Friday, September 27, 1996
Waterworks PR firm puts lump in throat

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

I drink a lot of water. Tap, not bottled.

It has to be made in Cincinnati. Siphoned from the Ohio River. None of those snooty artesian springs for me.

I like water because it is a worry-free beverage. And I have enough to fret about, being a natural-born worried guy.

Our water flows from the faucet clear and clean. Nothing's floating in my glass.

The water's so well-filtered, it won't kill me. And if it spills, I won't have to worry about it staining my clothes. Even better, water replaces the wet stuff my body loses from living life in a cold sweat.

But last week, I was forced to add water to my list of worries. My anxiety level started to rise when the Cincinnati Water Works announced plans to hire a PR firm.

I don't get it. The waterworks is a monopoly. As long as clean water runs through the pipes, there's no use for PR.

Maybe the waterworks needs it to sell more water and make more money. Then it could go head-to-head with the other monopoly utility in town. They could submit bids to win the naming rights to the new stadiums. Imagine the Bengals playing at Waterworks Commons.

Muddy waters

My water anxiety overflowed this week. Two save-the-world environmental groups released a report that said the Ohio River is an open sewer.

The river that gives Cincinnati so much of its character ranks as the nation's third-filthiest body of water. From 1990 to 1994, the Ohio had 22 million pounds of toxic pollutants, old shoes, car tires and garden hoses dumped into it.

Cincinnati gets 90 percent of its drinking water from the mighty filthy Ohio.

Now, I'm really worried.

''Don't be,'' says Dave Rager.

The waterworks' director told me Cincinnati has the best and the most-advanced water filtration system on Earth.

''We have the world's largest - and only - granular activated carbon filtration plant,'' he says. ''They're just now building another one near London, England. Ours has been open since 1992.''

The plant takes water from the river, filters, cleans and then flavors it with sodium hydroxide (''to keep you from tasting your pipes''), chlorine and fluoride. Then it's aged for three to five days.

The waterworks' director swears ''this process filters out everything that's dumped into the river. Stop worrying.''

I'm trying. Every morning, before I take my first sip of water, I tell myself: It's clean. It's wet. I drink eight glasses a day. And it hasn't killed me yet.

When he heard that line, Dave Rager threatened to cut my water off.

''Saying 'It hasn't killed me yet' shows that despite all we've done to make our water as pure as can be, you are still concerned about its quality.''

I'm in good company. When the waterworks last surveyed its 900,000 customers in 1994, quality was concern No. 1. It still is.

Every month, the director's office receives 15-20 calls about what's in the water; another 15-20 callers wonder about the taste and an additional 20-25 callers ask for more information about what's coming out of their faucets.

Water relations

This customer-based thirst for knowledge, Mr. Rager says, justifies hiring a PR firm.

''We put fliers in our bills every month. But only 5 percent of our customers read them. We need to do a better job communicating.''

Why bother? The waterworks could say, we have no competition. Buy our water or go thirsty.

''That's not the right thing to do,'' Mr. Rager explains. ''And we preach doing that around here.

''Take the granular activated carbon plant. No federal regulation required us to put that in. We just asked, what's the right thing to do? So we pushed the envelope on water treatment and did it.''

He says the PR campaign will cost ''under $50,000'' to make everyone aware of how far the waterworks goes to help us quench our thirst.

I must say, I am impressed with Dave Rager's enthusiasm. He's proud of the waterworks and its tradition of doing right by the people who drink its product.

Since I've talked with him, my worries have faded. The past few mornings, I actually do think I've felt a little better watching Cincinnati water tumble into my Wile E. Coyote glass.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.