Another kind of water politics bubbles up in Austin

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A network of 10 new public drinking fountains proposed by Austin City Council member Kathie Tovo could cost more than $800,000 and require hiring a full-time worker to maintain them, the director of the Austin Water Utility said.

Director Greg Meszaros provided the estimates in response to a resolution drafted in early August by Tovo and co-sponsored by four of the other nine council members. The resolution says the new drinking fountains were recommended in two downtown development plans, to address the excessive heat caused by climate change and serve a diverse group, including people experiencing homelessness. The proposal has not yet been scheduled for a vote.

It envisions a cluster of drinking fountains around West Seventh and Trinity streets, with others scattered around downtown, from 11th Street south to the river and west from Interstate 35 to North Lamar Boulevard. There are currently 29 public water fountains in the area Meszaros outlined in his memo to the mayor and council.

Meszaros estimated the cost of each drinking, bottle-filling and pet fountain station, with no refrigeration, at $70,000 to $75,000. A full-time maintenance worker at an annual cost of $63,000 would be needed to maintain sanitary conditions.

The city could save on maintenance costs with an arrangement with the same contractor hired for $775,000 last October to clean the city’s portable toilet, according to the memo.

Meszaros said that while the drinking fountain plan is not in the 2020 budget approved by the council on Sept. 10, money for it could be found in capital appropriations.

A spokesperson said Tovo would not be available to discuss the plan with The Texas Monitor. A call to Meszaros on Wednesday was not returned. 

At the time she proposed the new drinking fountains, Tovo told KVUE-TV, “That’s our most heavily populated area in terms of the number of people working, the number of people visiting. It’s an area where a lot of tourists come to. We did want to make sure that there is clean drinking water that’s accessible [to] individuals experiencing homelessness as well.”

Mayor Steve Adler, Tovo and the rest of the city council on Wednesday heard from more than 150 people, most of them furious at the council’s decision in June to stop ticketing people for sitting, sleeping or setting up camp on many public properties, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

The relaxation of the rules directed at the homeless was followed by the proliferation of camps in the area of the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless downtown and along the concrete slope beneath State Highway 71 in South Austin.

The council is now mulling two proposals to create new zones where camping and sleeping on the streets would be prohibited. Neither proposal is likely to affect Tovo’s drinking fountain plan.

The Meszaros analysis does not quantify the demand for the new fountains, nor estimate how many people they would serve. Health and hydration concerns that led to the creation of a huge bottled water industry in the last generation have also led many cities to ignore their drinking fountain systems.

While some studies defend the environmental benefits of public drinking fountains, cities are finding them to be costly and not warmly embraced by the public. As a Washington Post story said, people do not trust public drinking fountains.

San Francisco International Airport took a different tack in August when it banned plastic water bottles as part of its plan to become the world’s first waste-free airport by 2021.

All airline passengers will need to use the roughly 100 drinking fountains to hydrate or to fill their own reusable bottles or glass or aluminum bottles sold by airport vendors. The airport, however, will continue selling other beverages in plastic bottles.

Reacting to the ban, county officials in Albany, New York, last week called on Albany International Airport to install new drinking and filling stations and get rid of plastic water bottles.

“We have a plastic crisis in the world right now, you can see it in the oceans, you can see it everywhere,” Doug Bullock, a Democratic legislator, told WAMC public radio in Albany.

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].

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