By Elizabeth Glazner
In a world where it’s possible that a federal wilderness protection agency is allowing a multinational corporation to abscond with millions of units of its most precious resource for profit, taking a drink from your local public water fountain is practically a political act.
But that is exactly the call to action the city of Los Angeles is making to mark Tap Water Day May 5 (tomorrow), taking place during National Drinking Water Week May 1-7. The local holiday is designed to get people to stop and think, if they haven’t already, about their most precious resource: the water they drink.
NOT taking drinking water for granted is de rigueur in states like California, besieged by drought for so long, it’s adopted the unofficial anthem “Brown is the New Green,” referring, of course, to the millions of lawns dead or dying due to state-mandated water usage cutbacks. After all, the governor ordering all this sacrifice is named Brown.
It’s important, on this and every day, that the connection between the free (minus utility fees) water drawn from your tap and the water bottled in millions of bottles made of virgin plastic from which millions pay to drink is widely understood to be virtually the same water. Tell your friends, family, the people you work with, and everybody you friended on Facebook, this truth.
You could belabor the point by also telling them that to make just one plastic water bottle takes seven times the amount of water in that bottle. That same plastic water bottle filled a quarter of the way up with oil from fossil fuels is the amount needed just to make it, never mind to deliver it. And there are environmental costs of the manufacturing process that are externalized, meaning passed on to you (more about costs down page). Tap water is highly regulated; bottled tap water, less so.
For at least the last decade, Nestlé Waters has steadily been decreasing the amount of spring water and increasing the amount of municipal tap water it bottles. According to Food and Water Watch, “many public water systems are inadequately funded and facing potential water shortages; allowing a corporation to bottle and sell community water can be a raw deal for the municipality.” This is especially happening in “emerging markets,” in corporate parlance—developing countries around the world where people do not have access to safe public drinking water. Where people have no choice.
It’s also happening across the U.S. where water infrastructure can be a century old and in need of repair and upgrades. Bottlers’ strategies to promote their water as healthier than tap water is especially dangerous as our public drinking water sources are disappearing. When is the last time you swept your hair back and stooped to drink from a public water fountain? If you’re under 30, maybe never; bottled water’s rise no doubt coincides with the disappearance of bubblers in public spaces over the last 30 years.
Plotting Public Water Sources
Some communities have saloons on every corner, but good luck trying to find a source of free tap water to drink. There is, however, an app for that, developed by WeTap, a nonprofit partner with the city of L.A. that seeks to improve awareness, access and use of public drinking fountains, to reduce dependence on single-use plastic, and improve public health. Use the app to map the water fountain on your running route or at the dog park, and you have done one small thing to help the movement to bring back public drinking fountains.
And that, ultimately, will help curb single-use plastic pollution by cutting in to the profits of the big water bottling companies who have been pumping municipal groundwater out from under towns and cities for decades, diverting it from our taps to their bottling plants.
“Approximately 155,000 public water systems in cities and municipalities throughout the U.S. treat, filter and deliver tap water to homes, businesses and institutions 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, at an average cost of $0.002 per gallon,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2012 numbers). Math tells us we are paying as much as a 2,000 percent markup for a gallon of bottled tap water. If you consider that most of the bottled water sold is in single-serving bottles, the cost hikes to about $7.50 per gallon, according to the American Water Works Association, making drinking water almost three times as expensive as the fuel we use to run our cars.
The existence of bottled drinking water has minimized scrutiny of our public drinking water supplies, as when we constantly worried whether our kids would come home with a pathogen from another kid’s spit in the playground’s drinking fountain. That image right there, along with mounting health claims that humans must constantly stay hydrated, was enough to launch a bottled water industry; imagine how far the best marketing minds can extend a thing like lead poisoning of a whole city’s schoolchildren. Detroit’s residents are not just catching colds—they are now potentially disabled because of the lead poisoning scandal there that is still unfolding.
Privatizing the Tap for Profit
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie quietly signed into law a water privatization agreement titled the “Water Infrastructure Protection Act” in February 2015. The legislation stands to directly benefit water utility companies like New Jersey American Water, that can now increase water rates without public referendum (their stock today is at a record high). They can increase rates when demand goes down because people are drinking more bottled water, or to offset costs incurred by infrastructure projects. They can increase rates whenever they want to.
Christie has since ordered the testing of all water systems in the state’s schools for lead. Even the most remote threat of lead poisoning presents an impossible conundrum, after Michigan officials’ inept and disastrous water management. An EPA study in 1986 concluded that the tap water used by at least 38 million Americans contained dangerous levels of lead, which caused sales of bottled water to spike. So a governor today would do right to seize the political moment and declare he’s protecting our kids from the bad bad tap water, in a move that just happens to also fluff some political backers. “Remediation can be done through bottled water,” Christie declared when he signed the legislation.
Just as there is an easy connection to be made between the water in your tap and the water in your plastic bottle, there is an easy connection to be made between passing a law giving corporations the right to take public water for their own profit, and publicly declaring that their tap water isn’t safe, thereby scaring people into buying their water in plastic bottles.
Except, the water in those bottles is probably their tap water.
This Tap Water Day, support public water fountains—step right up and take a drink.
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