.

Philadelphians sample tap water at a PWD water bar event

Philadelphia Water Department employees tout the benefits of tap water at a water bar event at City Hall. (Sophia Schmidt/WHYY)

Have you tasted Philly’s tap water?

You can give it a try at the Philadelphia Water Department’s free “water bar,” which returns to  City Hall this month.

“Philadelphia tap water is high quality, it’s affordable, it’s sustainable, and we want people to know that,” said Maura Jarvis, assistant manager of public engagement at the Philadelphia Water Department and superhero known as Water Woman.

The water bar will be open each Wednesday in June at City Hall’s courtyard from noon to 1 p.m. It’s a pop-up station where you can taste a cold cup of the city’s tap water for free, and get all your questions about water quality answered.

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The latest Water Department survey, which closed in mid-March, showed more than 39% of Philadelphians drink bottled water at home, rather than tap water.

Some people prefer the taste of bottled water. Others find it more convenient than tap water. But the most common reason Philadelphians refuse to drink tap water, according to the department’s surveys, is fear about its safety.

Past surveys have shown that Black and Hispanic or Latino respondents and those with lower incomes drink bottled water at higher rates than the citywide average.

“Truly, it’s an equity issue at its core,” Jarvis said. “There is quite a lot of dispelling of myths and breaking down understandable generational distrust that has developed over many years. We’re just trying to come out here and connect authentically, provide information in an approachable way and answer questions and be a resource for people.”

The tap water delivered to homes in Philly “meets or exceeds” state and federal water quality standards, according to the Water Department. Philly’s latest annual water quality report found no violations of state or federal regulations.

But a recent water contamination scare caused by an upstream chemical spill in March that officials say did not enter Philly’s water system may have made the Water Department’s job building confidence in the tap water even harder.

“This is a vital time to be out here talking to people, reassuring them, answering questions,” Jarvis said. “Our drinking water supply was never contaminated by the chemicals that were spilled, and so we need to be out here talking to people about that.”

Gym manager Miles Grooms stopped by the water bar Wednesday, tasted some tap water, and picked up a copy of the city’s latest water quality report. He thinks the event could help build trust.

“Just having more information about what’s going on, … where we can actually meet people who know more about it, I think will kind of get us over that gap,” he said. “We get [something from] the news, everybody’s like, ‘Oh my God, it’s craziness. What’s really happening?’ Now I see this and it’s like, okay, that water tastes fine. Then I read [the report] and I know a little bit more. Maybe I can spread it to the people I know.”

The Water Department has been holding periodic water bar events since 2019, when the department launched a trust-building campaign called Drink Philly Tap. The goal was to convince residents the tap water is safer, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly than bottled water. Other strategies included paid, trained ambassadors to tout the benefits of tap water to their own communities and a pledge to drink tap water that got over 10,000 signatures.

But these efforts have not led to sustained improvements in trust. The Water Department’s own surveys show that levels of bottled water consumption dropped the year after the campaign’s launch from 41% to 36%, then rebounded to 42% in 2021 and 2022, before dipping to 39% this year.

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“We don’t expect to see a dramatic change in behavior after a few seasons of the Philly Water Bar, but the quality of the conversations we have and the interactions we have with people at these events are really valuable and authentic,” said spokesperson Brian Rademaekers in an emailed statement. “We believe even small changes and having some families who come out and talk to us rethink tap water is absolutely worthwhile and can make a difference.”

In addition to this month’s water bar, the Water Department is trying other tactics to build trust — including commissioning local artists to make work encouraging residents to “drink more tap” water, supplying lessons about tap water for educators to use in classrooms, and digital outreach around water quality reports in areas of the city with the lowest rates of trust in tap water through platforms including Nextdoor, Rademaekers told WHYY News earlier this spring.

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