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Pacific Institute Insights is the staff blog of the Pacific Institute, one of the world’s leading nonprofit research groups on sustainable and equitable management of natural resources. For more about what we do, click here.

  • Make Public Drinking Water Fountains Great Again

    By Rapichan Phurisamban and Peter Gleick

    In February of 2017, the Pacific Institute released a white paper entitled Drinking Fountains and Public Health: Improving National Infrastructure to Rebuild Trust and Ensure Access, which highlighted the limited evidence of a link between illness and disease outbreaks and drinking fountains. The report found that most problems could be traced to contamination from poor cleaning and maintenance or old water infrastructure in buildings, and called for comprehensive testing of drinking fountains, implementation of standard protocols for fountain maintenance, and a nationwide effort to replace old water infrastructure, which can be the source of lead and other contaminants.

    One aspect of efforts to expand access to fountains is to take a look at current drinking fountain technology and identify features that can help ensure their quality, convenience, and reliability. Ultimately, these features can help increase public confidence and access to high quality and affordable tap water.

    A gallon of tap water from typical municipal water systems costs about half a cent, making drinking fountains the cheapest hydration source available in public spaces (and of course, almost all public fountains are completely free to the user). This cost may increase somewhat depending on the purchase, installation, and maintenance costs for each drinking fountain, but it remains far cheaper than the cost of bottled water, which typically ranges from $1 to $5 per gallon, or about 200 to 1,000 times more than tap water. (High-end bottled waters can be even far more costly.) These costs do not include the environmental costs of the bottled water industry.

    With many useful features that increase water quality and convenience, drinking fountains need no longer be the forgotten relics of the past. Cities, park districts, schools, hospitals, and other entities managing public spaces can offer fountains with many available options, including vandal resistance, freeze resistance, refrigeration, bottle filling, and filtration. Josselyn Ivanov provides a useful infographic of drinking fountain typologies, some of which are described below.

    Drinking fountains located outside will need to include features to help weather the elements, such as exposed aggregate finishes to prevent corrosion. Extremely durable cast iron fountains can withstand harsh weather, but are not appropriate for beach settings as they are prone to rusting when exposed to a constant high-moisture environment. Stainless steel fountains are more suitable in such cases; in fact, they are one of the most popular fountain types due to minimal maintenance needs and low cost. Vandal-resistant fountains are a great fit for high-traffic areas as they are equipped with heavy-duty parts such as galvanized frames and steel cabinets, which protect against damage and wear. In cold regions, a freeze-resistant feature allows fountains to continue to function by preventing damage from pipe freezing and breakage. (These units must be connected to waterlines buried below the frost line in order to prevent the incoming water from freezing.)

     

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    PHOTO: PETER GLEICK, LONDON, UK –Many public drinking water fountains suffer from lack of regular cleaning and maintenance.

    Other fountain features can be added to cater to users’ needs. Fountain bubblers (or spouts) vary from the very basic, such as a spigot, to the much more advanced. The most common is the arc bubbler, which is equipped with a mouth guard to prevent direct contact. Halsey Taylor fountains have a “Double Bubbler,” two converging streams that provide a fuller flow and extend the distance between the spout and the user. Most Dependable Fountains (MDF) can be installed with a “Safe Stream Bubbler” that self-seals by dropping down and locking into position when not in use in order to prevent potential contamination. Additionally, some designs include an additional spout that serves as a pet fountain or a station for washing hands and feet.

    The most notable improvement in drinking fountains in recent years has been the bottle filling option. The demand for bottle filling stations or bottle filler attachments increased significantly between 2010 and 2015 due to the proliferation of refillable bottles, the ease of use of these stations, and less perceived risk of contamination. At these stations, users can rapidly fill up their personal bottles, and then the water will automatically shut off to prevent waste. Bottle fillers can be installed as standalone stations, as attachments to existing fountains, or as models that come with a drinking fountain. Many of these bottle filling stations include a digital display showing the number of disposable plastic bottles saved from landfills. The cost of a bottle filling station can range from as low as $500 per unit for a retrofit kit (an attachment) to over $1,700 for a standalone freestanding model.

     

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    PHOTO: PETER GLEICK —  New water bottle filling stations offer high-tech options for travelers.

    Water chilling is another feature that makes modern fountains attractive to users. Chilling is typically available for indoor units where they can be connected to an electrical supply. Some fountains have built-in chillers, but existing non-refrigerated fountains can also be retrofitted with remote chillers. Alternatively, ice-chilled models or drinking fountains equipped with solar power systems can be used in areas that lack access to a power supply. Most fountains can dispense up to 6.6 gallons of chilled water per hour, but in high-traffic areas, a fountain should be able to dispense at least eight gallons of chilled water per hour.

    Some cities in Europe and Australia have taken the idea of chilled water further and added carbonation capability to regular drinking fountains. The concept of sparkling water fountains originated in Italy and has spread to other regions, including Lens and Brussels in Belgium and Perth in Australia. In Paris, these fountains are known as “La Petillante” or “she who sparkles.” The chilled and carbonated quality of this tap water makes it more attractive to locals and visitors alike. Some La Petillante fountains have vending machines nearby to sell reusable water bottles. Eau de Paris, the public company responsible for providing and maintaining drinking fountains throughout the city, offers a very interesting map of all of its 725 drinking fountains. There are currently six sparkling water fountains on the map. Users can also access a report (periodically updated) of each fountain’s quality, including temperature, pH, chlorine, and nitrate levels.

    With the Flint water crisis raising awareness of potential lead contamination in tap water, the installation of filters can reduce risks in contaminated fountains until aging pipes, lead solders, and other sources of contamination can be effectively removed. There are many different types of filters, the most common being activated carbon, which may be integrated with other filter media to increase filtration efficacy. The cost of carbon filters ranges from $90 to $160 per unit, depending on filtration capacity and effectiveness, and filters must be replaced according to the manufacturer’s maintenance schedule, typically once or more each year depending on use.

    In addition to carbon filters, reverse osmosis (RO) is an advanced filtration process that is also used by desalination plants. The process involves pre-screening the water to remove particles that can damage the RO membrane and then forcing water through a semi-permeable membrane under high pressure to filter out salts and other impurities. The finished water is then treated to increase the pH level and reduce the corrosiveness of the water. Replacement of RO membranes may be done every two to four years, but pre- and post-filters may need replacement every six to 12 months. Reverse osmosis is an energy-intensive and costly process that uses approximately three gallons of waterfor every gallon of filtered water produced. It is appropriate for removing contaminants that cannot be effectively removed by carbon filters, such as arsenic, hexavalent chromium, nitrate, and perchlorate. Other methods for removing contaminants include ceramic filters, distillers, and UV light units used to disinfect water. Since filters add to the cost of water fountains, water quality tests should be done before making any filter investments to both ensure that filters are needed and to identify the most appropriate type of filter to install.

    Drinking fountains must comply with the NSF/ANSI 61 Standard, which regulates the levels of contaminants, including lead, that can leach from the fountain unit into the water. Most publicly accessible spaces that provide drinking fountains are also required to meet standards specified by the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). These standards pertain to fountain installation, location, and other specifications (e.g., water pressure) that aim to provide the greatest access to the disabled.

    More effort is needed to improve access to affordable and safe drinking water at the national, state, and local levels. While we push for the broad upgrade of water infrastructure, we must also engage with cities, park districts, schools, and other institutions to rebuild public confidence in drinking fountains.

    As we move toward better public drinking water access, whether installing new fountains or replacing old ones, we should strive to use the most appropriate fountain designs in order to effectively provide high quality and affordable tap water to all who need it.

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  • Mobile Apps to Quench Your Thirst

    A Review of Public Drinking Fountain Finders

    By Ayana Crawford and Rapichan Phurisamban

    Public drinking fountains used to be everywhere, providing a reliable source of free, high-quality drinking water outside the home. They are a great alternative to bottled water, with its steep environmental costs and high price (200 to 1,000 times more expensive than tap water or more). Drinking fountains, however, have been disappearing from public spaces over the past few decades. Poor public perception and concerns over water quality (as illustrated in the “water fountain episode” of Parks and Recreation) have played a role in their disappearance.

    Water quality issues at public fountains, when they exist, can be traced to poor cleaning and maintenance or old piping and fixture parts. To ensure the quality and continuance of public drinking fountains, (1) they must be routinely cleaned and maintained; (2) old drinking fountains with lead parts must be replaced or new fountains installed in high-traffic areas, and; (3) modern tools must be developed to let people know how to find these fountains.

    …»

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  • Corporate Water Targets: A New Approach

    By Tien Shiao

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    Water risks once again rank as one of the top 10 global risks in the 2016 World Economic Forum’s annual report.

    Screen Shot 2017-05-20 at 8.22.58 PMBecause of this, more and more companies view water as a business risk and water stewardship as a solution. As such, they are looking to find ways to measure their performance and progress. However, current methods for creating water stewardship metrics that evaluate on-the-ground projects are inadequate.

    Corporate water targets are often developed with various objectives in mind. Sometimes they are used to demonstrate the company’s leadership to external audience. Sometimes they are used to inform and inspire employees internally. Sometimes they are used to align water efforts across the company’s operations in various regions. And sometimes they are used to mark the company’s contributions to …»

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  • Thirsty for Change? 4 Ways to Improve Corporate Water Targets

    By Paul Reig, Morgan Gillespy, Tien Shiao, Kari Vigerstol and Alexis Morgan

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    Water-related business risks are becoming more and more apparent. According to CDP’s 2016 global water report, 607 companies lost $14 billion last year alone due to water scarcity, drought, flood and other water risks.

    Current methods for creating corporate water stewardship targets—which often ignore the unique local context of water issues—are inadequate. For companies to succeed as water stewards, they need a new generation of targets. Such targets—based on the local context and guided by the best available science—would help ensure long-term business growth in the face of increased competition and depletion of water.

    That’s why CDP, the UN Global Compact CEO Water Mandate, the Nature Conservancy, the World Resources Institute and WWF are calling for a new approach to setting corporate water targets. Our discussion paper launched today makes the case for setting context-based corporate water targets. Here are four considerations for companies looking to create more impactful water stewardship goals:

    1. Local context matters—a lot.

    …»

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  • National Geographic ScienceBlogs: National Water Infrastructure Efforts Must Expand Access to Public Drinking Fountains

    By Peter Gleick and Rapichan Phurisamban 

    March 8, 2017

     

    Modern drinking fountains chill and filter water, and let users fill water bottles (Photo: Peter Gleick 2011)

    Modern drinking fountains chill and filter water, and let users fill water bottles (Photo: Peter Gleick 2011)

    There is strong bipartisan support for expanding investment in the nation’s water infrastructure as part of a broader infrastructure effort. But there is, as yet, little agreement about what specific investments should be made. Here is one idea: expand access to high-quality and safe municipal water by improving access to drinking fountains in schools, parks, public buildings, and around public transit areas.

    Drinking fountains are an important public resource, serving as an alternative to bottled water or sugary drinks and accommodating a wide array of users, including children, commuters, runners, the homeless, and tourists. Some fountains are even designed to provide water for pets. A newly released study from the Pacific Institute, entitled “Drinking Fountains and Public Health: Improving National Water Infrastructure to Rebuild Trust and Ensure Access,” discusses the state of the nation’s drinking fountains and addresses concerns about their quality and links to illnesses. The report concludes that the risk of fountain water contamination can be reduced or eliminated altogether through improved maintenance and cleaning or updating and replacing old water infrastructure and pipes. …»

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  • National Geographic ScienceBlogs: From Scientists to Policymakers: Communicating on Climate, Scientific Integrity, and More

    By Peter Gleick, President-Emeritus and Chief Scientist

    December 1, 2016

    Among the different professional categories, scientists and engineers remain very highly respected by the public, at least compared to politicians, business leaders, the media, and even religious authorities. Part of this is due to the fact that success in the scientific enterprise depends on impartial analysis and independence from political ideology. And yet there are strong connections between science and policy: good policy without good science is difficult; good policy with bad science is impossible. Sure, there is plenty of bad policy made even in the face of contradictory scientific evidence, but that is the result of political failures, or, at times, poor scientific communication.

    A perennial question facing scientists is when — and how — to participate in public communication and policy debates around issues of social concern. This is not a new question: as long as scientists have seen a connection between their work and major challenges facing society, some have acted on a sense of responsibility to contribute to debates about how science can be harnessed to improve the world. Scientists have little political power: they are small in numbers, rarely sufficiently financially wealthy to use money as a political tool, and often politically naïve or poorly networked.

    …»

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  • National Geographic Presents: Water Scarcity

    By Peter Gleick, President-Emeritus and Chief Scientist

    October 27, 2016

    The reality of climate change, driven by the fossil-fuel industrialization of the planet, is upon us. Scientists have known for decades of this risk and have, with increasing urgency, tried to alert the public and policy makers about the threat and the opportunities to reduce that threat, to little avail. And now, we must live with unavoidable consequences, even as we continue to work to reduce the emissions of climate-changing gases.

    Among those unavoidable consequences are widespread impacts on freshwater – perhaps the most important resource for human and ecological well being, economic productivity, and global security. Water is a renewable resource, and vital for all the things we want to do. The hydrologic cycle of evaporation, condensation, precipitation, runoff, and back to evaporation provides life-giving rains for crops and forests, generates the runoff we see flowing in our rivers and streams, and refreshes the oceans that are the nurseries for much of the life on the planet.

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  • 21st Century Water Demand Forecasting

    By Matthew Heberger, Senior Research Associate and Heather Cooley, Water Program Director

    August 31, 2016

    Yogi Berra once said, “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.” And nowhere is this more true than in the water business. Forecasts are extremely important for water utilities, which must make plans today to meet their communities’ current and future water needs. Since water supply projects can take years to plan and build, utilities’ long-term view often reaches twenty years or more into the future. But the industry has a poor track record when it comes to long-range forecasting.

    The results of this are not purely academic. The end result is that water utilities may build unneeded or oversized water supply and treatment infrastructure – things like reservoirs, pumping stations, treatment plants, and desalination facilities – passing on the costs to customers and creating unnecessary environmental impacts. …»

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  • U.S. Bottled Water Consumption on the Rise: What Does It Mean?

    By Rebecca Olson, Communications Associate

    July 21, 2016

                           Steven Depolo

    If last year’s bottled water sales are any indication, the sale of bottled water in the U.S. this year will likely surpass that of soda. In 2015, Americans bought the equivalent of five bottles of water per citizen each week. Meanwhile, the sale of soda fell 1.5 percent, reaching the lowest level per person since 1985.

    While there is a positive side to this picture — certainly water is a healthier beverage to consume than sugary carbonated drinks — the consumption of bottled water has negative environmental and economic repercussions, as outlined in Peter Gleick’s 2010 book Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water. As Gleick explained, each bottle of water is the product of a vast amount of energy and contributes to plastic waste. …»

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  • ERW Opinion: On Methods for Assessing Water-Resource Risks and Vulnerabilities

    By Peter Gleick, President Emeritus and Chief Scientist

    July 29, 2016

    Much more can and should be done with new data and methods to improve our understanding of water challenges, says Peter Gleick.

    As populations and economies continue to expand and as anthropogenic climate change accelerates, pressures on regional freshwater resources are also growing. A wide range of assessments of water pressures has been produced in recent years, including the regular updates from the United Nations World Water Development Reports (WWAP 2003, 2006, 2009, 2012, 2014, 2015), the biennial assessment The World’s Water (Gleick et al 1998–2015), the Aqueduct water stress datasets produced by the World Resources Institute (WRI 2015), and numerous other efforts to develop quantitative water measures and indices. The development of such methods has become increasingly common in recent years in order to help measure progress and evaluate the impacts or effectiveness of water policies and practices. The new letter in this volume of Environmental Research Letters by Padowski et al (2015) offers another opportunity to evaluate freshwater threats and vulnerabilities.

    …»

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