Excerpt: 'Bottled & Sold' By Peter H. Gleick

The initial reaction from the University was swift and remarkably unapologetic: UCF spokesman Grant Heston appeared on the local TV news to argue that the codes in place when the stadium was designed didn't require fountains. A few days after the game, as news of the hospitalizations was reverberating, University President John Hitt said, "We will look at adding the water fountains, but I have to say to you I don't think that's the answer to this problem. We could have had 50 water fountains and still had a problem on Saturday." 2 Al Harms, UCF's vice president for strategic planning and the coordinator for the operations of the stadium, told the Orlando Sentinel, "We won't make a snap decision" about installing fountains in the new stadium. Harms did promise that they would triple the amount of bottled water available for sale, and give away one free bottle per person at the next game. 3 Harms also said, apparently without a trace of sarcasm, "It's our way of saying we're sorry."

For some UCF students, this wasn't enough. One of them, Nathaniel Dorn, mobilized in twenty-first century fashion. He created a Facebook group, Knights for Free Water, which quickly attracted nearly 700 members. He and several other students showed up at a packed school hearing, talked to local TV and print media, and ridiculed the school's offer of a free bottle of water. Under this glare of attention the University did an abrupt about-face and announced that ten fountains would be installed by the next game and fifty would be installed permanently.

All of a sudden public water fountains have vanished and bottled water is everywhere: in every convenience store, beverage cooler, and vending machine. In student backpacks, airplane beverage carts, and all of my hotel rooms. At every conference and meeting I go to. On restaurant menus and school lunch counters. In early 2007, as I waited for a meeting in Silicon Valley, I watched a steady stream of young employees pass by on their way to or from buildings on the Google campus. Nearly all were carrying two items: a laptop and a throw-away plastic bottle of water. When I entered the lobby and checked in at reception, I was told to help myself to something to drink from an open cooler containing fruit juices and rows of commercial bottled water. As I walked to my meeting, I passed cases of bottled water being unloaded near the cafeteria. Water fountains used to be everywhere, but they have slowly disappeared as public water is increasingly pushed out in favor of private control and profit.

Water fountains have become an anachronism, or even a liability, a symbol of the days when homes didn't have taps and bottled water wasn't available from every convenience store and corner concession stand. In our health-conscious society, we're afraid that public fountains, and our tap water in general, are sources of contamination and contagion. It used to be the exact opposite—in the 1800s, when our cities lacked widespread access to safe water, there were major movements to build free public water fountains throughout America and Europe.

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