Bostonians boast that it is the best in the country. The teetotaling mayor orders a “Boston Ale” when he hankers for a glass. Imported 65 miles from the pristine hills of central Massachusetts, it quenches thirst better than a sports drink.
Boston tap water.
Councilor Matt O’Malley wants you to drink more. At a City Hall hearing Thursday, O’Malley plans to push the city and state to install more outdoor bubblers, a.k.a water fountains. He is suggesting that some bubblers should be weather-proofed and remain on all year so joggers such as himself always have an excuse to stop for a sip. In O’Malley’s case, that would be on his loop around Jamaica Pond.
And O’Malley wants to install outdoor water filling stations, newfangled fountains designed to replenish reusable bottles when folks are out for a stroll. The idea is to shun landfill-clogging plastic and take advantage of what flows free.
“We have a great product here in the city,” says O’Malley, who grew up on the clear stuff from his faucet in Roslindale. “Boston tap water is regarded as some of the safest and cleanest in the country.”
Lobbyists for bottled water companies accuse O’Malley of propagating a “baseless and misleading” campaign against the plastic container industry that unfairly trashes bottles as a “wasteful and an unnecessary use of natural resources.”
“We take issue with attacking bottled water simply to promote the increased use of Boston’s tap water,” reads a three-page letter sent to O’Malley by the International Bottled Water Association and a regional trade group. The letter requested that “members of the Boston City Council refrain from unsubstantiated attacks on bottled water.”
The trade groups did not return phone messages Wednesday seeking comment. In the letter, they suggest that O’Malley’s efforts to promote tap over bottled water would push people to imbibe more soda and other sugary drinks. Companies in Massachusetts that manufacture, distribute, and sell bottled water employ roughly 3,300 people, according to the letter.
The hearing, scheduled for 11 a.m. on the fifth floor of City Hall, will examine the feasibility and cost of adding a still-to-be-determined number of water fountains and other water access points. O’Malley suggested the city might seek corporate underwriters to pay the cost, running shoe companies, for example. Mayor Thomas M. Menino affectionately calls Boston’s tap water “the greatest stuff on earth,” and is receptive to efforts to increase access to it, a spokeswoman said.
Water-bottle filling stations have flourished in airports and universities. San Francisco has about 30 in Golden Gate Park, Marina Green, and other locales, according to Daniel H. Whitman, whose company, Globaltap, developed the filling stations.
“The whole action of bending down and putting your face next to a faucet doesn’t appear to be very hygienic,” Whitman says. “Filling up your own bottle has a better perception.”
Globaltap has 400 to 500 water-filling stations across the country, including wall-mounted spigots in Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, Orchard Gardens K-8 School, and the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers in the Fenway.
“I’m not personally anti-bottle water, but I think people need to have a choice,” Whitman says. “I don’t think it has to be a political thing. I think people should be able to say, ‘I don’t want bottled water. I don’t want to pay for bottled water.’ It should be a city service to provide access to great, clean Boston water.”
Most of Boston’s tap water comes from the Quabbin Reservoir, built almost a century ago by damming the Swift River. Construction required the death of four Massachusetts towns as workers removed 650 homes and 34 cemeteries to make way for the 412 billion gallon reservoir.
The water meets federal quality standards at the source but is pumped to a treatment plant in Marlborough to make it even better, according to Frederick A. Laskey, executive director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, which provides water and sewer services through much of metropolitan Boston. The water is disinfected to kill organics, polished for taste, buffered for lead and copper, and fluoridated to prevent tooth decay.
“All you have to do is travel to other parts of the country, and you’re either drinking a swimming pool or drinking out of a swamp,” Laskey says. “At least that’s how it tastes to me.”
“Here, we’ve got great tasting water,” Laskey says. “And frankly we’ve got plenty of it.”
In Boston, the Parks Department operates 137 outdoor drinking fountains. The annual water bill for each bubbler is roughly $6.65 and maintenance costs are minimal, although children sometimes cram rocks into the spigots and drains, according to spokeswoman Jacquelyn Goddard.
The city turns off its bubblers for the winter so pipes do not freeze, although new freeze-resistant valves exist that allow fountains to operate year round. The Parks Department plans to install its first water-bottle filling station as part of the reconstruction of Hunt Playground on Almont Street in Mattapan. The filling station will cost $3,800, which is about $800 more than a standard drinking fountain.
“We want to prevent people from buying plastic disposal water bottles,” Goddard said. “We strongly urge people to carry refillable bottles.”