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

Last week the Chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inauguration Ceremonies, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, announced that the next Presidential Inauguration will serve pricey New York commercial bottled water. This high-level bipartisan committee's job is to coordinate the ceremonies around the Presidential Inauguration, and it includes Senators Harry Reid and Lamar Alexander, and Congressional Representatives John Boehner, Eric Cantor, and Nancy Pelosi. (As an aside, if this high-level group can get together on a bipartisan committee to talk about the inaugural party, why can't they talk about fixing the country?)

Hey, the next president deserves a good party, no matter who is elected. Here's the problem: Aside from the fact that it seems somewhat self-serving for a senator to choose to buy bottled water from his home state, why are they serving bottled water at all? Shouldn't they be designing an event that celebrates not the commercial interests of their home districts but the best of America -- specifically, the incredible municipal tap water system of the United States?

Don't give me that knee-jerk response critical of D.C. tap water. The bottled water companies would love to have you fear your tap water, but D.C.'s tap water is fine: You can get D.C. Water's detailed annual water quality report on their website (although, ironically, you cannot get any water-quality analysis from the New York bottled water company's website). Sure, D.C. has had some well-publicized problems associated with old pipes and their aging distribution system, like every big city in America. And they are working, and must work even harder, to address those problems. But like municipal water systems throughout the United States, the District of Columbia delivers high-quality, extremely inexpensive tap water reliably and consistently. Much of the rest of the world wishes their tap water systems were as good as ours.

Moreover, bottled water is literally thousands of times more expensive than tap water, and that doesn't even include the environmental costs of taking the water, making the glass or plastic bottles, shipping the water to the Inauguration, and dealing with the waste. Americans threw away literally tens of billions of plastic water bottles last year, the vast majority of which could be (but are not) recycled.

But let's assume for a minute that D.C.'s tap water is simply unacceptable for some reason. I'd like to hear the Committee state publicly why it is unacceptable and then explain to the public why extremely expensive bottled water from New York is the answer. Why not serve New York City's fantastic tap water? Senator Schumer could still be supporting New York by honoring the commitment shown to build and deliver some of the best tap water in the world.

Better yet, why not improve D.C.'s tap water and restore public confidence in it? While they are at it, Congress could fix and update the national Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act, two of the most important and popular pieces of federal environmental legislation ever passed. These laws must be brought into the 21st century -- revised, expanded, and streamlined. Congress has completely abdicated its responsibility in this area, and the very members who serve on the Inauguration Committee are the individuals who could actually push their colleagues to take bipartisan action to improve and protect the nation's water resources, laws, and delivery systems.

The Committee is sending the wrong message about water and wasting a tremendous opportunity to both highlight America's public water system and launch a discussion about how to improve it. Tap water should be served at the Inauguration. And we should be bragging about it loudly and proudly.

Dr. Peter Gleick is author of Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind our Obsession with Bottled Water (Island Press, Washington, D.C.) and co-editor of the new book A 21st Century U.S. Water Policy (Oxford University Press, New York).