Down the drain

Why public wa­ter foun­tains are dis­ap­pear­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - Ken­dra Pierre-Louis is a New York City-based free­lance writer whose work fo­cuses on the con­nec­tions be­tween the en­vi­ron­ment and so­ci­ety. Twit­ter: @kendrawrites

One sul­try day in 2012, a hand­ful of New York­ers laid out a rich red car­pet in Union Square Park. As a jazz band grooved in the back­ground, vested and beg loved hosts led guests to the star at­trac­tion: a drink­ing foun­tain. The event, called “Re­spect the Foun­tain,” was staged by a group with an un­likely mis­sion— to make wa­ter foun­tains cool again.

Foun­tains were once a revered fea­ture of ur­ban life, a cel­e­bra­tion of the tremen­dous tech­no­log­i­cal and po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal it takes to pro­vide clean drink­ing wa­ter to acom­mu­nity. To­day, they’re in cri­sis. Though no one tracks the num­ber of public foun­tains na­tion­ally, re­searchers say they’re fad­ing from Amer­ica’s parks, schools and sta­di­ums. “Wa­ter foun­tains have been dis­ap­pear­ing from public spa­ces through­out the coun­try over the last few decades,” lamented Nancy Stoner, an ad­min­is­tra­tor in the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency’s wa­ter of­fice. Wa­ter scholar Peter Gle­ick writes that they’ve be­come “an anachro­nism, or even a li­a­bil­ity.” Jim Salz­man, au­thor of “Drink­ing Wa­ter: A History,” says they’re “go­ing the way of pay phones.”

Even the In­ter­na­tional Plumb­ing Code, fol­lowed by builders in most Amer­i­can cities, has sig­naled that the foun­tain is out of style. In the 2015 edi­tion of the man­ual, which lays out rec­om­men­da­tions on mat­ters such as the num­ber of bath­rooms an of­fice should have and how pipes should work, au­thors slashed the num­ber of re­quired foun­tains for each build­ing by half.

This loss isn’t a re­sult of some ma­jor tech­no­log­i­cal dis­rup­tion. While U.S. con­sump­tion of bot­tled wa­ter quadru­pled be­tween

1993 and 2012 (reach­ing 9.67 bil­lion gal­lons an­nu­ally), that’s more a symp­tom than a cause. What’s changed in the past two decades is our at­ti­tude to­ward public space, gov­ern­ment and wa­ter it­self. “Most peo­ple over the age of 40 have re­ally pos­i­tive sto­ries of drink­ing foun­tains as kids,” says Scott Fran­cisco, who helped or­ga­nize the Union Square event with Pi­lot Projects, an ur­ban de­sign com­pany. The sense to­day, though, is that “they’re dan­ger­ous, they’re not main­tained and they’re dirty.”

In short, we don’t trust public foun­tains any­more. And it’s mak­ing us poorer, less healthy and less green.

The mod­ern era’s first free public wa­ter foun­tain was un­veiled in Lon­don in 1859. Thou­sands gath­ered to watch of­fi­cials turn on the tap. At its peak, about 7,000 peo­ple used the foun­tain each day. At that time, the rich were buy­ing wa­ter brought in from the coun­try. The poor were drink­ing wa­ter bot­tled from the sewage-in­fested Thames. Wa­ter­borne dis­eases such as cholera and ty­phoid were ram­pant.

The foun­tain changed all that by mak­ing clean wa­ter ac­ces­si­ble for free. By 1879, Lon­don had 800 foun­tains. Amer­i­can cities fol­lowed suit. In 1859, New York de­buted a foun­tain at City Hall Park. Detroit, Philadelphia and San Fran­cisco soon built their own. By 1920, most mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties were pro­vid­ing free, chlo­ri­nated wa­ter. The public health ben­e­fits were ob­vi­ous. Half of the de­cline in ur­ban deaths be­tween 1900 and 1940 can be at­trib­uted to im­prove­ments in wa­ter qual­ity, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Bureau of Eco­nomic Re­search. “Mu­nic­i­pal chlo­ri­nated wa­ter was con­sid­ered yet another mod­ern evo­lu­tion,” says Fran­cis H. Chapelle, a hy­drol­o­gist and the au­thor of “Well­springs: A Nat­u­ral History of Bot­tled Spring Wa­ters.” “It ba­si­cally put bot­tled wa­ter out of busi­ness.” By 1930, Chapelle says, bot­tled wa­ter had be­come “low class,” used only in of­fices and fac­to­ries that couldn’t af­ford plumb­ing.

At­ti­tudes be­gan to shift in the 1970s, when Europe’s Per­rier set its sights on the Amer­i­can mar­ket. In 1977, the com­pany spent $5 mil­lion on an advertising cam­paign in New York, selling it­self as a chic, up­scale prod­uct. Yup­pies lapped it up. “It was a lifestyle-defin­ing prod­uct,” Chapelle says. By 1982, U.S. bot­tled-wa­ter con­sump­tion had dou­bled to 3.4 gal­lons per per­son per year.

See­ing an op­por­tu­nity, U.S. bev­er­age pro­duc­ers fol­lowed Per­rier’s lead. In 1994, Pepsi launched Aqua­fina. Coca-Cola joined the club with Dasani in 1999. Home­grown brands, though, couldn’t boast glam­orous Euro­pean roots. So in­stead, they made Amer­i­cans afraid of the tap. One ad from Royal Spring Wa­ter claimed that “tap wa­ter is poi­son.” Another, from Cal­is­toga Moun­tain Spring Wa­ter, asked: “How can you be sure your wa­ter is safe? ... Un­for­tu­nately, you can’t.” Fiji Wa­ter in­fu­ri­ated Ohio with the tagline “The la­bel says Fiji be­cause it’s not bot­tled in Cleve­land.” The in­sinu- ation, of course, was that there was some­thing wrong with lo­cal wa­ter.

Amer­i­cans were re­cep­tive to this mes­sage be­cause of another shift: the rise of en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism. In­re­sponse to ac­tivist pres­sure, the gov­ern­ment drafted mea­sures like 1974’s Safe Drink­ing Wa­ter Act. The leg­is­la­tion made wa­ter much safer by lim­it­ing dump­ing and set­ting con­tam­i­nant stan­dards. But it had an un­in­tended con­se­quence: Be­cause mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties had to no­tify res­i­dents of con­tam­i­na­tion im­me­di­ately, Amer­i­cans who had grown up trust­ing tap wa­ter were now get­ting bom­barded with warn­ings of pos­si­ble risks.

Public wa­ter faced more scru­tiny in 1986, when an EPA study con­cluded that the tap wa­ter used by at least 38 mil­lion Amer­i­cans con­tained dan­ger­ous lev­els of lead. Sales of bot­tled wa­ter and fil­ters jumped in the weeks af­ter the re­port was re­leased, ac­cord­ing to the Wall Street Jour­nal. In Washington, res­i­dents flooded Dis­trict of­fi­cials with re­quests for wa­ter sam­ple tests. (In 1985, there had been fewer than 30 re­quests. In 1986, there were at least 883.) Congress con­ducted hear­ings, and mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties moved quickly to elim­i­nate the risk. But the dam­age was done. Be­tween 1973 and 1988, the share of Amer­i­cans who said they were ex­tremely con­cerned about tap-wa­ter pol­lu­tion jumped from 32 per­cent to 66 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to Gallup.

In re­sponse, bot­tled-wa­ter sales be­gan to rise. In 1987, Amer­i­cans con­sumed about seven gal­lons of bot­tled wa­ter per per­son an­nu­ally. In 2014, we were drink­ing 34 gal­lons per year. Amer­i­cans now drink more bot­tled wa­ter than milk or beer.

To­day, 77 per­cent of Amer­i­cans are con­cerned about pol­lu­tion in their drink­ing wa­ter, ac­cord­ing to Gallup, even though tap wa­ter and bot­tled wa­ter are treated the same way, and stud­ies show that tap is as safe as bot­tled.

If you don’t trust tap wa­ter, you won’t trust wa­ter foun­tains. So when you’re in a public space, you’re not likely to look for a foun­tain or com­plain when there isn’t one. A new foun­tain costs be­tween $300 and $4,500 to in­stall, depend­ing on plumb­ing and lo­ca­tion. When mu­nic­i­pal bud­gets are tight, cut­ting foun­tains may be one way to re­duce costs with­out rais­ing the public’s ire.

“No one is drop­ping dead of thirst in the United States,” Gle­ick says. “But the fail­ure to main­tain public wa­ter foun­tains is en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to look else­where for their hy­dra­tion. When peo­ple care less about the public wa­ter sup­ply . . . [the will to] main­tain it goes down.”

The dis­ap­pear­ance of wa­ter foun­tains has hurt public health. Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol re­searcher Stephen Onufrak has found that the less young peo­ple trust wa­ter foun­tains, the more sug­ary bev­er­ages they drink. Stud­ies have found that kids who con­sume sug­ary drinks regularly are 60 per­cent more likely to be obese, and adults who do so are 26 per­cent more likely to de­velop Type 2 di­a­betes.

The re­liance on bot­tled wa­ter rather than foun­tains also has se­ri­ous en­vi­ron­men­tal ef­fects. Ac­cord­ing to the Earth Pol­icy In­sti­tute, it takes about 1.5 mil­lion bar­rels of oil to cre­ate the 50 bil­lion plas­tic wa­ter bot­tles Amer­i­cans use each year. (That’s enough oil to fuel 100,000 cars for a year.) Less than a quar­ter of those bot­tles are re­cy­cled. And these sta­tis­tics don’t even ac­count for the fuel used in trans­port­ing the wa­ter around the coun­try and the world.

Bot­tled wa­ter is also ex­pen­sive. Drink­ing eight glasses of tap wa­ter a day costs about 49 cents a year. If you got that hy­dra­tion ex­clu­sively from bot­tles, you’d pay about $ 1,400, or2,900 times more. If you’re liv­ing at the poverty line, that’s 10 per­cent of your in­come.

The tran­si­tion away from foun­tains has also made it harder to ac­cess wa­ter in public. For ex­am­ple, in 2007, the Univer­sity of Cen­tral Florida built a 45,000-seat sta­dium with no foun­tains. The univer­sity claimed they were too ex­pen­sive to in­stall and main­tain. Selling bot­tled wa­ter at $3 a bot­tle, mean­while, would gen­er­ate prof­its. But at the open­ing game, with tem­per­a­tures reach­ing near 100 de­grees, ven­dors ran out of wa­ter. Some 60 at­ten­dees were treated for heat-re­lated is­sues; 18 were hos­pi­tal­ized for heat ex­haus­tion. The univer­sity even­tu­ally in­stalled 50 foun­tains.

There is some good news. Some cities are slowly bring­ing back — or at least in­creas­ing main­te­nance of— wa­ter foun­tains. In2013, Los An­ge­les put to­gether a com­pre­hen­sive plan to up­grade and re­store public wa­ter foun­tains. In 2008, Min­neapo­lis spent $500,000 on 10 new foun­tains de­signed by lo­cal artists. In Washington, the non­profit group Tap It pro­motes ac­cess to tap wa­ter by push­ing busi­nesses to pro­vide free wa­ter-bot­tle-re­fill­ing sta­tions. Other cities, in­clud­ing New York, Seat­tle and San Fran­cisco, have taken steps to stop us­ing bot­tled wa­ter in gov­ern­ment build­ings.

Eve­lyn Wen­del launched We Tap, a Los An­ge­les-based non­profit ded­i­cated to public wa­ter pro­mo­tion, af­ter notic­ing that the foun­tains at the park where her kids played were fre­quently bro­ken or dirty. “We can make im­prove­ments by teach­ing how valu­able our mu­nic­i­pal wa­ter is and mak­ing it avail­able in schools and parks,” she says. “It’s a mea­sure­ment of the suc­cess of hu­man­ity when you have free wa­ter for the com­mu­nity.”

“It’s a mea­sure­ment of the suc­cess of hu­man­ity when you have free wa­ter for the com­mu­nity.” Eve­lyn Wen­del, public-wa­ter ad­vo­cate in L.A.

K2 PHO­TOG­RA­PHY/GETTY IM­AGES

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