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COVID-19 concerns lead Facilities to lock water fountains

As Colby students have settled into the new norms at the College—coronavirus testing twice a week, masks everywhere but their rooms, and no more self-served meals—they have had to deal with yet another COVID-19-related adjustment which has affected the way students access and drink water: many of their water fountains have been blocked off.

During the second week of classes, Colby students looking to get drinking water were greeted with a surprise. A red cup-like container was placed over the water fountain spigot. 

Reinforced with a metal padlock, students could no longer take a sip of cool water to stave off the last of Maine’s summer heat. If the message wasn’t clear, signs informed students that, for their safety, the water fountain had been turned off temporarily. 

Erin Dustin `23, a resident of Piper, discovered the locked water fountains in her dorm on the morning of September 3. 

“I was confused. I didn’t know what was happening,” Dustin said. “We were allowed to use the water fountains a whole week before. Why were they abruptly shut off?”

One outraged student, Graham Keating `23 added, “I was upset and surprised, kind of appalled too. How am I supposed to get my water now?”

In an interview with The Colby Echo, Mina Amundsen, the College’s Assistant Vice President for Facilities and Campus Planning, explained that shutting off the water fountains is part of a larger strategy to maintain the health and well-being of everyone on campus.

“We didn’t want to take any chances, especially since water fountains come in close contact with people’s upper respiratory systems,” Amundsen said.

Amundsen added that the red color of the fountain locks was chosen deliberately. 

“The red is meant to signal stop,” Amundsen said.

While the water fountains remain off-limits, the water bottle filling stations located above some of the fountains have remained open for student use. Amundsen said that these sensor-activated stations can be found in all academic and administrative buildings and select dormitories and are cleaned and disinfected daily. They have become extremely sought-after by students who are looking for new sources of water.

“Originally, I walked all across campus to find water bottle filling stations,” Keating said. “I discovered one in Lovejoy, but academic buildings are closed on the weekends. With the limited meal plan, I couldn’t go back to the dining hall to fill my cup, so I had to ask a custodial staff member to open up the building just so I could get water.”

Laura Bogorad `23 faced a similar challenge living in Schupf, a dorm without a hydration station. 

“From my dorm, I would walk to Sturtevant, my old dorm, to fill up my water bottle because I knew there was a water bottle filler,” Bogorad said.

Both Keating and Bogorad say this method of fetching water is unstainable, and they have resorted to buying bulk packs of water bottles at Walmart, even though they know it isn’t the most eco-friendly option.  

Other students have adapted to the loss of drinking fountains by turning to sink water instead. Jeanette Cunningham `22 wrote her message to students looking for something to quench their thirst: “drink out of the sink.”

Nell Cous `22 adapted to the loss of drinking fountain use in AMS, which she found frustrating. “Nowadays,” she wrote, “I am forced to be more creative and fill up my water bottle in locations such as the spa but for the most part I resort to sink water which has been perfectly fine.”

The uptick in plastic usage by some students has been frustrating for Laura Drepanos `23, the manager of EcoReps, the student organization for sustainability. 

“It’s hard to expect students to use reusable water bottles when there aren’t water bottle fill stations in every dorm,” Drepanos said. “I think with all the money being spent on coronavirus precautions, some of it should be used to install more stations throughout campus.”

As for now, Drepanos recommends bringing your own reusable utensils into the dining halls and reminds students to only take a paper bag when really necessary to be mindful of the waste generated by these single-use items.

A popular misconception is that the water bottle filling stations are available in all dorms. Amundsen said she has directed her staff to check how many water bottle filling stations are available and which dorms do not have them.

Amundsen said certain dormitories like the Alfond Senior Apartments, Heights, and Sturtevant in Hillside have all had hydration stations installed over recent years because of requests and high demand by students of that dorm. 

Students looking to have a hydration station installed in their dorm can submit a work order to Facilities. The installation process is not difficult, according to Amundsen. Facilities will first determine if there is a real need for a station and then look into potential locations based on the available water pipes. 

But, Colby students hoping to see a hydration station in their dorm will have to wait, as Amundsen said there could be supply challenges because of the ongoing pandemic. 

For students skeptical about the safety of the school’s tap water, Amundsen says the school’s water systems were flushed with hot water every week over the summer. As for now, Amundsen would like to remind students that the tap water on campus is perfectly safe to drink, with or without a fancy water fill station.

~Fiona Huo `23

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