PORTLAND, Maine — When Portland Water District and Portland International Jetport officials gathered for a news conference two years ago to unveil their first water bottle-filling station, they hadn’t even gotten the microphones warmed up before travelers began lining up to use the amenity.

“We were holding the press conference and people were already trying to fill up,” recalled Airport Director Paul Bradbury late Thursday morning. “A woman walked up to the station with her bottle, and then there was a little girl who had her little bottle.”

According to a digital counter affixed to it, that station two years later has refilled about 49,000 water bottles, while another station at the jetport installed a few months after the first has refilled nearly 39,000. That’s about 88,000 plastic bottles saved from the waste stream at the airport alone, water district officials figure.

On Thursday, they announced a new annual grant program that aims to buy water bottle-filling stations for other businesses or nonprofit organizations in Greater Portland.

While water district board president Guy Cote said many companies and other institutions — such as University of Southern Maine — have installed filling stations around the nation, “we’re not aware of any other grant programs like this in the country” run by a municipality or public utility.

Cote said the district plans to budget $7,000 per year for the grant program, which organization leaders consider a strong investment in terms of both public outreach and environmental sustainability.

District spokeswoman Michelle Clements said the budgeted amount is expected to cover the purchase of one or two new filling stations each year for successful applicants, but noted that some conversions of pre-existing water fountains to become filling stations could cost as little as $500. More elaborate stations, including those located outdoors or with multiple spigots, could cost several thousand dollars apiece, Clements said.

The filling stations are superior to simply using available bathroom faucets because they’re ergonomically aligned to fit the bottles, reducing splash or other messes, and because they automatically sense bottles to fill, eliminating the need to touch public buttons or levers, where germs or other bacteria can be passed along.

The district mailed 3,000 pamphlets about the program to local businesses and nonprofits. Grant applications can be filed through the district website, Clements said, and are due by Oct. 31.

“We see them being located in high traffic areas, like community centers, health and fitness [facilities] or business offices,” Cote said.

“This is a good way to promote the good water we have,” water district board vice president Robert McSorley said Thursday. “This is also a way to possibly eliminate a lot of the bottled waters going into our landfills.”

This is not the first time the Portland Water District has pounded the drum for the taste of its product. Clements said the organization kept an elaborate booth with tasting fountains at Portland’s majestic Union Station during the decades before the structure’s demolition in 1961.

Cote said the relative purity of the district’s water source, Sebago Lake, alleviates the need for much processing before it’s piped to taps. That’s not the case in many other urban locations in the country, he said.

“I do a lot of traveling, and I’m always anxious to come back home, mostly because of the water,” Cote said. “The water quality we have here easily matches what you’d find in bottled water, and in my opinion exceeds it.”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.