Where Have All the Water Fountains Gone?

People are turning away from bottled water as fast as they turned onto it.
Municipalities across Canada and the United States are limiting the sale and
purchase of bottled water in city buildings, bottled water free zones are popping
up on college and university campuses, community groups are phasing out the
use of bottled water, and the message about the ills of this product is all over
the mainstream media.

I was recently asked in an interview about the next steps for the movement
away from bottled water given that the backlash had spread so widely. The
interviewer mentioned that he wasn’t sure what people would do at his local
hockey arena when the only access to water was from an old dusty water
fountain. His question struck a chord and confirmed my belief that the success
of the anti-bottled water movement must more and more be accompanied with
stronger demands for the renewal of public access to potable drinking water.

Municipal leaders have shown that there is a strong political will for increased
use and promotion of tap water. However, we continuously hear of new buildings
being constructed without water fountains and existing buildings decommissioning
older water fountains without replacing them.

One example comes from the University of Central Florida (UCF) where a
$55 million football stadium was constructed with no water fountains.

In September 2007, UCF opened the 45,000 seat football stadium for a home game.
The day of the game was very hot and the concessions had less than 45,000 bottles
of water on hand. The concessions ran out of bottled water and fans were left thirsty.
More than sixty people were treated for heat exhaustion.

In the aftermath, it became clear that by omitting water fountains from the
building plans the University administration had not followed the latest building
codes that required either fountains or large water coolers. The administration
hid behind the fact that the plans for the stadium were created in 2001 when
the building code stated that selling single serve bottled water would be enough
to hydrate tens of thousands of people.

The University and the developers knew that there were no water fountains in the
building plans, and relied on the concession stands to supply drinking water at $3
a bottle. This was a conscious choice to exclude water fountains, and in this case,
the choice was to interpret the building codes in such a way that would ensure
expensive single serve bottled water would be the only water available in the stadium.

Outraged students quickly mobilized an online campaign to pressure the
university administration to install water fountains. The campaign got the
attention of the media, and the university administration quickly promised to
install 50 water fountains in the stadium.

A Canadian example of water fountain omission comes from a recent survey of
corporate presence on Canadian university campuses. The survey confirmed that
access to drinking water on university campuses is becoming increasingly limited.
Respondents to the survey noted a reduction of the number of fountains on
campus and an increasing number of broken fountains. One respondent from
Brock University said that, “In new buildings on campus, there are no water
fountains, only Pepsi machines, and the water fountains that do exist are sparse
and in inaccessible places.”

These two examples show that serious questions need to be asked about how
developers, and, in these cases, university administrations, can get away with
leaving water fountains out of building plans.

Who writes the building codes that allow for the omission of water fountains?
How are the codes interpreted or manipulated by developers to exclude proper
access to municipal drinking water sources? Regulatory bodies charged with
writing and overseeing building codes need to hear loud and clear that bottled
water is not the right option for hydrating large numbers of people.

Now that the bottled water industry is on the ropes and municipalities are
shunning these products in favour of tap, water activists have a golden
opportunity to start looking for answers. The question of public infrastructure
should be thrust into the bottled water debate with strong and well organized
calls for greater public investment in water services.

Any action taken by municipal governments moving consumers away from
bottled water needs to be accompanied with a deep commitment to reinvest
in the continent’s public water infrastructure, which seems to be on the brink
of crisis.

In the United States, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) found in
2005 that the “nation’s 54,000 drinking water systems face staggering public
investment needs over the next 20 years.” The ASCE also claims that water
infrastructure in the U.S. faces an 11$ billion (usd) funding shortfall every year.
Meanwhile, in Canada, a 2007 report from the Federation of Canadian
Municipalities (FCM) declared it will cost more than $25 billion (usd) to bring
water and waste water systems up to par. New water and wastewater needs
are estimated at $48 billion (usd).

For-profit water services corporations exploit these funding shortfalls to push
for public-private partnerships and full privatization of public water systems.
Take United Water (US subsidiary of French water services giant Suez), for
example, that states on its website that there are “options available to
municipalities faced with shrinking budgets and aging infrastructures.” The
company then markets its services saying that it can provide “flexible solutions
to these challenges through public-private partnerships and comprehensive
asset management contracts.”

Our political leadership is not doing much to help the situation either. When
the FCM report was released, Canada’s Finance Minister Jim Flaherty told
municipal leaders to stop “whining” and to “do their job.” This lack of sensitivity
by elected officials and lurking for-profit water services companies means that
we could see more privatization in the near future.

Consumers’ love affair with bottled water is coming to an end. However, if vows
are not renewed between politicians, public institutions and public water delivery,
people may find themselves living in a society where cheap access to water is a
privilege and not a right. This is the time for activists and concerned people
everywhere to issue strong calls for greater public access to free potable water
and a wholesale reinvestment in water infrastructure and services.

By Richard Girard, Polaris Institute

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *