Oil town finds a new source of wealth on tap

The good people of Houston, Texas, may shortly have one more brand of bottled water to consider alongside Perrier and Evian. The name has not yet been chosen, but the provenance has: the city taps.

Mesmerised by the red-hot growth of the bottled water market - it has doubled in size in the United States in the last ten years - the city government in Houston is actually considering drawing water from its municipal supply, putting it in plastic bottles and then selling it in supermarkets.

Never mind that consumers will be asked to pay as much as one dollar for a quart of the water if it is packaged in bottles when they could take the same amount from their own taps for something less than one tenth of a cent. Market it right, the city believes, and the bottles will fly from the shelves. Other US cities drawing up similar plans for brands of appellation tap controle are North Miami, Florida and Kansas City.

Gary Hemphell, an analyst for Beverage Marketing in New York, says he is not surprised by what at first seems to be an incredibly cheeky idea. In 1996 alone, he points out, supermarket sales in the US of water in small bottles grew by an incredible 22 per cent. "The segment is on fire," he said yesterday.

But when brands like Evian sell principally on the appeal of the pure and natural origins of the water, drawn from pristine Alpine springs and aquifers, it is hard to imagine how Houston will dress up a product so self-evidently un-natural as water that has been chemically treated. "It may be an uphill battle," says Mr Hemphell.

Enthusiasm in Houston is not likely to be dented, however. "We just note that for whatever reason, people seem to like to get their water out of bottles these days," the deputy director of public works, Dan Jones, told the New York Times. "And we've got especially good water, as municipal water goes". One possible name under consideration: "Houston Superior". How about "Houston Chutzpah?"

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