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Bottled water the next Detroit classic?

Department could compete with Evian

02/07/2002

BY JAMES G. HILL
Detroit Free Press

In the beginning, Detroiters had Faygo, Better Made, Stroh's and Vernor's. And they were good. Now Detroit plans on getting into the bottled water business.

"We pride ourselves on the quality of the water we have now, and this would just be an enhancement of that pride," said James Heath, director of water operations for the city's Water and Sewerage Department."Besides the pride issue, whatever monies we might get from the business we could use to benefit our customers by reducing other charges that go along with delivering water," Heath said Wednesday.

Meantime, water bills will be rising. The Detroit City Council is to hold a public hearing on proposed rate increases at 10 a.m. today in the 13th Floor auditorium of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center.

The new rates, which would go into effect July 1 and be reflected in consumers' August bills, need City Council approval to go into effect. Typically, the council OKs such increases. The proposal would average 13.5 percent more for Detroit residents, and 15.2 percent for suburban customers.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage system, one of the biggest in the country, supplies water to 125 communities in southeast Michigan, including Detroit, from as far north as Flint and as far south as Monroe.

The bottled water would be initially marketed locally, then statewide, and potentially nationally and internationally, Heath said.

"Who knows? We haven't gotten that far in the planning stage yet," Heath said.

But some Detroiters are buying into the idea already.

"Me and my mother always used to joke and say Michigan water taste like cherry wine," said Inez Milford, 68, of the west side. "I think it's a real good idea, especially if the city can make money off of it and quit taking all my money" through her water bill.

"I think it would be pretty cool to be able to go into a restaurant or a grocery store and say 'Give me a bottle of Detroit's finest,' " said William Lassiter, 34, of the east side.

The $300-million Water Works II plant on Jefferson Avenue, which is expected to open next year, will provide the water. An outside company would bottle the product.

The bottling idea was floated about six years ago when then-department director Stephen Gordon was formulating the master plan for the Water Works II plant.

An advantage for consumers is that the water would have to meet state and federal purity standards, which are not required for other bottled water products. Unlike the city's water department, the bottled water industry is not regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency or the Water Quality Control Division of the state. Heath said that ozonation, a process to treat water, will be used to lessen the need for excessive chlorination, making the water better for consumers and the environment. Ozonation is an electrical procedure that uses oxygen to generate a gas that is released into un-treated water, killing bacteria faster than chlorine.

Plus, the city's water contains fluoride, which is good for building strong teeth and is an ingredient lacking from most bottled waters. Tests comparing Detroit water with a half-dozen bottled waters -- including Evian and Aquafina -- have found that the city's water is just as good -- and in some cases better -- than what you buy in the store, water department officials say.

Many of the details, like cost, product name and distribution, will have to be worked out after a bottler is selected. But the department's interim deputy director, Gary Fujita, seems confident that Detroit's water can stand up to the likes of Evian.

"Afterall, remember Evian spelled backwards is naive," he joked.

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