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.

  • 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.

    The significance of drinking fountains has been documented since ancient times. Some of the earliest records of public water fountains come from ancient Greek cities, where fountains were both a common sight and a public necessity. A second century Greek writer, Pausanias, wrote that a place can never rightfully be called a “city” without water fountains. Spring-fed public water fountains were typically placed in or near temples and were dedicated to gods, goddesses, nymphs, and heroes.


    Florence, Italy

    Drinking Fountain, Florence, Italy (Photo: Peter Gleick)

    As populations grew and cities expanded, demand for public water systems and new water treatment and delivery technologies led to the increased use of public water fountains. By the early 20th century, public drinking fountains became a fixture of the urban landscape. In the past few decades, however, they have been disappearing from public spaces for several reasons, including the advent of commercial bottled water, decreased public investment in urban infrastructure, concern over the health risks of fountains and municipal water in general, and alaisse-faire attitude toward public water systems.

    It is time to reverse this trend.

    Drinking fountains are essential for maintaining free public access to water, and we need to expand the science and practice of ensuring they remain clean, safe, and accessible. A modest investment by public agencies, school and park districts, and even private businesses could greatly expand the number and quality of drinking water fountains. New fountain designs equipped with filters, chillers, and bottle fillers make fountains an even smarter choice for everyone. Mobile apps that make it easier to find a nearby drinking fountain are currently being tested and could improve access to drinking water, and thus public health.

    Drinking fountain, California (Photo: Peter Gleick)

    Drinking fountain, California (Photo: Peter Gleick)

    Key recommendations from the Pacific Institute report should be adopted quickly, by federal, state, and local agencies, and by others who build and maintain drinking fountains. These recommendations include consistent cleaning and routine maintenance; installation of new fountains in high-traffic areas; retrofitting or replacement of old models with modern fountains with optional filters, chillers, and bottle fillers; and the elimination of parts and pipes that contain lead and copper.

    Recent reports of unsafe water from fountains show that the problem is almost never the fountain itself, but old water distribution and plumbing systems that should, with a proper national water infrastructure effort, be upgraded and replaced immediately to remove lead and other sources of contamination. Uniform maintenance guidelines should be developed and widely adopted. These efforts, combined with communications on the results of regular water testing, reports on the performance of fountains, and information on how to find and access high-quality drinking fountains, can help build public trust in water fountains and protect the human right to water.

    This article was originaly published on

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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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  • SaltonSea2_lg

    Fits and Starts at the Salton Sea

    By Michael Cohen, Senior Research Associate

    May 16, 2016

    Daniel M. Edwards
    Daniel M. Edwards

    The fortunes and prospects of California’s Salton Sea have ebbed and flowed over the years. Currently, the Sea is enjoying renewed attention and funding, after almost a decade of neglect and indifference. The State of California is poised to dedicate $80 million to efforts to protect and revitalize (a small portion of) the Salton Sea, prompted in large part by a fast-approaching tipping point that will see a dramatic shrinking of the Sea, devastating its rich ecosystem and imperiling the health of hundreds of thousands of people in the region.


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  • slow-the-flow

    Planning For Rain: Why Storm Water Management Matters during the Drought

    by Paula Luu, Communications Manager

    July 31, 2014

    slow-the-flowIt’s been weeks, even months, since some parts of California have gotten rain, and it’s likely it will be a few more months before rains return. Water districts across the state have imposed mandatory and voluntary water restrictions to encourage water conservation and efficiency, but there have been fewer discussions around what and how we can prepare for the upcoming rainy season  during the drought. 

    Stormwater runoff is generated when precipitation from rain and snow hits impervious surfaces such as roads, rooftops, or parking lots and is not absorbed into the ground. Instead, this water picks up trash, metals, chemicals, and other contaminants as it makes it way to our waterways. Due to concerns about flood damage in urban areas, stormwater was traditionally viewed as a liability, and urban areas were designed to get stormwater out to waterways as fast as possible. In California, stormwater typically bypasses water treatment plants, and as a result, is a major source of pollution in our rivers, streams, and ocean.  

    There are many opportunity costs associated with the traditional stormwater management, but the biggest one that concerns our thirsty state is groundwater recharge. By moving water away from the people and places that need it, stormwater cannot percolate into the ground and replenish water we keep drilling deeper and deeper to reach.


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  • Gleick-headshot-2013

    Huffington Post: The State of Our Water: World Water Day 2014

    By Peter Gleick, President

    March 21, 2014

    Welcome to World Water Day 2014. As I said last year, I think every day should be World Water Day, not just March 22nd, but hey, we take what we can get. Here are some thoughts that warrant repeating about water and important water news from the past year.

    • Those of us who are lucky enough to live in countries with high-quality tap water take it for granted. Go to your tap, draw a glass of water, and drink it. Then remember that nearly a billion people still do not have reliable access to safe, affordable tap water and cannot do what you’ve just done.
    • Stop taking your toilet for granted, too. Nearly 2.5 billion people (more people than lived on the planet in the 1930s) don’t have safe sanitation.
    • Do you know anyone who had cholera, or typhoid, or dysentery? Probably not. Yet just a few generations ago, some of your ancestors certainly died from one of these diseases. The bad news is that millions of people still die from these preventable diseases — associated directly with the lack of safe water and sanitation.
    • That food you’re eating or the clothes you’re wearing or the computer you’re sitting at to read this? It took a lot of water to produce them. That water is part of your water footprint. Here are some resources that discuss water footprints.
    • …»

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  • ca-temperatures-blog

    National Geographic ScienceBlog: Clarifying the Discussion about California Drought and Climate Change

    By Peter Gleick, President

    March 7, 2014

    In the last few months, as the severe California drought has garnered attention among scientists, policymakers, and media, there has been a growing debate about the links between the drought and climate change. The debate has been marked by considerable controversy, confusion, and opaqueness.

    The confusion stems from the failure of some scientists, bloggers, reporters, and others to distinguish among three separate questions. All three questions are scientifically interesting. But the three are different in their nuance, their importance to policy, and their interest to politicians and water managers. Here are the three different questions:

      1. Is the California drought caused by climate change?
      2. Is the California drought, no matter the cause, influenced or affected by climate changes already occurring?
      3. How will climate changes affect future drought risks in California?


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      It’s My Drought! And Yours. Face it.

      By Nancy Ross, Communications Director

      February 27, 2014

      The California drought has everyone wondering what we can do. Well, we can’t make it rain. But we can make an effort to understand the reality of water shortage, to recognize how we individually can make an impact, and to think about how yesterday’s water policy and pricing is going to have to change to serve us in a new reality of more frequent and more severe drought. And we can get on board with that instead of whining about it!

      The fact is that for a great majority of us in the cities, “drought” hasn’t hit us that hard except that we miss those cozy rainy days curled up with a book. I don’t have a lawn; I don’t have a garden.  I never wash my car anyway (it’s the environmentally responsible choice for those of us with 13-year-old-high-mileage junkers!). …»

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    2. 17-counties-facing-water-shortages

      Rural Water Systems Struggle in the Good Times and the Bad

      By Joe Ferrell, Communications Intern

      February 21, 2014

      The current drought is shaping up to be particularly damaging to small and rural communities. In mid-February, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) announced that 17 rural communities face the prospect of running out of water within 60-100 days. These water systems serve populations ranging from 39 to 11,000 Californians. The CDPH is extending its assistance to these communities in an effort to both reduce water use and locate alternative sources, stressing the need for conservation and creativity.

      However, water systems in rural communities have been underfunded for years, something that has impacted their ability to maintain and upgrade infrastructure. The State will hopefully work to make infrastructure that is already in place more efficient, but as the drought continues, they will likely look to bring in water from elsewhere. This could be done by connecting smaller water systems to larger ones, drilling new wells, or hauling in water on trucks, among other options.


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    3. The Sacramento Bee: Why I’m still confused about the proposed tunnels in the Delta

      By Peter Gleick, Pacific Institute President

      November 6, 2013

      This blog post originally was posted on The Sacramento Bee on November 6, 2013. 

      I and my colleagues at the Pacific Institute have worked on California water issues for more than a quarter of a century. It is therefore no surprise that we get asked on a regular basis by friends, journalists and colleagues what we think about the efforts underway to resolve the problems of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and in particular, about the proposed massive tunnel project to divert water from the Sacramento River to the conveyance aqueducts south of the Delta. …»

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    4. social-media-icons

      Water Managers and Social Media: How to Get Started

      By Paula Luu, Communications Manager

      October 24, 2013

      A few of you have reached out to me after I wrote about why water managers should invest in social media. It looks like I’ve managed to convince a few of you that it’s worthwhile, but now what?

      Here are a few tips and tricks to help you get things off the ground:

      Figure out which social sites to engage on given your customers and goals. …»

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