When a crowd turned out to put an end to bottled water use in New Haven city buildings and schools, one advocate of the change offered government workers their own bottle—minus the imported H20.
“I promise a nice, reusable water bottle with your name on it for any city official who feels inconvenienced by this,” said Aaron Goode, one of a crowd of supporters at City Hall of an initiative that would see New Haven officials and students return to a public good: tap water.
The crowd turned out Tuesday night for a hearing of the Board of Aldermen’s City Services and Environmental Policy Committee.
They came to back a proposal by East Rock Alderman Justin Elicker that would prevent the city from purchasing bottled water en masse for its employees and for use in public schools. The city, Elicker said, spends nearly $32,000 on bottled water a year—a cost that could be greatly reduced by switching to tap water. And that bottled water is trucked in to the city from Worcester, Mass, increasing the environmental impact.
The committee voted unanimously to approve the proposal and send it along to the full Board of Aldermen for approval.
Elicker was first in line to testify Tuesday night.
“Frankly, it’s embarrassing that we use bottled water,” he said. “As if our water wasn’t good enough.”
He came armed with props: a 5-gallon plastic jug of water like the ones City Hall uses, and a garbage bag full of small bottles like the ones used in school cafeterias.
And he had samples. He’d collected Ball jars full of water from fountains in five different New Haven Public Schools. He asked the aldermen on the committee to taste.
“I found them all to be cool and refreshing,” he said.
Elicker and others noted various factors they say make switching to tap water a better option for the city: reduction in cost and waste, a move towards using an existing public service, and the relative health of tap water as compared to bottle water.
A Taste Test
Outside the aldermanic chambers before the meeting, Yale undergraduate students Allison Lazarus and Nathan Yohannes offered passersby a chance at a “Tap Water Challenge.”
Offered tastes of Yale bottled water, Nestle’s Poland Spring, Pepsi’s Aquafina and local tap water, contestants had a tough time distinguishing the difference.
“People haven’t really been able to tell which one is which,” said Yohannes. “Which is what we were hoping for.”
Impassioned and Varied Testimonials
Nearly 40 people sat in the audience of the aldermanic chamber as the meeting commenced, representing various groups in support of the ban.
Tom Barger, water quality supervisor and Tom Chaplik, vice president of water quality and outreach for the Regional Water Authority, testified to the quality of New Haven water.
“We have an aggressive monitoring system,” said Barger, who presented findings from a survey done of the water quality of eight municipal buildings in New Haven. Presenting data to the committee, Barger and Chaplik assured aldermen that the quality of water met federal drinking water standards.
Justin Haaheim of Act New Haven, asked the commission to “walk the walk, by governing the city with integrity and foresight.” He noted that the proposal would save money, and reduce New Haven’s carbon footprint.
“There’s a lot of talk about how these bottles can be recycled,” said C.J. May, Yale’s recycling coordinator. “But too many are just thrown out.” He caught the commission’s attention with a few magic tricks: a smoking water bottle (representing the pollution created by trucking bottled water into the city), and a floating bottle.
If we drink tap water, we won’t have to worry about all that, he said.
Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, a husband and wife team of Yale professors at the Divinity and Forestry schools and co-directors of the Forum on Religion and Ecology, brought an ethical aspect to the testimonials.
“People’s health is really being adversely affected by bottled water,” said Tucker. “This isn’t just a political and economical issue, it’s also ethical.”
“I would just reflect that in the past, people said go overseas and don’t drink the tap water,” she continued. “If that becomes the case here, we’re really going backwards.”
Valerie Fuchs, of the Yale Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering, submitted a report to the committee comparing the scientific merits of tap versus bottled water. “Our drinking water is safe,” she said, regulated and checked for pathogens and contamination and required to be disinfected and filtered. Bottled water, on the other hand, is not required to meet the same standards as laid out by the Safe Drinking Water Act.
A high school senior, Robert Kelly, brought seven of his fellow students from Galstonbury High School to support the measure. “Disneyworld doesn’t sell gum,” he said. “Because if they sold gum, they’d find it all over their park.”
In the same way, we find empty bottles all over the world, in our parks and our rivers. The group is working to pass the same ban in Glastonbury.
Rob Smuts, New Haven’s chief administrative officer, expressed his own support for the ban. Then he read a statement from the Board of Education. Board of Ed Chief Operating Officer Will Clark and Executive Director of Food Services Tim Cipriano were unable to attend the meeting.
“They wanted me to pass on a request to be given an extension to come and testify before the committee on this ban,” said Smuts. He reported that while the Board of Aldermen doesn’t have the authority to tell New Haven schools how to spend money (beyond an annual up-and-down vote on the entire system budget), the Board of Education generally supports the proposal and is willing to work with the Aldermen. He noted concerns about implementation and logistics.
Elicker wasn’t impressed. He said that initially, the Board of Ed responded to his efforts to gain access to schools and statistics. But then, he said, he was told that officials didn’t have time. “Given that I’ve reached out to them and they’ve been unresponsive, I think it might be difficult for the committee to wait for them to have time.”
Aldermen expressed some concerns about the proposal. Hill Alderwoman Jacqueline James-Evans wondered how students in schools would access water while in the cafeteria, suggesting that the schools supply pitchers and cups. She also wondered what would happen in case of a water shut-off or contamination. “How will we provide water in that case?” she asked.
Various solutions were floated, from encouraging students to use reusable water bottles and having a back up supply of water for emergencies.
Dixwell Alderman Greg Morehead wondered about the comparative cost of turning to tap water. “Is there a higher cost associated with everyone all of a sudden switching to using water fountains?”
Chaplik of the Regional Water Authority assured him that the cost would be minimal compared to bottled water use. “It would cost pennies per gallon, if that,” he said.
The committee, despite a few concerns, was largely supportive.
“We all grew up in a time before bottled water existed,” he said, “and we survived.” You don’t even need to sell cups in the cafeteria, he said. “Kids can find the fountains on their own.”
What started out as more than 10 aldermen dwindled to four by the end of the commission meeting: but those four put the bottled water ban proposal to a vote. It passed unanimously—and will be put to the larger Board of Aldermen at its March 7 meeting.
“Given the outpouring of support,” said Alderman Matt Smith, “I think it’s important that we don’t hold this up in committee.”