July 12, 2013

Miami-Dade claims ‘nation’s highest-rated tap water’

PolitiFact Florida went right to the source to fact-check Miami-Dade’s boast of having the nation’s top tap water.

Miami-Dade has plenty to brag about: stellar beaches, celebrities who live in multimillion-dollar mansions, four-star restaurants, the world famous tennis tournament on Key Biscayne and Miami Heat national basketball champions.

But a county document boasted about something far more ordinary on July 9 when Mayor Carlos Gimenez released his budget proposal. A budget-in-brief document written by the county’s Office of Management and Budget stated that the county has “the nation’s highest-rated tap water.”

Do we have some sort of liquid gold pouring out of our faucets that is the envy of other counties nationwide? We went in search of answers to quench our curiosity.

First, let’s wade into the surprisingly controversial history of Miami-Dade county government talking up tap water.

In 2008, the county landed in hot water after it aired radio ads that boasted its tap water was better than bottled water.

Nestle Waters North America, which makes nearly $4 billion a year selling Zephyrhills and other brands, threatened to sue, the Miami Herald wrote. (It never did, a county spokeswoman told PolitiFact.)

The county continued the tap water promotions, including a mock boxing-match video between tap water and bottled water, a love song jingle “Miami-Dade tap water you’re No. 1!” and a video of a young cowboy asking Mom, “Howdy Ma’am. What do you have on tap?” She replies, “For you partner, I’ve got the original tap.”

Dade’s explanation

We asked a Miami-Dade County spokeswoman to explain the source of the claim that the county has the “nation’s highest-rated tap water.”

We sensed some research percolating at Miami-Dade County Hall as spokespersons sent us emails saying we’d get an answer soon.

A few hours later, we had a reply: “It’s a scrivener’s error,” said Jennifer L. Messemer, a spokeswoman in Miami-Dade’s Water and Sewer Department.

Budget director Jennifer Moon told us in an email that “we compile input from the various departments to put in the budget-in-brief. We realized yesterday that we inadvertently left out ‘one of’ in the statement regarding the highest rated water. We will correct this online and in future prints.”

At PolitiFact we give props when someone fesses up to an error, but we continue our fact-check anyway.

The error was in a document written by the budget department, according to Messemer. We did not find the same claim in other water-related documents. The full chapter on the water and sewer department’s budget proposal merely refers to the water as “high-quality drinking water.” (It also mentions an upcoming $1.6 billion projected to fix environmental violations from failing wastewater infrastructure.)

The annual water quality report states that the water “is delicious and meets and exceeds all local, state and federal guidelines. So drink up with confidence!”

The county has received some kudos for water quality.

Messemer pointed to a 2008 Top 10 list of “Best Cities for Clean Drinking Water.” The article, which ranked the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area fourth, was based on a 2007 water quality study compiled by University of Cincinnati researchers. (The report was sponsored by Proctor & Gamble.)

We found the most comprehensive water quality comparison in an analysis by the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization that says the federal government’s standards for water quality fall short.

The group spent three years analyzing water contaminant data nationwide and found 316 contaminants. The EPA has enforceable standards for less than half of them.

Released in 2009, the database evaluated water utilities based on the total number of chemicals detected, the percentage of chemicals found of those tested; and the highest average level for a pollutant relative to legal limits or national averages. The analysis included the most common pollutants such as disinfection byproducts, nitrate and arsenic.

The group published a ranking of large cities, and Miami came in 46th place out of 100. (Several other large Florida cities or counties were listed, including Odessa, which is served by the St. Petersburg Water Resources Department, 20th; Pinellas County, 57th; Hillsborough County, 65th and Tampa, 68th.).

Our ruling

A Miami-Dade County budget document claimed that the county has “the nation’s highest-rated tap water.”

A county spokeswoman said that statement was an error. The water department more typically talks about the “high quality” of the water without making a national comparison.

A Forbes article concluded the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area was fourth in water quality based on a 2007 University of Cincinnati study of 12 contaminants. A more thorough national analysis by the Environmental Working Group ranked Miami-Dade County at 46th in 2009.

The claim is wrong, but it isn’t so ridiculous to earn our lowest Pants on Fire rating. We’re still going to end with one more joke and pour a cold bucket of tap water to douse this claim. We rate this claim False.

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