GREENVILLE, Miss. -- Some places in the Mississippi Delta are known for the blues. Others have gained a reputation for the celebrities they have produced, such as Jim Henson, who created the Muppets, or Morgan Freeman, the actor.
But this city, perched on the banks of the Mississippi River, has gained distinction for something quite different: its brown water.
People who live here think nothing of the dirty-looking liquid that flows from their faucets, but visitors assume there is a plumbing problem when they flush the toilet or turn on the shower. Most would never consider taking a sip of it, even after they are told the water is safe.
Kay Bigge, a clerk at the Greenville Inn and Suites, is used to guests running to the lobby in shock after they turn on the water. Most of them assume it's dirty because it comes from the Mississippi -- which it does not -- or that the pipes in the old hotel are rusty, she said.
"They are afraid to drink it, and a lot of people don't want to bathe in it or brush their teeth. They go out and buy bottled water," said Bigge, who has lived in Greenville more than 50 years. "I try to tell them about the benefits of it. It makes our skin really soft, and it makes your hair look nice. When my daughter was in a beauty pageant, we took some along in bottles just so she could wash her hair."
Brad Jones, director of Greenville's Public Works Department, insists the water is pure. To be sure, the department tests it for bacteria from 64 locations every month.
Greenville's water comes from the Cockfield aquifer, which is fed from eastern Mississippi. The water filters through three ancient cypress swamps, picking up particles from wood and vegetation thousands of years old, Jones said. The particles are dissolved in the water, giving it a brown color. Most other cities in the Southeast that receive fresh water from the aquifer have installed filtration systems that make the water clear.
But people in Greenville like their water brown.
Officials could use a bleaching agent or a microfiltration system to clarify the water, but such a system would cost about $8 million. So every time the city holds a referendum to pay for it, voters turn it down overwhelmingly.
"As long as it is not coming from the Mississippi River, we can live with it. No one would drink it if it came from the river, no matter what you did to it," Jones said. "Our water actually has a good flavor. It's not salty, and it's not laced with elements that are normally found in city water supplies." It also doesn't stain.
Still, most businesses are not willing to take the chance of scaring customers. Most restaurants use bottled water or have filtration systems to keep the ice cubes and drinking water clear. One carwash in town uses a high-tech conditioning system that changes the chemistry and the color of the water before it's sprayed on the cars.