Philly water straight from the tap

A collaborative city-wide campaign that included ImpactED and the Water Center at Penn helped spread the word that Philadelphia tap water is safe and healthy to drink.

At a celebratory culminating event for the Drink Philly Tap initiative, Yards Brewing CEO Tom Kehoe noted that his company worked hard to obtain the best-quality hops, barley, and other ingredients for their beers. That includes their products’ most abundant ingredient.

Two smiling people with a pitcher of water stand next to a sign saying "Philly Water Bar"
As part of a partnership including Penn’s ImpactED and Water Center, trained neighborhood ambassadors shared the benefits of drinking tap water in their local communities, both at formal events and in informal interactions. (Image: Tiffany Ledesma for PWD) 

“Twenty-five years ago, when we started Yards, we picked our most important ingredient by choosing Philadelphia water,” said Kehoe, speaking at his company’s brewpub at 5th and Spring Garden streets last week. 

That confidence in the city’s water is not universally shared in the city. When Nina Hoe Gallagher, director of research and evaluation at Penn’s ImpactED, first helped the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) conduct customer-satisfaction surveys several years ago, the results showed that fully 40% of residents drank bottled water at home.

“It was really astounding to see that number,” says Gallagher. “But it was our first year of doing the survey. We were wondering if we did it right, if there were some biases, so we didn’t want to take too many actions on that one result. But over the last four to five years, we’ve seen that 40% figure really consistently.”

That finding led to a citywide coalition, involving ImpactED, the Water Center at Penn, PWD, PennEnvironment, and other partners, which committed to promoting tap water in Philadelphia. With funding from the William Penn Foundation  and support from PWD, the resulting Drink Philly Tap initiative is wrapping up a year of efforts to that end. Central to the outreach were the nearly 500 hours put in by a trained group of 19 neighborhood ambassadors who reached thousands around the city with the message that drinking water from the tap can bring many benefits to themselves and their community, including cost savings and less litter in the environment.

After confirming that the 40% number was a real reflection of bottled water consumption in the city, PWD and ImpactED found that the least educated, lowest-income, female, and minority residents drank bottled water at higher rates than the population as a whole. That finding, coupled with the results of focus groups, make it plain that the most disenfranchised people in Philadelphia lack trust about the safety of their water. “So, they’re defaulting to what they see as their safest option,” says Gallagher: bottled water.

Howard Neukrug, executive director of the Water Center at Penn, had confronted that issue of trust during his tenure as commissioner and CEO of PWD. 

“Trust in municipal water has been on the decline for some time,” says Neukrug. “It seemed to start in the 1990s when the bottled water companies came around, talking about how the quality of tap water was less than adequate. And it continued on most recently with situations like what happened in Flint, Michigan.”

Shortly after Gallagher shared the survey results in an op-ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer two years ago, Drink Philly Tap was born.

City mural depicts two young people enjoying drinking from reusable water bottles
In ongoing projects to promote drinking tap water, the Philadelphia Water Department is helping paint murals at recreation centers around the city. (Image: Tiffany Ledesma for PWD)

Initially the group worked to create messages to address what they had been hearing from residents through the surveys and focus groups: that they were fearful about lead pipes and about the quality of the water itself, in spite of the rigorous testing that PWD completes regularly on its water showing that it exceeds federal regulations for quality. 

Then they worked to get those messages to the residents they most wanted to target, specifically, the 51% of residents with incomes of less than $20,000 who reported drinking bottled water at home. 

A key component of the outreach was Drink Philly Tap’s ambassador program. They recruited 25 people drawn from an applicant pool of more than 600 who received training about water quality and how to discuss the concerns of residents. Nineteen ambassadors served through the full year of the program.

“We were looking for people to serve as ambassadors who were passionate about this topic, about public health, environmental health, or their community,” says Tiffany Ledesma, public engagement team manager for PWD. “We made sure we had community representatives who were from areas that were the most underserved, so we were truly reaching out to the folks who could build trust within those communities.”

Person approaches another person in a booth with sign saying "Philly Water" at a celebratory event
At a celebration of a year of Drink Philly Tap outreach, the Philly Water Bar offered attendees tastes of fresh, cold, Philadelphia tap water. Samples of other products that rely on the city’s water, including Yards Brewing beer and La Colombe coffee, were also available at the event. (Image: PWD)

Ledesma notes that decisions around whether or not to trust water from the tap can be deeply ingrained in community and family culture. “For example, I grew up in Puerto Rico and didn’t grow up drinking tap water; we didn’t trust our water source,” she says. “A lot of people who may not have grown up drinking tap bring those habits with them.”

At the culminating event, PWD also employed its “Philly Water Bar,” a pop-up exhibit that invites people to taste-test cold Philadelphia tap water to dispel notions about water quality and aesthetics. 

One of the Drink Philly Tap Ambassadors, Leon Sanford, spoke at the event about his experience in the program. “Hopefully we’ve been able to change how people think about water in the city and erase some fears that people have,” he said.  

Nina Hoe Gallagher is director of research and evaluation at ImpactED at the University of Pennsylvania.

Howard Neukrug is professor of practice in the School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Earth and Environmental Science and executive director of the Water Center at Penn.

Tiffany Ledesma leads the Public Engagement Team for the Philadelphia Water Department and is a consultant for CDM Smith. She graduated with a Master of Environmental Studies from Penn in 2001.