Sunday, August 17, 2008


August 9, 2007

I drink tap water. In the fridge there’s always a full pitcher, plus several refilled plastic bottles ready for the car and the backpack. Until recently, there’s never been any particular principle for my doing this, except the pleasure principle.

Improbable as it seems, New York City water is delicious, if such a word can be applied to water at all. Crisp and neutral-tasting, it comes to us from snow-pack and rainfall in the Catskill Mountains a hundred miles to the northwest. It is held in a network of reservoirs buffered by city-owned forest land to protect them from encroaching development and its pollutants. It travels to the city through one huge tunnel, propelled almost exclusively by the force of gravity. This water is so pure that last week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency granted a ten-year waiver of the federal requirement that all drinking water be filtered. Only four other large cities also qualified for the exemption: Boston, Seattle, Portland, Ore., and San Francisco.

The present system began in 1842 with the Croton Reservoir in nearby Westchester County, and was gradually expanded to include 19 reservoirs and three lakes. It now provides a billion gallons of water a day to New York City and other communities in its area.

On hot summer days, some New Yorkers still find ways to open what are supposed to be tamper-proof fire hydrants, sending tons of pristine mountain water to the sewers. When I first came to New York from drought-ridden Southern California in the 1990’s, I was appalled by this practice. I soon discovered that opening fire hydrants was a summer tradition, like stickball.
Even with a municipal swimming pool nearby, nothing was surer to start a spontaneous block party than a gushing hydrant. Little public thought was apparently given to the dangers involved: Open hydrants lower water pressure, and too many open at once keep both firefighters and people in upper-floor apartments from getting the water they need. In addition, every summer a number of children were injured or even killed by the powerful, natural force of water seeking its level.

In my first sweltering summer here, I was on Lafayette Street in Greenwich Village, where a short, bare-chested man with a can of Bud and a cigarette in one hand and a pipe-wrench in the other stood by a gushing hydrant. "Why are you wasting all this water?" I asked indignantly. "Because I want to," he snarled. Welcome to New York.

In the late 1990’s, in the face of a severe drought, this revered custom was challenged by Mayor Giuliani. Some hydrants were fitted with caps that only a special key could open, and others with sprinklers that provided a gentle spray for kids to play in. People found ways around both. Here in the Bronx, it is still common to find open hydrants manned by dads and grandpas, knocking kids down and giving spontaneous car-washes to passing traffic. I’ve gotten many a wash myself this way, before calling the Fire Department to report a violation.

While driving past open hydrants for my car-wash, I often notice people cooling their feet in the ready-made river and drinking, of all things, bottled water.

Native New Yorkers of a certain age are still very proud of the quality of their water. Even when the city was crumbling a decade or two ago, they’d say, "Well, at least the water is still great." Consumer Reports magazine, based in nearby Yonkers, runs blind tastings of pricy bottled waters along with a selection of municipal sources; almost invariably, NYC tap comes out on top.
But people here, as everywhere, have developed a fixation on the water bottle. It is their constant companion, filling the psychological place that smoking had in more innocent times: a momentary distraction, a break in consciousness from whatever thought or action happens to be happening. And it seems just as addictive, maybe even moreso because of its acceptability. In my church, no less, it is now common to see people, including choir members, readers, ushers, and even the priest himself nipping at their bottles all through the service.
I suppose, as the bottled-water industry marketers say, it’s better to be addicted to water than to all those other substances we compulsively put in our mouths. But why not just refill the bottles you already have with tap water?

It would save money, for one thing. The mayor’s office, which has recently started a campaign to promote New York’s fine liquid product, points out that drinking your recommended eight twelve-ounce glasses of water a day will cost $1,400 a year if you go bottled, and 49 cents if you go faucet. And considering that many of the top-selling waters like Aquafina are, as Aquafina’s label abbreviates, "Bottled at the Source P.W.S." - Public Water Supply - it’s hard to imagine why otherwise savvy shoppers would choose the stuff from the store.

There are other costs involved too, including the impact of plastic bottles on the environment, from manufacture to shipping to disposal, and the grim fact that 60 percent of the world’s population has no reliable access to safe drinking water.

Bottled water is one of those issues that people never thought was an issue. Slowly we are putting the pieces together and beginning to discover that it is.

I’ve been drinking New York City tap water on the pleasure principle. Now other principles are entering in.

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