Plastic water bottles are an easy target for environmentalist ire, and for good reason. The marketing and selling of bottled water has been one of the most successful commercial campaigns of the past several decades—and it’s helped add billions of tons of waste to ocean trash vortexes like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Meanwhile, the availability of free and clean water in public spaces is drying up, as drinking fountains are slowly and quietly phased out of urban plans. Even tree-huggers who do carry canteens can find it tricky to locate working public hydration stations to refill bottles brought from home.
When Los Angeles environmental activist Evelyn Wendel first learned about the ocean’s floating landfills several years ago, she started spreading the word like a reluctant physician in a hospital waiting room. “I tell people about the garbage patch,” Wendel says. “But I apologize when I do. I say, ‘I’m sorry to have to give you the bad news.’”
Here’s the good news: Wendel is building a path toward reversing our reliance on pre-packaged water. For years, the eco-minded Hollywood production and marketing veteran was fixated on finding new sources of clean drinking water. Eventually, she honed in on an obvious solution: Use GPS data to map this vital public resource. In 2008, she launched the nonprofit WeTap to help thirsty people find and keep tabs on drinking fountains.
The WeTap app, currently available for Android smartphones, allows users to bookmark drinking fountains using GPS and Google Maps, rate the quality of the faucets, and share the news with other users. Using an early prototype of the WeTap app, Wendel recruited students from UCLA’s Institute of Environmental Studies and set to work mapping drinking fountains on her alma mater’s campus. Then, she extended her reach to cover the state of California. She’s since set her sights on mapping the entire United States. And after partnering with the OpenMaps project in the U.K., the project is flourishing on two continents.
Once the fountains have been found, Wendel hopes the project will help build a better system for keeping drinking fountains flowing across America. Many major U.S. cities lack a systemic approach for repairing and maintaining public water fountains that were installed decades ago. In many areas, the fountains already exist, and public works employees have the skills to repair them. What they don’t have is a way to track which fountains need service. Wendel hopes that by keeping tabs on drinking station locations, she can offer support as cities work to improve existing systems—or be ready with data should private businesses step up and address the issue instead.
Four years into her crusade, Wendel’s starting to chart big progress in improving drinking fountain access. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power gave WeTap its seal of approval earlier this spring, encouraging city residents to take advantage of the free water available around town (Wendel is excited about future partnerships with the city to restore many capped fountains to working order). Her goals are aligning with national priorities, as well. Since 2010, the Obama Administration’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act has required public schools to install and maintain fountains or find other ways to provide free drinking water to students. And elsewhere around the globe, a number of other organizations, from London’s Find A Fountain to Vancouver’s Tap Map, are also mapping local clean water sources and sharing their data with other environmentalist groups.
Wendel hopes that mapping public water fountains and refillable bottle stations will help drinkers ditch the disposable plastic and regain trust in municipal water. Armed with the tools to stay informed, she says, "We can start to see drinking fountains as a convenience again." But she also sees her effort as a form of protection against more bad news. “How lucky are we that we can go to a public park and have clean water to drink?” she asks. “Do we want that taken away?”