This is part of our Better Baltimore series, which aims to use readers’ feedback and ideas to hold government agencies and powerful entities accountable. We’re also interested in stories about readers and communities driving change on their own. Have a tip? Tell us.
If you’re out walking along the Inner Harbor or going to fish at the Canton Waterfront Park, you might need to bring your own water. There are only a handful of working water fountains along the eight-mile stretch of the Baltimore Waterfront Promenade, with no plans to add more.
There’s also no clear timeline to fix the broken ones.
Public water fountains, when they work, provide free access to an indispensable resource that people from all walks of life depend on, including recreational runners, tourists, local residents and unhoused people. When they are properly maintained, they can help reduce plastic water bottle consumption and cool people down during hot summers. But Baltimore and cities around the country have seen a decline in the number of public drinking fountains in recent years.
Only five water fountains are posted along some of the highest-traffic areas of the promenade, between the Rusty Scupper restaurant on the south side of the harbor and Pierce’s Park on the north. Another fountain is located inside the Baltimore Visitor Center. At the beginning of July, only three of those six were functional.
The Banner set out to find out why after residents complained online.
Several city agencies and organizations, including the Waterfront Partnership, the Department of Recreation and Parks and the Department of Transportation, assume responsibility for maintaining different water fountains across the city. Staff from the Waterfront Partnership sanitize the fountains along the promenade; the transportation department manages maintenance and repairs for some of them; and the recreation and parks staff repairs others and alerts the transportation department when one is broken.
The transportation department also contracts with a local company, Fountain Craft, to repair some drinking fountains.
Kathy Dominick, a public information officer at the Department of Transportation, said those repairs can be challenging. “In the event that repair work is needed, the brick and concrete promenade may have to be excavated” to address problems with the underground water supply, she said in an email to The Banner.
Fountain Craft is investigating what’s wrong with a broken water fountain near the Rusty Scupper, she said. “The contractor is still working on a solution so the timeline for repair is unknown at this time.”
The levers of some fountains, like two at Rash Field Park, need to be held down for five to 10 seconds before water comes out. Earlier this summer, those fountains produced such a small trickle of water that it couldn’t be used hygienically, even with the button held down. The Waterfront Partnership posted signage about the broken water fountains after an inquiry from The Baltimore Banner. The fountains have since been fixed.
Water fountains in parks across the city have difficulties similar to those around the harbor. The fountain at Federal Hill Park doesn’t work, and neither do fountains at Harlem Square Park and Clifton Park. Kevin Nash, the public relations officer of Baltimore City Recreation and Parks, said water fountains under the purview of his department had all been turned off to comply with safety protocols during the pandemic. Now, more than two years later, the department is “assessing best practices to provide safe, clean drinking water for the public.”
Larry Tyler, a maintenance employee of Baltimore Recreation and Parks who was riding through Harlem Square Park in his van on July 26, said the department is aware of the broken fountain and is working to fix it. He said the department has been trying to improve the park and has recently installed new wooden benches along the pathways.
Many parks lack outdoor water fountains altogether. There are no fountains in Canton Waterfront Park or Boston Street Pier Park on the east end of the harbor. Garrett Park and Baybrook Park in Brooklyn don’t have fountains, either.
Dominick said the transportation department is “not aware of any plans at this time to increase the number of drinking fountains.”
Melita Wright, a Prince George’s County native who lives near Federal Hill Park, said she thinks fixing the lack of fountains could be included in the city’s budget. “I’ve been coming to this park for a long time — sometimes people ask me for the bathroom or for water. It’s just despicable because we have the money,” she said.
Water fountains are especially important for those who lack permanent homes. Bernard Smith, a Southwest Baltimore resident who has worked at the National Aquarium for 34 years, thought that there used to be more water fountains in the area, but their numbers have diminished over the years.
“You got CVS that sells water and different stores,” he said. “A lot of homeless people, one guy asked, ‘Can you give me a bottle of water?’ So maybe we do need a water fountain.”