Green Space: The many benefits of free, tasty tap water

SF should fund safe use of hydration stations

This crazy year just got a whole lot hotter. High temperatures, the pandemic and an economic crisis are bringing simmering inequities to a boil. Now, as The City bakes, too many San Franciscans aren’t drinking the healthy and hydrating tap water that flows for free.

“We’re really lucky to have great tasting tap water in San Francisco,” Dr. Anisha Patel, an associate professor of pediatrics at Stanford Children’s Health and affiliate faculty at University of California San Francisco’s Institute for Health Policy Studies, told me. “But, historically, free water filling stations and water fountains were primarily installed in touristy areas. It’s extremely important for everyone to drink water.”

San Francisco began using general fund dollars in 2015 and soda tax revenue in 2018 to make hydration stations more attractive and available in neighborhoods with low or no access. But the pandemic hit. Now, many fountains are taped off and the mayor’s proposed budget doesn’t appear to include additional funding. There is concern that a lack of commitment to The City’s tap water is resulting in more polluting plastic bottles.

“If we can safely redesign how to get people alcohol during the pandemic, we should also be able to redesign how to get people public drinking water,” Roberto Vargas, associate director of UCSF’s Center for Community Engagement, told me. “What we need is a sustained commitment to the effort, and a redesign for how we support continued use of reusable bottles and public water.”

For years, Dr. Patel and Vargas worked with local partners to make tap water the easier and more enticing choice. The effort stemmed from a broader goal to address health disparities in The City and higher rates of chronic diseases in low-resourced neighborhoods. Their 2018 policy brief shows areas that lacked public water availability also have higher rates of soda consumption and diabetes.

Neighborhoods with the highest consumption of sugary beverages, including the Tenderloin, SOMA, Mission and Bayview-Hunters Point, are also seeing higher COVID cases now.

San Francisco’s soda tax was supposed to curb this appetite. Before its passage, researchers conducted community outreach to better understand why bottled drinks were so beckoning. Many participants expressed distrust in tap water’s safety — even though San Francisco’s supply comes from Yosemite’s pristine Hetch Hetchy watershed and is tested more often than bottled water.

There is also a lack of other, healthier options.

Revenue from the soda tax helped address these concerns. Signs in multiple languages and promotoras, or community health care workers, have spread information. In the past year, the Recreation and Park Department installed four tap stations in the Tenderloin, and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission deployed temporary water stations for folks in the neighborhood with 1,000 reusable containers. Approximately 165 water stations have been installed in The City since the start of the program.

In March, the Department of Public Health’s Sugary Drinks Distributor Tax Advisory Committee recommended a budget allocation of $340,000 to increase water access in public areas and schools. But Mayor London Breed’s proposed budget doesn’t appear to include this funding, and my attempts to confirm were left unanswered. Cuts could cause spikes in soda use, lead to more plastic bottles on our beaches, and make it harder for San Franciscans to stay healthy.

“Plastic water bottles are having a huge comeback,” Vargas told me. “I’m worried that we’re taking many steps back, including possibly on the consumption of sugary drinks.”

Instead of blocking stations with yellow tape, The City could employ local residents to sanitize them, and mandate construction projects that require public space including public hydration stations. San Francisco could also sell reusable water bottles in vending machines, like Paris’ water stations. (Anyone else watching “Down to Earth” on Netflix?)

To increase funding, the Board of Supervisors should do more to tap funding from the many corporations with offices in The City. San Francisco is putting a CEO tax on the ballot this November, but is letting companies, such as Facebook, profit while undermining our democracy.

Life in 2020 is no picnic. But that doesn’t mean we should waste these summer days. The City must invest in programs that keep our health and environment out of hot water.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

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