A Campaign to Revive Public Water Fountains Aims to Reduce Use of Bottled Water

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Are public fountains in your L.A. neighborhood usable? Evelyn Wendel of WeTap is campaigning to make sure they are, for civic, health and environmental reasons. But would you choose to drink free municipal water over costly bottled CO2?

Water fountain at Hansen Dam

“When you have water that is available, and it’s good quality, and it’s free, it’s a sign of great generosity. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing for the city of L.A. to restore these water fountains as a sign to show we are a generous society?” – Jonathan Parfrey

Do you drink from L.A.’s fountains?

Early LA’s thirst for water was quenched by the LA Aqueduct, whose centennial was celebrated on this KCRW special program last week, Power and Water. But the system that it created to deliver safe, clean and affordable drinking water to our homes has competition: from a nearly bottomless appetite for bottled water.

Elysian park broken fountain
Broken fountain in Elysian Park (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Either for convenience, taste or safety fears, Americans are swigging more and more bottled water. Meanwhile the public fountains that used to serve the public in parks and schools across Los Angeles have fallen into disrepair and disuse, further increasing the use of bottled water.

In 2008 a group was formed called WeTap. It’s goal: “to improve awareness, access and use of public fountains.” Its founder, Evelyn Wendel, believes that increased access to local tap water at LA’s public fountains will help decrease use of polluting single-use plastic bottles as well as contribute to decreasing obesity among children (who drink bottled sodas as well as bottled water LA’s parks and public schools). She also argues that public water fountains have a civic role and that by closing off access to them we are failing to acknowledge the blessing of clean and safe municipal water.

Wendel has visited 50 of LA’s parks, researching access to fountains and found many of them unusable, as shown in her images. She is currently working with Councilman Tom LaBonge and the Department of Recreation and Parks and with the DWP on efforts to improve access to public fountains.

However, Wendel and WeTap’s supporters are up against the challenge of deep-seated distrust or distaste for tap water, especially in Los Angeles (both the City, served by the DWP, and the County, much of which is served by the MWD). The distrust is found among affluent Westsiders and among poor immigrants who bring deep distrust for drinking tap water from countries where they would be poisoned if they did so.

Leimert park water fountain
Water fountain in Leimert Park (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The distrust was not helped by a report issued a decade ago by the NRDC which concluded that “antiquated waterworks and pollution are combining to affect the quality of drinking water residents receive in many cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco.”

Some numbers represent the challenge WeTap is up against:  In 2012, total U.S. bottled water consumption increased to 9.67 billion gallons, up from 9.1 billion gallons in 2011, the strongest it has been in five years.  In addition, per-capita consumption is up 5.3 percent in 2012, with every person in America drinking an average of 30.8 gallons of bottled water last year.  Bottled water increased in absolute volume more than any other beverage category in the US.

Bottled water sales increased by 6.7 percent in 2012, and now total $11.8 billion.

Some experts, like Jonathan Parfrey, Executive Director of Climate Resolve, argue that bottled water is not even necessarily safer than tap, because bottled water is stored for long periods of time and trucked over vast distances. He notes that at the town of Olancha in the Eastern Sierra you can see the Owens Valley aqueduct, and sitting right next to it is the Crystal Geyser bottling plant. Which would you prefer, he asks: expensive bottled water that’s derived from the same source and stored and then trucked over miles. Or fresh water direct from the same source delivered to a tap or public fountain?

Water Fountain from Griffith Park
Water Fountain from Griffith Park (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Listen below to Which Way LA, featuring Evelyn Wendel, Jonathan Parfrey and other guests. And listen to Madeleine Brand’s Power and Water. See this article in LA Magazine for more on the significance of the LA Aqueduct.

All photos above are by Evelyn Wendel who has been documenting LA’s public fountains.