Putting Tap Back on the Map: The Benefits of Public Water

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Nick Riehl of the Los Angeles Conservation Corps at the Glendale Narrows Riverwalk drinking fountain. Photo by Carren Jao.

Would you pay over 1,000 times more for something you could get for free? I didn't think so, but that's exactly what happens approximately 85 million times every day, as Americans consume water out of pre-packaged plastic bottles.

Bottled water costs 750 to 2,700 times more than tap, but millions of people pay for the privilege of drinking what is essentially tap water. While their choices may instantly slake their thirsts, it is also sucking Mother Nature dry.

Environmental research non-profit Pacific Institute estimates that it took three liters of water to produce one liter of bottled water and the process of bottling the water produces more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide. That's not even taking into consideration additional resources needed to transport the bottles by trucks, cool it in refrigerators or, ideally, even recycling it.

"We're bombarded by advertisements that this or that water is wonderful or will make you sexier, smarter or more popular. Municipal agencies don't have the money to do that," said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute who also wrote the book, "Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water."

As a result, confidence in public water is waning, and with it, access to safe, free water. Over the years, drinking fountains have gradually faded from sight. While they can still be found tucked in corners or near bathrooms, even well meaning refillable bottle carriers sometimes experience anxiety at not easily finding one near their location.

Thankfully, they're not yet extinct. I found a fountain disguised as a stone outcropping at the Glendale Narrows Riverwalk opening a week ago. I found another just outside the restrooms while at the Vista Hermosa Park in downtown Los Angeles.

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Challenge: find the nearest fountain

Enter WeTap. Launched in 2009 at the California Governor and First Lady Maria Shriver's Women's Conference, WeTap aims to put drinking fountains back on the map -- literally -- with the help of an app for Androids. Using GPS, the app points you to the nearest available drinking fountain. It also allows you to add locations of public drinking fountains to their database, including what repair or maintenance is needed.

WeTap founder Evelyn Wendel hopes someday, this first-ever comprehensive database will provide water agencies and other facility managers enough information to ensure availability and care for this overlooked amenity. "The departments of Recreation and Park and Public Works, they don't have records of fountains. This could really benefit the cities," said Wendel. Until now, there has been no systematic approach to keep track of which fountains need servicing.

Public water is clean water

The organization has a daunting task before them. Not only does it need to convince the public to use drink the fountains, it also needs to educate them about the public water's safety. WeTap got some support last spring when the Department of Water and Power (DWP) released a statement promoting the app, while also touching on water quality, but Wendel's most convincing argument is the fact that public water is highly regulated, while bottled water regulation have more catching up to do.

"Our drinking water is tested at least a couple of thousand times a day," said Jonathan Parfey, director of L.A.-based climate change organization, Climate Resolve and DWP commissioner. "Every reservoir, every distribution center, every area where there's water flowing to the city, chemists go out there and conduct analyses on the water quality every single day."

As required by the Safe Drinking Water act, the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates public water. It requires testing by certified laboratories and mandatory disclosure of violations. If something goes wrong, the public is sure to know about it. In Los Angeles, DWP has taken steps to surpass even those federal expectations. "We go above and beyond," said Parfey. "We do more testing than is legally required. We hold ourselves to a higher standard of providing even cleaner water than is required by law."

On the other hand, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation over bottled water is often weaker than EPA's over public water. FDA regulations exempt as much as 60 to 70 percent of bottled water from its set standards. There are also no federal or disinfection requirements for bottled water.

Faced with these facts, Wendel asks the public to choose between safe, free drinking water instead of overpriced bottled water. The answer seems a no-brainer, but as Los Angeles reclaims more green spaces in the city and along the river, it needs more people lining up at the fountains and adding to this drinking fountain database to prove we're serious about our choices.


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