Where Have All the Water Fountains Gone? Here's Why We Should Bring Them Back

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 

water fountain
Public water fountains were a ubiquitous part of public life before the advent of the environmentally disastrous plastic water bottle. H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Back in the 2000s, James Salzman, a professor of environmental law at UCLA, was explaining to a classroom full of students that the public water supply was safer than it had ever been, when he noticed something odd. Instead of relying on one of the building's drinking fountains, half of the class had brought bottled water with them.

Since then, things haven't changed. "Sales of bottled water now exceed sales of soft drinks," notes Salzman, author of the book, "Drinking Water: A History."

We're in an age when many Americans choose to pay to obtain hydration from a single-use, disposable plastic bottle, instead of relying upon drinking fountains, a technology for delivering water to thirsty people that's been around for centuries. It's a technology that is seen as so important for health that the International Plumbing Code calls for having one fountain for every 100 occupants in schools and office buildings.

While the drinking fountain hasn't vanished from the built environment by any means — many places still have regulations requiring them in buildings, experts note — their future seems unsure. But if you've ever searched for a drinking fountain in a big-box store or shopping mall and finally located one tucked in some obscure corner, it may feel otherwise. Some view them as an anachronism. A recent opinion article in an architectural magazine bore the headline: "Do we need the commercial office drinking fountain?"

While nobody is really sure exactly how many drinking fountains there are in public and private buildings and outdoor areas in the U.S., "There are certainly fewer than there used to be," says Peter H. Gleick in an email. He's the co-founder and president emeritus of the Pacific Institute, and author of the book "Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water."

But while drinking fountains might seem as if they're going the way of the telephone booth, there also are signs that they are making a comeback, thanks to concerns about the environmental impact of disposable plastic bottles.

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The History of Drinking Fountains

As Gleick notes in his book, the idea of public drinking fountains dates back to ancient Greece, when spring-fed fountains were placed in temples and dedicated to gods and goddesses. Pausanias, a geographer in the second century B.C.E., went so far as to write that no place deserved to be called a city if it didn't have a public drinking fountain. The Romans took public access to water a step further, building sophisticated aqueducts to transport water from distant springs to fountains in their cities. But with the fall of the Roman Empire, the public water fountains fell into disrepair, and for centuries after, people had to rely upon drinking water from drawn contaminated wells and filthy rivers.

In mid-1800s London, things began to change, according to Gleick's account. A movement called the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association began building public drinking fountains throughout the city, built with filters and other technology to ensure "the perfect purity and coldness of the water." The association's first fountain, opened at a London church in April 1859, created a sensation, attracting 7,000 users each day. By 1879, the city had nearly 800 fountains, used by 300,000 people daily. A philanthropist named Sir Richard Wallace began building water fountains in Paris as well, hiring the sculptor Charles-Auguste Lebourg to design several different designs. Many are still in operation, according to the website of La Société des Fontaines Wallace, a preservation group.

In the U.S., drinking fountains started showing up as well. The city of Detroit, for example, installed seven public drinking fountains in 1871, and demand was so great that nine more were quickly added. Circus owner P.T. Barnum donated a fountain to Bethel, Connecticut, his hometown, in 1881 and a local timber baron, Simon Benson, installed 20 public drinking fountains so that his employees would have an alternative to alcoholic beverages, according to Gleick's book. In New York City, designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux included ornamental drinking fountains in their design for Central Park, including one that used blocks of ice to keep water chilled in the summer.

water fountain
Water fountains, once ubiquitous in schools and in most public places, can be fitted as bottle filling stations to help reduce the staggering number of single-use plastic bottles that go into landfills every day.
Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle/Getty Images

Indoor drinking fountain technology took a leap forward in the early 1900s thanks to Halsey W. Taylor, a plant superintendent at Packard Motor Company who noticed dysentery spreading through his workforce. Taylor suspected that unsanitary drinking water — which had led to the death of Taylor's father years earlier — was to blame. Taylor began working on technology to provide safer drinking fountains. Taylor went on to invent the "double bubbler" fountain, which dispensed two streams of water in an arc, so that drinkers didn't have to put their mouths close to the faucet and come in contact with microbes from previous drinkers, according to Ohio History Central. His namesake brand today is part of Elkay, a leading manufacturer of drinking fountains.

"Without a doubt, as cities developed and municipal water quality improved, public water fountains were a sign of both social progress and equity — everyone had access to the same quality of water," explains Gleick, who himself grew up drinking from fountains in New York City public schools and playgrounds.

Water fountains also have had a symbolic role in society and have reflected change. In the Southern U.S., whites-only drinking fountains were a reminder that racial segregation existed in everyday life, until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made them illegal. And the Americans with Disabilities Act, enacted in 1990, mandated that where drinking fountains are provided, they have to be accessible to people in wheelchairs as well as those who can stand. That requirement is often satisfied by having a high-low fountain with two different heights.

water fountain
A man fills his drinking bottle at a "refill station" in Berlin, Germany. The stations are located almost everywhere, the water is free and the quality is carefully monitored.
Jörg Carstensen/picture alliance via Getty Images

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Competition From Bottled Water

In the 1970s and 1980s, companies began aggressively marketing bottled water, benefiting from public worries about pollution, lead contamination and disease getting into the public water supply. Some makers of bottled water portrayed the water flowing through public systems as unsafe, as this 2010 National Public Radio story details. It was easy to believe that bottled water from some spring was healthier than tap water, though in reality, a Natural Resources Defense Council study released in 1999 found that not only was there no assurance that bottled water was cleaner or safer than tap water, and some brands actually contained levels of potentially harmful chemical contaminants that were above state health limits. Tap water, in contrast, actually is subject to more stringent federal regulation, including legal limits on more than 90 different contaminants.

Unlike drinking fountains, bottled water also happened to be profitable, which made it more appealing to places that could sell it. In 2007, when University of Central Florida unveiled a new stadium, the facility didn't have any drinking fountains at all — instead, as this Orlando Sentinel article notes, the only source of water for fans was buying it from vendors. After an outcry and a game in which vendors ran out of bottled water, the university installed 50 drinking fountains.

While drinking fountains are still mandated in many places by state and local regulations, those regulations don't require building owners to make them easy to find.

Salzman divides the built environment into three groups. "The first is sort of the shopping malls and airports," he says. "Particularly where there's a food court, the drinking fountains will be next to the bathroom, or being a place, very difficult to find, because of the conflict with selling bottled water."

"The second category is going to be places like libraries, hospitals, schools and there, you know, the facilities managers have a genuine interest in making sure people stay hydrated," Salzman continues. Those establishments will continue to have a lot of drinking fountains available.

The third group consists of facilities such as parks and public buildings. "The problem here is simply maintenance," Salzman says. "You'll have drinking fountains, but they don't work. And that's actually something that your readers will see a lot of as well. And it's just the cost of maintenance is a lot less and it stays broken."

Fountains that aren't in working order aren't necessarily a priority, either, because these days, there's not a big constituency of people complaining about them, he says.

"That gets to your larger point which the people's expectations are changing," Salzman explains. "And more and more, hydration is seen as a personal responsibility, not a public responsibility, which didn't used to be the case."

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Drinking Fountains Are More Environmentally Friendly

The demise of water fountains would be bad news for the planet. Gleick notes that bottled water "has a huge plastic, energy and greenhouse gas footprint, in addition to waste produced. The energy cost of bottled water is massive, especially the energy needed to make the plastic bottles and the energy required to ship it around the world."

That's illustrated by a 2009 paper published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, in which Gleick and colleague Heather Cooley calculated that just manufacturing the bottles needed to fill a year's worth of global demand required 1 million tons (0.9 million metric tons) of PET plastic, with an energy expenditure that was the equivalent of 50 million barrels of oil. A lot of those bottles — in the U.S., more than 60 million a day — end up being thrown into the trash, contributing to the problem of plastic pollution.

But these environmental concerns also seem to be helping to drive a comeback for drinking fountains.

water fountain
A public water fountain stationed in Kingly Court in London, England. The Mayor of London introduced the public drinking fountains with the support of the Refill campaign group in an effort to cut plastic waste.
Jack Taylor/Getty Images

"There has also been a small improvement in a few places, such as airports, where new fountains and new types of fountains have made inroads, especially fountains capable of filling reusable water bottles that have become more popular," Gleick says. A 2018 market study predicted slow but continued growth in purchases of fountains over the next few years, and portrayed bottle-filling stations as the dominant factor.

From Elkay, here's an example of a state-of-the-art refilling station that includes features such as antimicrobial plastic components and hands-free operation. The company says that since it launched such stations a decade ago, it's saved more than 40 billion single-use bottles from ending up in landfills.

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