Res Publica

Water Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink

by David Trumbull -- April 1, 2011

Some Boston residents are resisting the city’s latest drinking water conservation measures, especially the proposed tap-by-tap monitoring of individual water consumption, claiming this is an unwarranted and possibly unconstitutional invasion of privacy.

The new water restrictions can be traced back to the May 2010 water main rupture that left Boston with no drinking water for a few days. The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (“MWRA”) fixed the problem and conducted a thorough inspection of the system. What they found was alarming, especially for City of Boston residents. While last year’s leak was in Weston, it was actually here in Boston that the inspection revealed the most weakness and potential faults. The situation was so bad that the MWRA was forced to undertake substantial unscheduled maintenance and repair work in Boston and now those cost are being passed on to Boston municipal government—at a time when City Hall does not have the money to cover these additional fees and must pass them on to the residents.

As we found during last year’s “boil water” emergency, there was no shortage of clean water for purposes other than drinking or food preparation—the problem was in getting enough water that had undergone the additional steps to make it safe for drinking. The same thing applies now. It is specifically drinking water than the city will be paying more for, and that cost must be recovered from the citizens.

Here’s how the new system will work, according to a press release from the mayor’s Office of Citizen Outreach and Public Service:

  • In restaurants, in addition to the 6.25 percent meals tax, a three cent per fluid ounce “Safe Drinking Water Special Assessment” will be charged, so that an 8-ounce glass of water will have a 24 cent water tax. For a family of four that’s an additional buck on your bill. The tax will apply to bottled water as well even though that does not come from the MWRA and costs the city nothing. “Those the bottles themselves are a strain on our recycling system, therefore they will be taxed the same as tap water so that people will not switch to bottled water to avoid the tax,” said city spokesperson, Bill Wetmore.
  • Particularly hard hit will be Starbucks and shops where coffee or tea is the primary beverage sold. “Those coffee shops use a lot of drinking water,” said Wetmore, “and coffee, being a natural diuretic, rather than replenishing bodily fluids, actually dries you out so you need even more water,” he continued, explaining why, in the case of coffee and tea the tax will be doubled to six cents per ounce. That means that on a Starbucks “Venti” (20 ounces of java) the additional tax will be $1.20.
  • In schools, hospitals, and offices in Boston one half of the total number of drinking fountains or bubblers in the building will be disconnected or drained of water. The idea is “out of sight, out of mind” – if there are fewer drinking fountains available perhaps people won’t think so often about getting a drink of water.
  • As mentioned earlier, the most controversial step is the individual tap monitoring of water usage by Boston households. Water usage is currently metered and residents get quarterly bills from the city for water, but that measures all water consumption in a household, not just drinking water. Under the new measures, workers from the Department of Hydration Regulation and city’s Healthy Housing Initiative will enter every residence in the city and attach meters to every drinking water tap. Some residents are opposed and have said they do not want to let the city workers in, but the administration is insisting that all homes, apartments, and condos must get the new meters and that workers will enter by force if necessary. The city’s chief legal council says that this is constitutional and warrants are not required as the workers have been strictly instructed to ignore and not report any illegal or questionable activities they may happen to see while installing the meters. “There’s no issue of illegal search or seizure,” said city attorney William (“Bill”) Drinkwater, “nothing will be search or seized, just the installing of some necessary plumbing.”

Some citizens are highly critical, even outraged, at the mayor’s proposal to use the household water tap metering data to shame the city’s “guzzlers.” Billboards in each neighborhood will identify, on a per capita basis the household that drink the most water. Not all residents oppose. For example the Reverend Phil M. Upton of Sts. Judy and Liza Episcopal Church jokingly said, I just follow the advice of the Bible at 1 Timothy 5:23 – “Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake.” But it is fair to say that opponents outnumber the supporters of the new drinking water conservation measures.

The backlash has even generated a new grass-roots political organization, the Beer and Wine Party, which is similar to the TEA Party only with a vow to avoid water and all beverages, such as tea, brewed with water, until the mayor backs down from his plans. Now if you think that is ridiculous, check the date of this newspaper.