Paul Wellman

While San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom grabbed headlines this week by banning his city’s departments from buying bottled water for city functions, the City of Santa Barbara quietly did the same thing two months ago with little fanfare. As part of City Hall’s broader sustainability campaign, no more plastic bottled water will be purchased for city meetings or events. Instead, iced tap water will be served out of carafes and poured into biodegradable cups and “glasses.” Santa Barbara’s water ban was declared in April, and implementation began last month. San Francisco’s will take effect in July.

“A lot of energy is consumed making the plastic bottles in the first place, and then even more shipping it the distance getting the water to us,” explained City Hall sustainability czar Nina Johnson (pictured above left with recycling guru Eric Lohela.). “We want to lead by example, and to us it doesn’t make sense to buy bottled water when we have perfectly good water right here at the tap.” Johnson said she’s heard no complaints about the new program. But Mayor Marty Blum, normally a loud supporter of green initiatives, said she has her doubts. “This one came out of the city administrator’s office, and I’ve heard some grumblings,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s going to stick.” Blum noted that City Hall encourages residents to keep a supply of bottled water on hand for emergencies and to replace them every six months. “I think we might be sending mixed messages,” Blum said.

The policy itself is fairly limited. It bars the expenditure of city funds on bottled water in plastic containers for city meetings and special events. Johnson said she doesn’t know how much City Hall currently spends on bottled water. (San Francisco spent about $2 million on bottled water last year.) The new policy will not prohibit city employees from bringing their own bottled water to work if they choose. “As far as I know, bottled water has yet to become a controlled substance,” observed Cathy Taylor, a city water engineer and supporter of the program. Taylor acknowledged that the taste of Santa Barbara water-due to its high mineral content-has driven many customers to seek alternatives to what comes from the city’s taps. Taylor also noted that the city’s water-however it tastes-meets more stringent state and federal water purity standards than do the manufacturers of bottled water. She also said City Hall is exploring new water purification processes-designed to meet the EPA’s increasingly tight drinking water quality standards-that would incidentally improve the taste of the city’s tap water.

In a related but separate development, Mayor Blum and City Councilmember Helene Schneider are spearheading an effort to paint a light blue line on Santa Barbara’s streets and sidewalks, showing how high the water would rise-and where Santa Barbara’s “new” seashore would be located-should Greenland’s ice sheets melt and the sea level rise approximately 21 feet. The plan comes before the City Council next Tuesday, though in revised form to address concerns of public works administrators. Rather than using an expensive process to permanently bake the light blue line onto city streets and sidewalks-as was initially proposed-light blue line advocates are now willing to use traditional paint and brush to make their environmental point. Although this will lack the permanence the organizers initially sought, it will also eliminate the need to go through the time-consuming rigors of the Historic Landmarks Commission. Assuming the plan wins support from a majority of councilmembers, the light blue line could be painted onto city streets and sidewalks sometime this September.


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