We are water | From plastics to pipes: who drinks Evanston’s tap water and why do some avoid it?

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This is part five in a series of eight articles from We are Water Evanston, a community-based participatory research project that explores our relationship and concerns about water. For more information on this series, click here.


Evanston sits on the shores of Lake Michigan, one of the world’s most precious sources of freshwater. We have a award-winning water quality laboratory, and the most recent in town water quality reports have all shown that our water meets state and national standards.

Nonetheless, a 2020 We Are Water Evanston survey of 756 residents found that one in five respondents were either unsure of the quality of tap water or thought bottled water was safer.

In this fifth article in the We are Water series, we paint a picture of what many Evanstonians think about their drinking water and explain why their perceptions matter. We will do this by sharing the results of our larger survey and the in-depth interviews we conducted with 75 residents of the city.

Of note, we learned that residents of color, on average, were about four times less likely to trust tap water in Evanston than the white residents we surveyed and interviewed. Many said their distrust of tap water was rooted in skepticism about the government’s commitment to protecting people. Rebeca Mendoza, a civic leader and resident of Latinx, said: “In terms of preserving our water sources, for me there is always the fear that they [the city of Evanston] would sell us.

(Credit: Erin McCotter / We are Water Evanston)

We also found that ownership status influenced the perception and use of tap water. Non-owners, including renters, people living with their families, and those without housing were about twice as likely to think Evanston’s tap water was less safe than bottled water – a gap important trust. One possible explanation for this disparity is that homeowners have more control and access to information about the infrastructure connected to their water supply.

Despite the trust issues, 93% of survey respondents said they drink tap water. However, more than half of those surveyed said they filtered, boiled or allowed tap water to stand before drinking it. Sometimes this has been attributed to water quality issues. Others said they drank “water from the refrigerator” or used a filtered pitcher out of habit, suggesting that their preferences had less to do with confidence in the water supply.

(Graphic by Erin McCotter / We are Water Evanston)

While only 7% of those who responded to our survey said they purchased bottled water or 5 gallon containers from the store, when we delved into the data we found that the average masked racial disparities. and socio-economic. Only about 6% of whites drank commercial water, but 20% of people of color drank it. Additionally, homeless people were about five times more likely to use bottled water than the rest of the survey group, suggesting that confidence in Evanston’s tap water is an issue. urgent equity.

Some are wary of water straight from the tap

Those who filter tap water and those who buy water from the store often have the same reasoning for their behavior: people wanted to remove metals (like lead) and chemicals (like chlorine) from their water. , and they also wanted to improve its taste. Another common reason for distrust of tap water was general uncertainty about its quality. A civic leader explained, “I switched to the bottle because I wasn’t sure.

Lead pipes were one of the main sources of reluctance to tap water in Evanston. People described their fears about lead contamination in schools, lead pipes connecting to their homes, and the lack of routine and fair lead testing in water, especially in the historically Black Fifth Ward.

Evanston Water Treatment Plant (Source: https://www.cityofevanston.org/government/departments/public-works/public-outreach/evanston-water-sewer-service/water-treatment-plant)

To protect against contamination of lead pipes, the Evanston Water Treatment Plant adds mixed phosphate at the water. It is the chemical that decision-makers excluded from Flint Michigan’s water treatment budget, causing lead to leach from pipes into residents’ drinking water. Many Evanston residents were unaware of the mixed phosphate, did not believe it was a sufficient protector, or even considered it to be detrimental to water quality.

A resident told us he thought store-bought water was safer because they said it only contained “natural chemicals… water treatment plant added to tap water.” A local trader told us, “They have this anti-corrosion chemical, but it seems to me that the only ideal solution would be to replace the lead pipes, which is obviously expensive. But I also feel like they’re in a… place to do it.

Indeed, our research suggests that while there is a need for the city to better communicate its treatment efforts, the only long-term solution to the water mistrust problem is to replace all lead water pipes. from the city.

A replacement of Evanston’s lead service line, as seen in a recent town presentation. (Source: https://www.cityofevanston.org/home/showpublisheddocument/6610, September 13, 2021)

In August, a state law called the Main Service Lines Replacement and Notification Act has been promulgated; he sets a target for the complete replacement of the lead service lines at Evanston by 2061. But the law allows for a 10-year extension beyond that deadline, so maintaining public pressure is essential to achieve this goal.

The law also requires “the establishment of a comprehensive water policy and program for low-income people”, but it is unclear how this will work out in practice. The town of Evanston already has a lead pipe replacement program with a cost sharing agreement. However, this still places a financial burden on landowners, creating a barrier for low-income homeowners and renters.

Why do we need to increase confidence in tap water?

People who don’t trust Evanston’s water and choose to buy bottled water end up paying a high price for their lack of confidence. Bottled water is on average about 2000 times more expensive than tap water, and home filters come with the added cost of replacing filters every few months. One resident said: “Nobody wants to spend money on water, do they? And no one should. It should never be a budgetary expense.

Another interviewee spoke of the financial barriers to obtaining reliable water, explaining: “There is something about… there is a chemical smell or a chemical aftertaste to it. [tap water]. … And that’s when I started to try to avoid it. But then it was incumbent on me to love, say, using my food stamp card to buy bottled water. »Another inhabitant told us that« to do [tap water] safer “was their main concern because” so I don’t have to keep buying bottled water. I would like that very much. “

In addition, increasing confidence in tap water and therefore reducing the use of bottled water has important environmental implications, such as reducing plastic pollution in our waterways. Not only is this necessary to preserve biodiversity, but the Evanstonians we interviewed also told us that they care about eco-responsible behavior. For some, ethical concerns about the environment were enough to overcome hesitation about tap water. A resident who had water quality issues said, “I don’t buy that much water. I don’t like it because of the plastic. There are times when I say to my kids, “We have to do something for the planet, we don’t have to spend this or the other, a lot of things.”

For others, environmental concerns weren’t enough to switch to bottled water. A vivid example is that of a seasoned environmental justice advocate we spoke to, who said, “I buy bottled water and I understand it’s so bad for the environment. I do. I mean, I’ve seen movies or documentaries where it’s different parts of the world and where it’s all these plastic bottles and stuff. I understand. But I can’t afford to get sick. I have underlying health issues. This sentiment recurred throughout several interviews and survey responses, suggesting that environmental concerns will not motivate people to drink tap water without first establishing trust in the water. from the city tap.

Many respondents expressed their hostility towards those who use bottled water. One resident said, “Bottled water? Yes. Yes, wasting money and putting all that plastic into the environment that doesn’t need to be there. Another interviewee said: “Our water is constantly tested to make sure it is safe to drink. It’s ridiculous to pay a lot of money to buy water and waste a lot of plastic.

Rebeca Mendoza noticed this condescending tone often used towards Latinx residents. She said: “I think we need to do a better job of educating [Latinx] community. And do it in a welcoming way, because sometimes I feel like our community is disparaged, and it makes them feel like they’re ignorant or like, “Oh, you don’t recycle or you. know, you use plastic. ‘”

Our research at Evanston suggests that there are complex reasons for people’s behaviors and preferences when it comes to tap water over bottled water, from trust to environmental concerns to habits. Understanding these motivations is a crucial step in designing appropriate holistic solutions to promote tap water consumption. Making sure everyone feels comfortable using this vital public resource will bring us closer to a fair Evanston.

In our next article, we’ll cover different sources of information that people rely on to learn more about the water issues in Evanston, and later, we’ll dig deeper into the environmental impacts of water use in bottle.


We are Water Evanston is a collaboration between researchers at the Northwestern Center for Water Research and community water activists in the Watershed collective, a subcommittee of Citizens’ Greener Evanston. Follow We are Water Evanston on Instagram (@wearewaterevanston) and Twitter (@waterevanston).


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