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Carl Hiaasen: Public spigot stays open for water bottlers

Carl Hiassen’s editorial on ground water-guzzling water bottling companies in today’s Miami Herald:

You probably thought there was a serious water shortage in Florida.

It’s why we’re spending billions to repair and repurify the Everglades, right? It’s why we’re not supposed to run our lawn sprinklers more than once or twice a week.

But hold on. It turns out there’s a boundless, virtually free supply of Florida water — though not for residents. The public spigot remains open day and night for Nestle, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and 19 other corporations that bottle our water and sell it for a huge per-unit profit.

The stuff is no safer or tastier than most municipal tap water, but lots of us buy it, anyway. You know all the brands: Deer Park, Dasani, Zephyrhills, Aquafina, even Publix.

Common sense would suggest that a company with a balance sheet like Coca-Cola’s or Pepsi’s ought to pay for the water they take, the same as homeowners and small businesses do.

Nope. Every year, state water managers allow large bottling firms to siphon nearly two billion gallons from fresh springs and aquifers. The fees are laughably puny.

For example, it cost Nestle Waters of North America the grand sum of $150 for a permit to remove as much water as it pleases from the Blue Springs in Madison County. Every day, Nestle pipes about 500,000 gallons, enough to fill 102,000 plastic bottles that are then shipped to stores and supermarkets throughout the Southeast.

Even by Florida standards, the scale of this public rip-off is mind-bending.

Protected by lawmakers, the bottling companies get a free ride — more precisely, a free guzzle of about 5.4 million gallons a day. Up until December, the Department of Environmental Protection kept no data on waterbottling operations, and of course imposed no regulation.

Three years ago, House Democrats sought a fee on bottledwater producers, but the bill was quietly drowned by Republicans in the Senate. Vermont and Michigan have already passed such a measure, and Maine is currently considering it.

Now the issue is floating up again in that dreary annual IQ test otherwise known as the meeting of the Florida Legislature. Gov. Charlie Crist is pushing for a modest 6-cents-pergallon tax on water taken by commercial bottlers.

The governor’s office calls it a ”severance fee” that would treat water like phosphate, oil and other natural resources extracted by private companies. Crist predicts the tax would raise $56 million the first year, much-needed funds that could be used for projects like desalinization plants.

Crist’s fee would also apply to water purchased by bottling companies from municipal supplies — basically tap water. Though bottlers don’t advertise it, some of the water they sell with fancy labels comes from the same treatment tanks as the stuff from your kitchen faucet, only it’s outrageously more expensive.

Perceptively noting that the budget is in shambles and the state is desperate for revenue, even some Republicans have expressed support for cashing in on the bottled-water craze.

In a charming understatement, Sen. Evelyn Lynn of Ormond Beach said ”it’s somewhat of a contradiction” for Florida to let bottling firms have all the water they want while curtailing use by homeowners.

However, Lynn wants to tax water bottles at the point of sale, meaning the money would come from the pockets of consumers. Crist’s proposed fee is fairer, laying the burden where it belongs — on the companies that are getting rich from tapping Florida’s underground aquifers.

Not surprisingly, the industry greatly prefers a sales tax over an extraction fee. Its lobbyists are fiercely working to kill the governor’s plan.

Bottlers say it’s wrong to single out one group among the many private and public users of spring water. Although agriculture does draw billions of gallons from the same sources, few ranches or farms enjoy spectacular profits that water bottlers do.

The times are jittery for corporations such as Nestle and Coca-Cola, under fire for contributing a waste stream of plastic containers to the nation’s landfills and dumps.

It also appears that consumers are starting to figure out what experts have long asserted — that bottled water is no bargain, and no better for your health than what comes from the tap. Nestle’s sales of its water brands dropped about 1.6 percent in 2008.

Don’t worry, though. Those companies that use Florida springs are still mopping up. It’s easy when you don’t have to pay for your product.

Next time you open your family’s water bill, think about that little bottle of Zephyrhills that you bought for $1.69. How does it taste now?

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Filed under: Florida, Florida Legislature, Florida Politics, , ,

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