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Georgians Willing To Pay More For Safer Water

Georgians are willing to pay monthly water bills $10 higher if the result is safer drinking water. That's one of the findings of a survey by University of Georgia agricultural economist Jeff Jordan.

Jordan, a researcher with the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences in Griffin, Ga., has conducted many surveys on water and the costs of providing it. He designed the most recent study to find out how much Georgians would be willing to pay for safer drinking water.

The survey was conducted through the UGA Survey Research Center on the Athens, Ga., campus.

"What prompted me to conduct the survey was last year's debate in Congress over the reauthorization of the Safe Drinking Water Act," Jordan said. "The water industry is concerned that the Safe Drinking Water Act will raise water costs higher than people would be willing to pay. It occurred to me that I didn't know that to be true."

The Safe Drinking Water Act governs how water utilities process and distribute water. It sets standards as to the percentage of contaminants allowed in U.S. drinking water. President Bill Clinton signed the act last fall.

The UGA random telephone survey included 400 residents across the state. They first listened to a statement on the potential effects of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Then they were asked if they would vote in favor of the act, even if it meant higher water bills. Nearly two out of three -- 64 percent -- said they would.

How much more would they be willing to pay per month? The average response was $10.34. That's a 44 percent increase over the average Georgia water bill.

"This tells us that the average person is willing to see their water bill go up almost 50 percent to pay for the Safe Drinking Water Act," said Jordan. "This figure is much higher than the estimated cost of the provisions of the act."

Of the people surveyed, 81 percent were either very concerned or somewhat concerned over water contamination in Georgia. On the other hand, 70 percent feel their water is safe or very safe. Only 4 percent believe it is very unsafe.

Still, concerns over water quality led 13 percent to use water filtering systems. About 9 percent boil their drinking water, and 40 percent use bottled water.

What do people like most about their water? Of the people surveyed, 82 percent were happy with their water's appearance. The figures dropped to 77 percent for its odor and 70 percent for its taste.

When asked if they would prefer increased programs for safer food or safer water, most favored safer water programs.

"You can control how you cook your food and what you eat, but you can't control your water," Jordan said of the responses. "The water coming out of the tap is what you get. You have no choice, other than using bottled water."

Overall, the survey showed that while Georgians don't want to pay higher water bills, they will if the cost results in improved water quality.

"Local water utilities can now begin to inform and educate their customers on the Safe Drinking Water Act and prepare them for higher costs," said Jordan.

(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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