Water, Water, Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink

Seasoned traveler Nick Topitzes of PC/Nametag compares Madison to the cities he visits - and reports back on his findings.

While traveling through Europe, you are always offered bottled water: “still” or “gas,” the carbonated type. It’s always a few Euros more on the restaurant bill. And after a while you start to think that it’s just a ploy to get more money from the tourists. But you’ll quickly notice that most Europeans are also ordering their water in a bottle instead of drinking it from the tap. Remember Perrier and Evian, which led bottled water invasion of America, came from Europe.

The infrastructure in Europe is old and many historically protected buildings handicap the process of putting in new systems. Once you add in the cost of upgrading and building water filtration plants, you’ll quickly see how bottled water seems like a great idea. (But I always remember the scene in Slumdog Millionaire where one of the main character’s jobs is in a restaurant refilling empty bottles of water, putting on the caps, and then adding a little super glue to make it “snap” when the waiter opens the bottle.)

I’m a little more comfortable drinking tap water in northern Europe — England, France, Germany, Denmark — because they seem to have higher health standards and also more wealth in which to maintain their facilities.

So is America better? You probably recall the time when thousands of people were poisoned by the water in Milwaukee, which had a wonderful reputation for good-tasting water. Those old pipes leaked and the Milwaukee sewage commission hadn’t kept up with its part of the job. A billion dollars was spent improving the system and now most of my friends feel comfortable drinking water from the tap.

When I visit my wife’s hometown in northern Wisconsin, I immediately rush to buy bottled water because the sulfur taste makes drinking it unpleasant. Even taking a shower is unpleasant.

Plenty of other cities have periods where they ask their citizens to boil the water, like Washington D.C. and Boston. All major cities have had problems with leaky pipes. And boom towns can’t keep up with the demand.

Meanwhile we are told most bottled water is not much better than tap water in terms of impurities. But if you’re in a city with concerns about the tap water, you’ll likely take your chances with the bottled version.

Meanwhile, many people are concerned (and rightly so) about the number of plastic bottles we toss into our landfills. What is one to do? Many people use home water filtration systems and my son, who travels the world, uses a portable water filter. Other people use metal refillable bottles to carry their water on trips. Personally, I get nervous in some places where they pour water out of a pitcher. Some of the methods used to fill pitchers are less than desirable.

All of which brings us to Madison. I guess we are pretty lucky. Despite some hiccups, our water is pretty safe year-round and it’s rare to see someone using bottled water (unless they want it for the mobility or are at a location with only two other choices: buy a soda or end up thirsty). Let’s hope Madison stays that way.

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