The 2009 documentary Tapped, screened at Bridge Art Space on May 2 as part of the Richmond Food Policy Council’s monthly film series, paints a picture of stark contrasts: bottled water is sold at 1,900 times the cost of tap water. Plastic water bottle manufacturers in the U.S. use 714 millions of gallons of oil per year. And contrary to the bottled water industry’s most popular myth – that it’s purer than the tap – the EPA’s tap water quality regulations are far stricter than the FDA’s for bottled water.
The film was screened as a preamble to National Drinking Water Week, developed by the American Water Works Association more than 35 years ago to spotlight drinking water sources and systems.
But for Contra Costa County health education specialist Tanya Rovira, this week is also about public health: it marks the launch of Be Smarter, Drink Water, a campaign to support drinking tap water in Richmond. As part of a series of initiatives that Contra Costa County Health Services established to address childhood obesity, the project emphasizes drinking tap water as an alternative to sugary beverages as well as an environmentally and economically sustainable choice.
“Drinking Water Week has predominantly been about conservation,” Rovira said. “We want to add obesity prevention to that.”
Over the next few months, Rovira and the project’s team – made up so far of representatives from Contra Costa Health Services, the City of Richmond, the nonprofit Building Blocks for Kids Collaborative, and, potentially, the East Bay Municipal Utility District – will focus on the accessibility of free water and public education around tap water, particularly in the Iron Triangle neighborhood.
Supported by the California Endowment’s Community Transformation Grant program, over the next few months Be Smarter, Drink Water participants will install a minimum of five drinking water stations at schools and in public spaces, hold community events and activities, and conduct tap water quality and taste tests with a community engagement team of about 20 local parents.
A primary impetus for the project, Rovira said, was a 2009 survey by the California Department of Public Health that found that 40 percent of sampled schools didn’t offer students free water – and that many of the schools’ existing water fountains weren’t well maintained. Following state legislation that went into effect in July 2011, all California public schools are now required to provide free water, but the funding isn’t always there, Rovira said.
To that end, city employees involved in Be Smarter, Drink Water conducted student surveys around water access and installed one bottle refill station at Peres Elementary School. They are also working with the West Contra Costa Unified School District and Public Works to install stations at Chavez Elementary and other community sites over the next few months. On May 7 and 8, EBMUD water distribution supervisor Debra Skeaton will head to Peres and Chavez Elementary schools to lead educational workshops on tap water – a presentation about water treatment and quality as well as a hands-on activity such as constructing a low-tech water filter, she said.
Skeaton, who’s worked for EBMUD for 25 years and lives in Richmond, attended the Tapped film screening and answered attendees’ questions about the East Bay’s water quality. There is no difference between tap water in Richmond, Oakland, Berkeley, or any of the other municipalities EBMUD serves, she said. All EBMUD water comes from the Sierra and is treated at the Orinda treatment facility with chlorine and fluoride according to state law. Skeaton passed around the EBMUD 2012 water quality report, which found that EBMUD met or surpassed every public health requirement set by the California Department of Public Health and the EPA.
Richmond residents often wonder if the Chevron refinery impacts water quality in the city. “That’s a common concern,” Skeaton said. “But no, it doesn’t.” While the refinery might impact local groundwater (the water you’d pump from a well, for example), “we don’t use groundwater.”
It might not seem challenging to get behind the idea of drinking water for health. But shifting pervasive beliefs about tap water quality – and a culture of plastic bottle consumption – might prove more difficult.
“One of the things we’re fighting against is that we have a whole generation that’s grown up on bottled water,” Rovira said. “That’s the norm that we have to change.”