A sweet, doughy aroma drifts out of the kitchen as The Pretzel Bakery owner Sean Haney steps out onto the umbrellaed patio. Two men and a woman in office attire have come out of their way to try the pretzels at the Capitol Hill shop on this sunny Wednesday afternoon. Haney places a box of eight on a bench, and one-by-one, everyone reaches in to grab the fresh-from-the-oven pretzels, still hot to the touch.
“This is amazing,” says the first taste-tester, after taking a bite of the golden-brown, perfectly chewy dough.
“My kids love your pretzels,” adds another, who lives in the neighborhood. The third says her Pennsylvania parents would approve of this local take on the Philly staple.
The pretzels aren’t just baked expertly out of small-batch, hand-rolled dough. They’ve also got a secret ingredient: unfiltered D.C. tap water.
The three people tasting the pretzels are employees of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, now known as DC Water, who’ve made a special mid-day trip from their Blue Plains office. The Pretzel Bakery is one of more than 170 local eateries that have signed onto the TapIt Network, a national campaign that collaborates with DC Water to promote businesses that serve tap water and make it available for water-bottle refills. But the bakery is also the first spot where DC Water is promoting the water as an ingredient in the food.
Haney had been making pretzels at home for two years before he opened The Pretzel Bakery in April. At first, he tried baking with water filtered through a Brita. Then, he decided to try them with water straight from the tap. He says they still tasted great.
“We know that tap water is clean and high-quality for drinking,” says DC Water marketing coordinator Sarah Neiderer, the Pennsylvania native. “And so it’s great if it can be used also for a special ingredient or an ingredient that’s helping make a great pretzel.”
Neiderer first heard about The Pretzel Bakery’s use of tap water from Ted Coyle, the graphic designer at DC Water who helped create the new logo—and whose kids love the pretzels. Neiderer says she sent an email to chief of external affairs Alan Heymann (also present at the taste-testing), saying, “NYC bagels + tap water = good. D.C. tap water + pretzels = good.”
And so began the latest component of the utility’s campaign to spiff up its image. DC Water wants you to think of its Potomac River product as a local ingredient in the same way tomatoes from Maryland or beef from Virginia are local ingredients. New Yorkers have long boasted that it’s the water that makes their bagels and pizza so good. DC Water wants to create the same sense of pride here.
That would have been unthinkable less than a decade ago. In 2004, the water agency discovered lead contamination in the drinking water in thousands of homes, prompting congressional investigations, expensive remediation efforts, and a public image problem that still haunts the utility to this day. Just head to Busboys and Poets and order the “DC Tap Water” cocktail, made with vodka, peach schnapps, Black Razz, Blue Curaçao, Sprite, sour mix, and pineapple juice. The drink is murky gray with a tinge of purple—a dramatic representation of how many people perceived (and perhaps continue to perceive) the water. The question now is: Can DC Water not only convince Washingtonians that tap water is “clean and high-quality,” but that it’s also a local product worth bragging about?
DC Water General Manager George Hawkins offers me a glass of iced tap water as soon as he walks into the conference room at his Blue Plains office, right next to the wastewater treatment plant. With his name embroidered in blue on his white button-up shirt and his brown hair slightly unkempt, the 51-year-old looks more like the guy inspecting your pipes than the top gun of a nearly $1 billion agency in charge of what runs through them.
On his shoulder is a patch with the new DC Water logo: “dc” with a big blue water drop and the words “water is life” beneath. The agency ditched its old small-type logo a few years ago; Hawkins says it made the uniform look too much like a law enforcement official’s. “People would come up to me—I had this happen twice—they wanted wanted to know if I worked with D.C. Corrections,” says Hawkins. “You had to work as a visible matter to figure out who we were and what we did.”
The new logo is one element of a much larger image revamp Hawkins has pushed over the past few years. He’s not only interested in improving water quality and infrastructure. He also wants to make drinking tap water cool. To get there, he’s trying to market his product more like Nike than a public-works department. It boils down to this: The more water you consume, the more money DC Water brings in—and the less it needs to try to raise rates to pay for capital improvements and operations.
Hawkins took his post at what was then still called the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority in September 2009. Before that, he had worked as the director of the District Department of the Environment and served three years on DC WASA’s board. The former lawyer also spent time in the nonprofit sector and at the Environmental Protection Agency. He says his passion for water was born from a fourth-grade trip to the Cuyahoga River in Ohio in 1969, the year the river caught fire because of chemical contaminants.
When he joined DC WASA, Hawkins says, the only time most Washingtonians thought of the authority was when they had a problem with it. (Or, given the lead scare a few years before, if they were making a joke about it.) Hawkins says a lot of utilities think that if they’re in the press, it’s bad—the reason they’re there is a power outage, a burst pipe, or some other catastrophe. Since arriving, Hawkins has tried to shift DC WASA’s public relations approach away from reacting to crises to crafting a narrative about the agency before problems arise.
One of Hawkins’ initial efforts was spending $160,000 to rebrand the authority as DC Water, along with the new logo and tagline. It held a public contest for ideas, but the final look was an amalgamation of some of the submissions. (Perhaps with good reason; among the 170-plus entries were the slogan “H2O:POOP” and a logo of a phallic-looking fire hydrant.)
Now, Hawkins says, his agency is so visible his team sometimes get calls about why its vehicles are everywhere. “Our trucks were always all over the city, you just didn’t know it was us,” Hawkins says. “It wasn’t easy to tell the difference between a Washington Gas truck, a Pepco truck, DC Water truck, [Department of Public Works] truck.”
On top of that, DC Water now has a more proactive approach to community relations. Hawkins shows up at public outreach events at least once a week, and DC Water has developed a strong social media presence. (Hawkins even has his own blog, which he regularly updates.) Hawkins’ personal charisma and approachability don’t hurt: There’s even a YouTube clip of him doing the robot dance at an office Christmas party.
The rebranding was an attempt to reboot the agency’s image in the wake of the embarassing press that followed the 2004 lead findings. (Among the headlines: the disclosure that the agency paid a firm $100,000 to handle its lead-related crisis PR.) On top of that, DC Water has had to sell the public on rate increases to keep up with government-mandated infrastructure updates, while also continuing discretionary projects that residents demand, like replacing sewer and water pipes. In fiscal year 2009, the average monthly charge for residential service was $54.31. This year, it’s $65.62—a 17 percent increase.
“Do you ultimately care that we remove more nutrients from the Chesapeake Bay? Yeah. Do you care whether the water coming into your house when you wake up in the morning and want to brush your teeth is clean? Absolutely,” Hawkins says. “And where does the money get spent? The former, not the latter, unless we can persuade our customers and include both.”
Hence the rebranding, the new logo, the tagline contest—and the campaign to get Washingtonians to drink local.
The Washington Aqueduct, operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, runs the two water treatment plants in D.C. that together supply an average of 180 million gallons of water a day to the District, Arlington County, and Falls Church. One hundred percent of that water comes from the Potomac River at the dam at Great Falls.
“You can smell the river here,” says Washington Aqueduct Deputy General Manager Patty Gamby as she takes me into the “flume room,” where the raw river water rushes below us into the plant. This is where the Corps of Engineers measures the water flow’s pressure so it knows how much of which chemicals to add. Opposite us, across a tiled floor, is the NASA-like control room where 16 monitors track and measure every aspect of water quality.
Gamby has worked here for more than two decades and has seen locals’ perceptions of the water fluctuate. Before 2004, she says, residents didn’t give much thought to the water: “People complained sometimes about the chlorine smell, the musty odor, but it was just kind of something you took for granted, and people didn’t pay attention to.”
In 2000, D.C.’s treatment facilities switched from chlorine to chloramine, a combination of chlorine and ammonia, in order to reduce the levels of disinfection byproducts. The unforeseen consequence was corrosion in the city’s old network of lead pipes. Levels in homes with lead service pipes spiked to an average of five times the amount allowed by the EPA. The heavy metal can cause serious health problems, including brain and kidney damage, and has been linked to a lowered IQ in children.
In January 2004, the Washington Post bannered a story across the front page: “Water in D.C. Exceeds EPA Lead Limit.” The paper reported that DC WASA had known about lead contamination in the drinking water since 2001, and that authorities were “baffled” by the cause. Congress and the D.C. Council started poking around. The EPA accused DC WASA of withholding lead findings from the public and regulators. A Post investigation found the utility had avoided testing high-risk homes and dropped data from residences that previously tested high for lead. Meanwhile, politicians blamed the EPA for not providing proper oversight.
Water officials agreed to replace thousands of lead service pipes, which had been installed up until the 1950s, at a cost of $350 million, and worked with property owners to replace lead pipes in homes and businesses as well. The aqueduct began adding orthophosphate to the water to counteract the lead leaching.
Today, lead is at its all-time lowest levels and has been below the EPA’s action level since 2005. In general, Gamby says the quality of the water is better—“without a doubt better, 10 times better”—than at any point in the past 20 years. She credits more advanced water purifying and monitoring technology as well as stricter EPA regulations for the water quality improvement.
The water here now meets or exceeds federal standards. But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. “Unfortunately, the water treatment system that D.C. uses relies just on sand filtration, sedimentation, and chlorination, and it cannot remove chemicals, such as plasticizers, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals,” says Linda Greer, D.C.-based director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Health and Environment Program. “We would strongly recommend that any company recruited to the District to manufacture products that contain our water further treat it prior to use—with activated carbon filters—and that they monitor it frequently to ensure consistent good results.”
As far as reputation, Gamby says it’s slowly turning around. After all, the idea that chefs or brewers might brag about using D.C. water in their products wouldn’t have happened a decade ago, lead or not. At the same time, Gamby says the perception that there’s something about New York water that would make bagels or pizza better is a myth. “It’s a good story, but I don’t think the water really makes the bagels better,” Gamby says. “It probably is that they have pride and confidence in the water in New York.”
The biggest difference between D.C. and New York water, which is often regarded as having among the highest quality in the country, is that the vast majority of New York’s water supply is unfiltered, thanks to well-protected watersheds in the Catskill Mountains.
Food scientist Chris Loss, a professor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., says that water pH levels and mineral content, particularly calcium and sodium, can affect flavor and texture in foods. “Water is like a sponge,” Loss says. “It picks up lots of other compounds, and those compounds can have flavor.” He says hard water, which contains more minerals like calcium and magnesium, tends to produce firmer dough. Soft water produces a softer dough. New York’s water is predominantly soft, while D.C.’s is moderately hard.
Loss conducted a blind taste test of tap water, Brita-filtered water, and various bottled waters in California, and looked at levels of chloride, calcium, sodium, and nitrates. The unfiltered water was the least preferred, and the filtered water, which had a tenth as much calcium, was among the most preferred. “To me, that says minerals have an effect, for sure,” Loss says. “I would have to guess that the actual texture of the bread would be different.”
The food industry knows this. When you buy sodas or bread from big manufacturers, they strip down the water in their products and alter it with minerals that they’ve determined create the most appealing taste. “The large multinational companies that are trying to make consistent products across regions and across the country and globally, they wouldn’t go through all the expense to make the water exactly what they wanted it to be if it didn’t play a role,” Loss says.
Loss says he’s unaware of any studies that document how the chemical makeup of water from different locations across the country affects foods and people’s preferences of them. Bagels with New York water may be different, sure. But better? That’s a matter of taste.
Last summer, when DC Brau founders Brandon Skall and Jeff Hancock opened the first brewery in the District in nearly 60 years, lots of folks told them they were crazy for making beer with D.C. water. “People have this idea of D.C. tap water, that it’s disgusting or not fit for consumption, which is completely, completely false,” Skall says. “We’re not ashamed of using D.C. water. In fact, we’re proud of it, and we’re not afraid to say that.”
The brewery has also joined the TapIt Network and is looking into co-branding pint glasses with its logo and DC Water’s. Every brewery uses its local water source. Not every brewery brags about it. The brewers who do tout the water they use tend to come from places where there’s a more obvious marketing reason to do so, like Golden, Colo.-brewed Coors. But we can’t all tap the Rockies.
Skall says D.C. water is great for brewing. “Beer is, like, 99.99 percent water, so it has a lot to do with what your finished product is going to be like,” Skall says. “If water tastes bad to begin with, it’s going to make bad beer.” D.C. water, however, has no contaminants or off flavors, and it’s very easy to clean and purify, Skall says. Although he believes it’s good for brewing right out of the faucet, DC Brau does filter its water—like most breweries do. They then add minerals and salts that are appropriate to whatever beer profile they’re brewing.
DC Brau expects to produce 5,000 barrels this year, up from 1,600 last year. Its beer is now available in more than 300 local restaurants, bars, and retailers—double that of its first year.
Not everyone is proud of the water here, though. Longtime Washington baker Mark Furstenberg uses heavy industrial filters for his water. “I have done that because I think the District’s water is vile,” he says. “It smells bad, it tastes bad, to me. It has a chemical and chlorine taste that I dislike and don’t find elsewhere.” The Baltimore native doesn’t think water flavor has improved in his many years in Washington; he prefers the water from Charm City.
He’s also fearful that the amount of chlorine in D.C. water might harm the various bacteria and yeast in his bread starters, one of which he’s been using since 1989. “I don’t see any reason to risk weakening it with the chemicals in the District’s water,” he says.
At the same time, Furstenberg says the idea that New York water is essential to its bagels is just silly. “It comes from ordinary ubiquitous chauvinism,” he says. “Is there anything New Yorkers don’t think is the best in New York?” He’s not sure he could distinguish between two loaves of bread made with different water. “When I opened my first bakery in 1990, people were saying you couldn’t make bread in Washington because it didn’t have the right water. And that always seemed silly to me, since bread has been made for 6,000 years with varieties of water everywhere in the world.”
3 Pizanos co-owner and New Jersey native Nick Acevedo thinks otherwise: He imports 50 gallons of New York spring water a week for his Dupont Circle pizzeria. Acevedo tried making pizza with D.C. tap water before the restaurant opened in February and wasn’t pleased with the results. “It just didn’t rise and work out the way the others did with the New York spring water,” says Acevedo, who’s lived in D.C. for 17 years and prefers not to drink unfiltered tap water. “There’s a chemical reaction that we don’t want inside of the pizza.”
Acevedo would not reveal how he sources the New York water or how much it costs him, but he says the cost is worth it. “Pizza is such a good product that you should spend money to make the product unique and that much better than everyone else around you.”
Neighborhood Restaurant Group pastry chef Tiffany MacIsaac thinks that’s ridiculous. She uses unfiltered D.C. tap water for all the baguettes, dinner rolls, pizza dough, and other baked goods at the group’s restaurants, like Birch & Barley, Vermillion, and Evening Star Cafe. MacIsaac moved to D.C. from New York three years ago and brought with her the same recipes she’d reliably used as a pastry chef there.
At first, she worried that the water might affect her recipes because she’d heard so many people play up its importance over the years. “Transferring them here, I didn’t have to make any changes. They turn out just the same,” MacIsaac says. “Water should taste kind of like nothing, it should be a clean palette for whatever you’re mixing it into. That’s what’s great about D.C. water. It doesn’t taste like anything.”
Hawkins says that there’s nothing chemically unique about the water in Washington that would make the food and drink products it’s used in taste different. His new PR initiative is aiming for a much simpler message: High-quality water can play a part in high-quality food. If you buy the “made from D.C. tap water” mantra, maybe you’ll appreciate the water more, too.
Marketing D.C. water as something that’s not just clean, but cool, depends on a pride of place the city lacked for a long time. Until recently, the population had declined for decades. Downtown used to empty after dark; the District was known as “the murder capital.” D.C. still had its champions, of course, but with a certain contrarian edge. Transplants who moved here for work, meanwhile, went out of their way to maintain ties to their hometowns.
In recent years, that’s changed. Young professionals are flocking to the city, and the population is growing for the first time since World War II. New restaurants are opening every week, and top national chefs want to be here. Not only is there a new baseball team in a shiny new stadium, but it’s in first place. And rather than clinging to whatever city they came from, many new D.C. residents grasp for local brands to connect with their adopted town.
The reason DC Brau is now on tap at every notable bar and restaurant in the city is not because it’s the very best beer. It’s because it’s the local beer. People drink it for the same reason they form lines out the door at Ben’s Chili Bowl: Both are homegrown D.C. products in their own ways, and there’s a certain cachet in representing your roots, even if they’re transplanted roots.
If ever there’s been a time when Washingtonians might be able to develop a sense of pride in their water, it’s now. Locavorism is experiencing a renaissance, and water is the ultimate local product. Unlike heirloom tomatoes or Randall Lineback beef, it’s ubiquitous, accessible, and cheap. The word “local” is so common on menus that it’s more surprising when you don’t see it, but water isn’t a product that chefs tout. That could change. If restaurants market themselves as farm-to-table, “tap to table” doesn’t seem like that much of a stretch. That, at least, is DC Water’s hope.
Ultimately, DC Water is playing into this narrative of local pride. Whether it’s actually true that New York water makes better bagels is irrelevant. The difference is that New Yorkers want to believe it. The city’s culture wants to believe—and wants the rest of us to believe—it’s got the best in everything: food, arts, culture, sports. So, why wouldn’t their water be unique—magical even?
The District isn’t quite there yet. But if Hawkins and his marketing campaign have anything to do with it, we’ll be moving closer, drop by drop. “You can tell almost anything you want to know about a place by its water,” Hawkins says. “A society knows itself by how it treats, handles, respects, and uses water.”
Back at The Pretzel Bakery, Sean Haney is happy to pay tribute to the water. “I kind of tongue-and-cheek said it’s the water that makes them taste good,” Haney says of his pretzels. “I take most of the credit for the flavor, but I’ll give D.C. water some of the credit.”