Milwaukee's Public Bubblers: As Common As They Used To Be?

Apr 19, 2019

It's fitting that Fox Point resident Trish Mousseau reached out to Bubbler Talk — our series that answers your questions about Milwaukee and the region — with a question about bubblers.

No, her question wasn't about why Wisconsinites call bubblers, bubblers. (That's the very first question Bubbler Talk ever answered.)

LISTEN: Why Do Wisconsinites Call That A Bubbler, Anyway?

What Trish wanted to know about is public drinking fountains in Milwaukee County. More specifically:

"I'm wondering how many bubblers are there, and what government departments maintain them?"

Trish has the impression that bubblers aren't as common as they used to be. "Milwaukee's had bubblers on the street for years and years and years. And, I haven't been seeing a whole lot of them lately," she says.

(L) Little girl going for a drink of water in 1963 at Plankinton and Wisconsin. (R) Same intersection today, no bubblers.
Credit (L) Journal Sentinel, (R) Chuck Quirmbach

Trish says she especially remembers bubblers on Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Milwaukee. As you can see in the photo, it doesn't appear those drinking fountains exist anymore.

Where you can find bubblers are in some public buildings. Standing next to one on the third floor of Milwaukee City Hall is Molly Snyder, of OnMilwaukee.com and self-described bubbler enthusiast. Molly has written several articles about bubblers, and knows a good drinking fountain when she samples one.

Molly Snyder drinking from a spectacular bubbler.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

She calls this city hall bubbler "spectacular."

"This is exactly what I'm looking for, personally, in a bubbler. It is nice water pressure. It was cool water, not too cold, not to hot. Nice flow," Molly explains. She also believes the fountains are a public good.

"It stands for something, in terms of our psychologically, how we connect with one another within a city," Molly says. "It's very important that we share resources." Especially, she adds, when medical experts are urging people to exercise more, and to stay hydrated.

The City of Milwaukee declined an interview about the former outdoor, downtown bubblers. In a statement, the city says, "The Milwaukee Water Works doesn't own any bubblers or water filling stations in the public way [meaning a sidewalk or street corner.]"

The city adds that the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, or PSC, does not allow the Water Works to provide water service free of charge, so non-government fixtures have to be served with water from an existing privately owned building with a water meter.'

LISTEN: Good Well Hunting: Bay View Watering Hole Last Of Its Kind

Eric Esser, the PSC's Water Division Administrator, says communities that do provide bubblers usually pay for them through the local property tax bill. "Kind of the old adage, 'There's no such thing as a free lunch,' Same thing would apply here. Someone is picking up the cost for that water to be available," he says.

Eric says it's important to keep public water systems financially afloat. But he says the PSC does not track how many bubblers there are in Wisconsin, or whether the number is dropping.

You can find other public bubblers in the City of Milwaukee at school district recreation sites. They are also at suburban venues like the pocket park on 69th and North in Wauwatosa and at almost all the Milwaukee County Parks.

(L) A bright red bubbler in an East Tosa pocket park. (R) A water pipe at Greenfield Park awaiting its bubbler.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

The parks department maintains about 250 bubblers located at almost all of the 159 park venues.

John Brillowski, the parks' plumbing supervisor, says his plumbers are doing what they can to turn on all the outdoor drinking fountains in the next week or so, now that the threat of frozen pipes appears to be over. He says it's not easy to keep all the bubblers running, because of things like vandalism.

"We'll have occasionally where people will drive through a park and won't see one or run one over, or kids just get a little bit ambitious and want to see how them come off the wall," John explains.

He says sometimes younger kids at play areas innocently pour sand in the head of the bubblers. Over the years, John says, about 25 parks drinking fountains have been taken out of service, either because of repeated vandalism or because the county discovered a couple decades ago that some bubblers were cross-connected, pumping out water meant for the grass.

This Bubbler Talk question comes as the county now sells bottled water at parks, and has several beer gardens. But Parks Operations Director Eddie Santiago says the county isn't paying less attention to bubblers.

"We are not pressured to want to sell our water bottles to anyone. We like to provide water for the public, at no cost," he says.

Eddie says if people want a better bubbler at their park, they can contact the parks department.

Friends groups at Humboldt and Lake Parks have also paid for special water coolers, or bubblers with a spigot and doggie dish at the bottom.

Above, the photo from 1938 shows a bubbler at 15th and Hayes in Milwaukee, dedicated to Louis Kotecki. The image on the right from today shows that the bubbler is still there, but is out-of-service.

Have a question you'd like WUWM to answer? Submit your query below.

_