Berkeley lacks public access to clean drinking water, UC Berkeley study shows

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Amanda Ramirez/Staff

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What began three years ago as a project for a public health class at UC Berkeley is now a published study on public drinking fountain distribution and maintenance in Berkeley.

The study, which was published Jan. 24, concludes that public drinking water fountains are equally distributed across the city, meaning that no disparity in fountain distribution was found based on race or socioeconomic status. Most of the fountains in the city are “functioning,” according to the study.

Campus public health lecturer Charlotte Smith, who co-wrote the study with her former student, Dylan Avery, said former city councilmember Laurie Capitelli approached her with the research idea in January 2015. Smith said she turned the proposal into a class project for students in her Drinking Water and Health course during the spring 2015 semester.

The goal of the study, according to Smith, was to assess the condition of public drinking water fountains in Berkeley and to create an electronic database to help the city improve maintenance of its fountains.

“Having an electronic database really makes maintenance a lot easier,” Smith said. “That’s what the class did for the city — that was our public service.”

Smith and her students began conducting research in January 2015 after the approval of a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages — a city effort to promote drinking water as a healthier alternative to sugary drinks. Avery said the city wanted to ensure widespread access to clean drinking water before implementing the tax.

Avery, a former undergraduate student in Smith’s class, took on a leading role in the research project by creating a mobile application that allowed students to conduct field research on drinking fountains around the city.

“It was a real opportunity for me to practice taking leadership in research and helping the local community,” Avery said. “It was more of an immediately rewarding experience.”

City spokesperson Matthai Chakko said in an email that the city will review the study to determine if any changes should be made regarding public drinking fountains. He added that the city began a program this year to replace existing faucets.

The technology used in this study can be applied to other public resources including parks and playgrounds in different communities, campus associate professor of community health sciences Colette Auerswald said.

“To have a tool to look at resources … makes this kind of research more accessible to folks outside of the ivory tower,” Auerswald said.

Although the study found few issues surrounding the distribution and upkeep of public fountains in Berkeley, Avery said that during the course of his research he noticed an absence of water fountains in two areas of the city: Downtown Berkeley and South Berkeley.

Capitelli cited lack of access to clean water as a critical issue in Berkeley. A “second phase” in discouraging Berkeley residents from consuming sugar-sweetened beverages and purchasing plastic water bottles, Capitelli said, is to create a mobile application that would inform the public about where to find clean public drinking water — an idea that Capitelli said he hopes will be implemented this year.

“What I think (the study) does is it points out that there are very limited sources of safe drinking water,” Capitelli said. “The city, as a public health issue, needs to address that.”

Contact Danielle Kaye at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @danielledkaye.