For months, official-looking fliers bearing a logo ever-so-similar to El Paso Water’s have appeared on front doors across the city, urging the home dweller to swiftly call a number on the paper to address an unidentified “water notice.”
“SECOND NOTICE,” one flier reads in bold, without evidence that a first notice was ever left. “VERY IMPORTANT.”
At the bottom of the flier, a box filled with a check mark reads “2nd Attempt” next to an unchecked box with “Final Attempt” typed out.
The exact origins of the fliers and the company behind them remain a mystery. However, the door fliers appear to be part of what local law enforcement officials earlier this month described as a deceptive marketing operation in El Paso.
The operation is virtually identical to schemes in cities across the U.S. in which salespeople claim a local area’s water is highly contaminated and unsafe to drink in order to convince homeowners to purchase costly water filtration systems that water quality experts say are unneeded.
El Paso Water, along with the city’s police department and county sheriff’s office, warned El Pasoans about the marketing scheme in a press conference earlier this month. The official-looking fliers are meant to look like they were left by workers from El Paso Water, which could amount to felony impersonation of a public servant, police said.
“We have seen a rise in notices like these,” said Christina Montoya, communications and marketing manager for El Paso Water. “Customers are calling us and letting us know that they’re receiving these reports, and they’re not sure if it’s EP water or not.”
The water notice fliers do not feature the name of any business, except for a small-font print near the bottom that says “We are a private company.” A solicitation that doesn’t feature the name of the business behind it is a red flag, according to the Better Business Bureau.
And the “final attempt” wording on the fliers deceptively implies that a homeowner may have their water shutoff if they don’t call the number on the flier, police said.
“Deceptive notices that can be left on doors are meant to mislead customers into purchasing water filtration systems that can cost upwards of $10,000,” said Marybeth Stevens, president of the Better Business Bureau in El Paso. “And they might get your attention by saying ‘Urgent’ or ‘Water Notice’ and making it look as if it comes from El Paso Water, when in fact it doesn’t.”
Salespeople from water filtration companies often say El Paso’s water contains unsafe levels of numerous cancerous toxins. The salespeople urge homeowners to purchase a water filter system – which can stand over five feet tall – in order to remove contaminants such as arsenic or fecal matter that they say are dangerously concentrated in the local water supply.
El Paso Water and water quality experts say those claims are untrue, and that the water that flows from taps in El Paso homes and businesses is entirely safe to drink.
“The water is safe. I drink the water every day coming from the tap,” said Dr. Anna Gitter, an El paso-based assistant professor of environmental health with UTHealth Houston School of Public Health.
“This water that’s produced by the city is tested multiple times a day by El Paso Water, and so they make sure this water is completely safe when it reaches your home,” she said.
Each of the water notice fliers pinned on households’ doors has a different phone number pasted on. A machine initially answers calls made to those phone numbers, telling the caller that they’ve reached “Water Inspection Services.” After an employee answers, they typically seek to schedule an appointment to test the water at the caller’s home.
An employee who answered the phone told an El Paso Matters reporter that they worked for a company called Water Tech.
A business named El Paso Water Tech is located in the Rojas Business Center off of Lee Treviño. Owner Sergio Cardenas declined an interview request from El Paso Matters. But Cardenas told the Better Business Bureau that he hasn’t left fliers at any homes, and he didn’t know who was placing the “Water Notices” on doors and using the name of his business, according to a BBB spokesperson.
The website for El Paso Water Tech has remained offline since shortly after El Paso Matters initially contacted Cardenas with questions about the fliers.
Law enforcement officials in other states have taken action against fraudulent water filtration businesses. In 2021, the Florida Attorney General shut down a firm that sold water filters – which were priced between $6,700 and $9,700 – because the company claimed the filtration systems would cure a range of maladies including cancer. And last December, the Minnesota Department of Health issued a warning to consumers about similar “water treatment scams.”
Some contaminants, acceptable levels
While water quality experts say El Paso’s water supply is safe, there are elements and compounds that exist in the water system, such as trace levels of arsenic and chlorine, among other compounds. But they’re at concentrations below the safe thresholds established by the Environmental Protection Agency, El Paso Water said.
“Arsenic is naturally occurring in our groundwater. We have a facility in the Northwest that does treat to a level that is acceptable for EPA’s guidelines,” Montoya said. “So yes, there are going to be minerals in the water. There’s going to be lithium, there’s going to be arsenic, there’s going to be fluoride. But it’s all a matter of what is within the Safe Drinking Water Act and the levels that are determined to be acceptable.”
Gitter, the UTHealth assistant professor, said the EPA’s drinking water standards “have been developed from very rigorous toxicological epidemiological studies” over the course of decades. And there are often more contaminants in ambient air than in your drinking water, she said.
“We’re exposed to contaminants every day through the air we breathe, the food we eat, our consumer products. And that’s continuous exposure, and we’re not getting sick from that,” Gitter said. “Sometimes people think ‘I live in a sterile environment.’ But that’s just not true.”
To some, the fact that El Paso Water treats wastewater – or sewage – and converts it back into potable water is enough reason to install a large water filtration system at their home. However, El Paso Water’s wastewater treatment strategy is meant to bolster the region’s water supplies and prevent El Paso Water from over-pumping the area’s groundwater. Despite some level of “ick” factor – or a natural disinclination to drink treated wastewater – the process is safe and proven over years to produce drinkable water.
“The science is there and we have the technology to safely treat wastewater to drinking water that meets the EPA standards or even is better quality,” Gitter said.
‘I would not trust those results’
One of the sales techniques for businesses selling water filtration systems is to visit a potential customer’s home and use some form of an at-home water quality test that purports to identify specific contaminants in the water.
However, Gitter said it requires laboratory tests to accurately identify contaminants or toxins in water.
“As someone who looks at water quality, I would not trust those results,” she said of at-home water tests. “I would want my water tested by a certified lab, such as what El Paso Water has.”
An at-home water test could, for example, simply be highlighting salt in the water or indicating the presence of a benign element such as chlorine, according to Ruben Rodriguez, the chief water quality compliance officer for El Paso Water. And at-home tests are not conducted in a controlled lab-like environment – a contaminated water glass could affect the results – and they don’t gauge water quality in a reliable way, he said.
“What they can do out there in the field is very, very simple. We have advanced instrumentation. At our lab, we have the ability to test parts per billion, even parts per trillion,” he said. “Whereas out in the field, it’s just a color test that is just a visual. It’s not actually using any device in any way.”
Water filtration companies also often tout alkaline water filters – which produce water with a lower level of acidity – and the health benefits of drinking alkaline water. Yet, while some people prefer the taste of alkaline water, there’s no evidence that water with a higher pH level improves human health.
“In the scientific literature and the research that’s been done, there is nothing necessarily saying that drinking alkaline water is better for you,” Gitter said.
El Paso Water and the Better Business Bureau are quick to point out that not every water filtration business in El Paso is fraudulent, however. Some are decades-old companies selling items such as water softeners that can change the taste of the water or have it produce more suds for cleaning.
A water filter “really does affect the taste,” Gitter said.
“If someone says ‘Oh, I don’t like the taste of the drinking water I have in my home’ then okay, get a filter, that will help,” she said. “If you’re wanting a filter for any kind of contaminant removal, there’s actually no need. The water coming from your tap is safe.”