It's Time to Bring Back the Public Water Fountain

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Don't put your lips on that!. Hulton archives/ Getty Images

About 15 years ago, according to Elizabeth Royte in "Bottlemania," a Pepsi Cola vice president told investors: “when we are done, tap water will be relegated to showers and washing dishes.” They have pretty much succeeded; bottled water has come from nowhere to be a huge business, with Americans drinking 50 billion bottles of it every year.

At the same time, public water fountains have been disappearing. As people have moved to bottled water, municipalities have cut back to save money on expensive maintenance. According to the New York Times, the master plumber who keeps them running in Queens faces all kinds of problems.

That some of the pipes delivering those cold, satisfying sips date to the 1930s is the least of his worries. He also deals with thieves who, under cover of darkness, pry off bronze bowls and brass valves to sell for scrap. He contends with children who, in the light of day, pour sand down drains, shove twigs in spouts and leave water balloon shrapnel behind. He chafes at ball players who wash their cleats in fountains. (“Ball field clay is the worst,” he said.)

It’s not only an economic problem for cities, it’s an environmental problem making and dealing with water bottles. It’s also a health problem. According to the Washington Post:

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.

Meanwhile, the bottlers keep up the pressure, demeaning public water supplies and overturning a National Parks ban on bottled water.

At the same time that water fountains are being removed and building codes are being changed to reduce the requirement for them in buildings, people have been encouraged to drink more water, all the time. Writer Kelly Rossiter was recently at an art gallery where they told a woman in line in front of her that she would have to check her water bottle. She cried “but how will I stay hydrated?” This, in a temperature- and humidity-controlled building with water fountains.

Fortunately, water fountains are having a bit of a renaissance. According to Jessica Leigh Lester in CityLab, New York City in particular is peddling its tap water, which is among the best in the world.

The initiative tries to sell thirsty residents on municipal water by playing up its nutritional elements (“NYC water contains zero calories, zero sugar, and zero fat”), cost effectiveness, and contributions to lessening the environmental burden created by bottling water. Plastic water bottles produced for American consumption siphon 1.5 million barrels of oil per year, and each one-liter bottle guzzles three liters of water during production.

Jaymi Heimbuch noted that a new fountain in London was opened to much fanfare in Trafalgar Square, and how Mayor Boris Johnson promised more:

It is fantastic news that a refreshing gulp of free London tap water is now available to the millions of people who visit Trafalgar Square every year. Many old drinking fountains lie dormant and I hope this newly restored feature helps to untap a new trend in civic planning. We will be working to encourage this through our own programmes to improve London’s public spaces.

Even the EPA is into it, with a Bring Back the Water Fountain Campaign. The agency notes:

Through our taxes, we all pay to support our public drinking water systems. By expanding the system of public drinking fountains, we can provide access to clean, safe tap water and reduce our reliance on bottled water and other, less healthy options.
wetap screen shot
Find your nearest fountain with WeTap. WeTap screen shot

There are now apps available like WeTap to find water fountains in cities around the world, so it’s really not hard. So if you need a drink, pull out your phone and support your local public water fountain.