The Tahoe Water Suppliers Assn. (TWSA) crafted the Drink Tahoe Tap campaign in 2008 to promote appreciation for tap water in the Lake Tahoe region due to its purity and taste. What began with highlighting the water’s taste has developed into a program aimed at reducing bottled water use, particularly at large outdoor events. Madonna Dunbar, executive director of TWSA, spoke with WQP Associate Editor Bob Crossen about the program’s growth and future.
Bob Crossen: How did this program get started and where are the water stations used?
Madonna Dunbar: The Drink Tahoe Tap campaign began in 2008, first with the launch of a blind taste test activity at events (sampling water like a wine tasting) and then through distribution of Drink Tahoe Tap stickers and free refillable water bottles. In 2011, we purchased 5-gal fill jugs and made those available for community events. In 2014, in order to provide water for large events, we designed a low-cost, mobile water station that hooks up to an outdoor faucet. In 2016, we refined the design and posted the design specs on our website as open source information. The mobile water stations have been used at concerts, festivals, marathons, paddleboard races, [and] cultural, art and environmental events throughout the Tahoe Basin and Reno, Nev., area.
Crossen: In what ways does the use of mobile water stations impact the environment?
Dunbar: Large-scale events can now greatly reduce their waste stream when they do not have to purchase pallets of packaged water for attendees. Tahoe is a natural treasure. Americans consume 1,500 bottles of water every second, and 80% of plastic water bottles end up in the landfill. Between 40% to 50% of all packaged water is simply filtered, repackaged tap water.
Crossen: Why did you make the instructions to build the stations open source?
Dunbar: There are pre-manufactured, portable water fill stations available for purchase via the internet, but our design was built at 20% of the cost of those pre-manufactured units. Our mobile station is built onto a restaurant bus cart using restaurant plumbing fixtures and a carbon block RV filter system. Build cost is about $700 for parts, and a few hours of labor. The station hooks up to any standard outdoor faucet.
Crossen: How popular have these stations become?
Dunbar: We now have four stations available for use, and they are in high demand. This campaign has had regional affect, too. Some of our local ski areas and large resorts have purchased their own water stations or installed more water fountains and fill stations. Squaw Valley [Ski Resort] last year banned the sale of pre-packaged water on site, and now sells custom refillable pouches instead.
Crossen: Why was the use of Lake Tahoe water important for the program?
Dunbar: Here in Tahoe, we have had a long-time focus on education and programs for watershed protection. “Protect the Source” is part of the TWSA mission. People get excited about Tahoe’s natural environment. Increasing the appreciation for one of the most pristine municipal water sources in the nation was a logical extension of TWSA’s original purpose. Lake Tahoe is the surface water source for about 50% of the area population. Six of the 11 TWSA members hold filtration exemption status, and only 60 systems in the country have that status. Billions of dollars have been invested to export all wastewater for our communities. There are no major industrial sites in the Tahoe Basin. We have ongoing projects to reduce sediment from roads and urban areas. We are not downstream from anyone. Tahoe tap [water] truly is exceptional drinking water. Our slogan “Drink Tahoe Tap” was trademarked in 2016 as a water quality advocacy and education project.
Crossen: What do you en-vision for the future of Drink Tahoe Tap?
Dunbar: We’re hoping to take our messaging about promoting local tap water to more conferences and industry organizations in the near future. We want to enter more regional and national taste tests, after winning first place at the National Rural Water Assn. and Nevada Rural Water Assn. taste test contests recently. We are excited by the interest generated by the public when using the water fill stations or interacting with us at our outreach booth. We hope to continue to tap into that public interest. We want to help people break their bottled water habit by informing them of the advantages of filtering and refilling, no matter where they live, work or play. Promoting the installation of water fountains and fill stations in our community is a future focus.