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The Battle to Save Public Drinking Fountains from Extinction

Concerns about water quality and contamination have led to the decline of public water-fountain use and the rise of bottled alternatives. A few actions could help boost public confidence in drinking fountains.

Written by Padma Nagappan Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Menlo Park resident Robert Wilkins stops on a bicycle ride to fill his water bottle from a fountain at Pulgas Water Temple in Redwood City, Calif.Tara Lohan

If you were asked where the closest water fountain was, would you know? Some of you may if there’s a working water fountain in your office building, public library or park. Many of you may not know, but almost everyone could point out where to go to buy bottled water.

That’s the assessment of Peter Gleick, president emeritus of the water think tank the Pacific Institute and co-author of a report on health concerns with water fountains.

“I work in downtown Oakland, and there’s a water fountain 100 meters from here, and it has never worked for the 20 years we’ve been here,” said Gleick.

That’s the status quo that has led to the decline of public water fountains, helped by the rise of bottled water and concerns (some real and other manufactured) about the safety of the water and potential illness.

Measuring the decline in water fountain use is impossible because the data isn’t tracked. Most of the information available today is anecdotal – for instance, how stadiums such as one at the University of Central Florida have been built without drinking fountains to maximize revenue from the sale of bottled water and other drinks.

“That’s one of the data problems we see in water, that we don’t keep track of these trends,” he said.

Little Risk of Illness

The Pacific Institute’s “Drinking Fountains and Public Health” report found that there is little evidence tying illness to the water quality of the fountains at the point of use, and any problems can typically be traced to poor cleaning and maintenance of pipes.

“The incidences of contamination we’ve really seen are not because a dog was licking the fountain,” Gleick pointed out. “The real problem is with the infrastructure – older piping could have lead, which was the problem in Flint, Michigan, where the water picked up contaminants in the pipes.”

It boils down to regular cleaning, testing, maintenance and repair, which are not done enough. Gleick thinks it would be incredibly valuable for parents to know that someone is regularly testing the quality of water coming out of drinking fountains, as well as cleaning them.

The report recommends comprehensive monitoring and testing of all fountains, and developing a framework for maintenance, repair and replacement. It also calls for replacing old infrastructure with new pipes to eliminate lead, copper and microbial contamination, and upgrading older fountains with new filters.

It suggests installing more fountains to increase public access to municipal water, and helping schools, parks and others rebuild confidence in using fountains through communications outreach.

Where will the funding come from for such efforts?

“There’s a cost to not knowing whether our water is safe, and the cost of not maintaining our water fountains is much higher than the cost of properly maintaining them,” he pointed out, adding that water infrastructure needs to be maintained in much the same way as transportation infrastructure.

The money would need to come from users, operators or governments, he said. Utilities have budgets that allow for it, but school districts might need help, given the budget cuts and the fact that water fountains are not high on their priority list.

Fountains Out, Refilling Stations In

A water-bottle refilling station at LaGuardia Airport in New York. (Tara Lohan)

A water-bottle refilling station at LaGuardia Airport in New York. (Tara Lohan)

While most of us take access to safe drinking water for granted and don’t hesitate to use the taps in our kitchens, in hundreds of communities across California, residents do not have access to safe drinking water.

In the rural desert region of Coachella Valley, advocacy groups including the California Endowment, have funded a new version of the traditional water fountain: water refilling stations. Refilling stations look like slightly revamped water fountains that also allow for easily refilling reusable bottles. They are meant to increase access to safe drinking water in communities where water quality is an issue, due to arsenic or other contaminants.

Water refilling stations are also popping up in urban areas like San Francisco to encourage the use of its clean, public-water sources and cut down on pollution from plastic water bottles. Each year more than 42 billion single-serving plastic bottles are bought in the U.S., and 80 percent of them will end up landfills or incinerators, with millions littering waterways, beaches and streets.

Refilling stations have been installed at the California Academy for Sciences, which does not sell bottled water, as well as in some area schools, parks and San Francisco International Airport.

In addition to being more eco-friendly, increased access to free water also reduces the tendency for people to guzzle sugary drinks to quench their thirst, offering health and savings benefits.

Whether the decline of water fountains can be reversed or not, modern and clean-looking refill stations may help give public water fountains a branding reboot.

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