UPDATE: Congress, Tap Water, Bottled Water, and the Inauguration of the Next President

As readers of my blog posts will know, a couple of weeks ago, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Chairman of the "Joint Congressional Committee on Inauguration Ceremonies," announced that the next Presidential Inauguration will serve pricey New York commercial bottled water. This bipartisan committee coordinates the ceremonies around the Presidential Inauguration, and includes Senators Harry Reid and Lamar Alexander, and Congressional Representatives John Boehner, Eric Cantor, and Nancy Pelosi.

As I wrote in my post, the Inauguration party and luncheon should be serving tap water -- not the highly expensive and unnecessary bottled water from Schumer's state. This important event should celebrate the best of America, rather than local commercial interests -- specifically, the incredible municipal tap water system of the United States.

My post produced a reaction from both DC Water and Mike DeBonis of the Washington Post, who covers local politics there. In particular, George Hawkins, the General Manager of DC Water, which is responsible for providing Washington's tap water, wrote to Schumer directly, politely asking him to "reconsider your selection of bottled water and instead support the nation's drinking water systems by choosing DC tap water." At a minimum, Hawkins asked that tap water be a choice on the table and he upped the ante by offering free reusable water bottles for members of Congress and free water quality testing for all tap water in congressional buildings.

Schumer responded with a very peculiar letter. As always in politics, the devil is in the details of the wording and the nuance. Here is Schumer's letter. Read it very carefully, but especially note the following:

"During the upcoming Presidential Inaugural ceremonies, DC tap water will be available just as it is in the Capitol every day. It is used in offices and is used in the restaurants both as tap water to drink and also to make coffee, tea, and other beverages that are available daily in the Capitol and will be available during the inauguration." (Emphasis added.)

Probable Translation: "We're doing nothing special in response to your letter, and if luncheon guests want it, they can get up, go find the nearest water fountain or bathroom, and fill a glass."

Here is another peculiarity from his letter to DC Water. Schumer's letter says: "We will be offering Sparkling Saratoga Spring Water at the luncheon."

Ah, now he says "Sparkling" water. The initial announcement identified "Saratoga Spring Water" as the selection -- saying nothing about flat versus sparkling water. Saratoga produces both kinds of bottled water. Is Senator Schumer saying that Saratoga's non-sparkling version -- essentially the same thing as DC tap water -- will now NOT be served? If the Committee is only serving sparkling bottled water, a far better argument can be made that it is a value-added product. But Schumer is not explicit.

Finally, in an interview today with Ed O'Keefe of the Washington Post (also nicely covered by Mike DeBonis), Schumer is again cagey and ambiguous, saying "People who want tap water can get tap water." And "We're serving it to anyone who wants."

Here's what would put this issue to rest -- explicit "yes" answers from the Committee to the following simple questions:

  1. Will DC tap water be placed on every table and at every place setting at the Inaugural Luncheon, automatically and without request?
  2. Will only sparkling bottled water be served, as the commercial option?
Maybe this isn't an earthshaking issue. But then again, maybe it is: maybe the fact that our politicians drink bottled water and don't think anything about it helps to explain why they have failed to modernize our outdated water quality protection laws; why they have failed to deal with failing water infrastructure; why they don't act to address the serious and growing threats to the nation's water resources from pollution, overuse, climate change, and other problems.

After all, they can afford to buy bottled water.

Dr. Peter Gleick is author of "Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind our Obsession with Bottled Water (Island Press, Washington DC) and co-editor of the new book "A Twenty-First Century U.S. Water Policy" (Oxford University Press, New York).