Want to or Not, Rhode Islanders Buy Bottled Water

By DAVE FISHER/ecoRI News staff

Savvy individuals across the United States have begun to avoid bottled water for good reason. The plastic used to create and ship it increases our fossil-fuel dependence; water itself is predicted to become an ever scarcer resource as the world population grows; bottled water’s cost to the consumer is in the range of 1,000 percent more than tap water, and in some cases is merely tap water, bottled; the inevitable litter and waste recycling and disposal issues that come with plastic; the lack of regulation of the bottled water industry, etc.

You may have bought a water filter and a couple of reuseable bottles to eliminate bottled water from your personal budget, but a portion of your tax dollar is being used to buy bottled water — and soft drinks — for use in state agencies.

At the Statehouse alone, about $18,000 is spent annually on bottled water. A cost that increases for taxpayers and the environment when you include the cost of storing it, cooling it and disposing of the plastic vessel. Although there are several recycling bins around the Statehouse, many of these taxpayer-funded water and soda bottles end up in the trash, particularly those used in the House and Senate chambers or those used for special events.

A recent study by Boston-based Corporate Accountability International (CAI) titled "Getting States off the Bottle: How Taxpayer Dollars are Wasted on Bottled Water and its Effect on Public Water Systems" conducted in four states showed that state agencies spend some big bucks on bottled water; money that could be spent on fixing and maintaining a declining national water infrastructure.

A hundred years ago the public water systems that we know in the United States largely did not exist. Only a small segment of the population had access to clean drinking water. Those were the people who could afford to have water provided from distant sources — either by bottle or pipe — to their homes. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, public outrage and political action forced elected officials to begin replacing private water companies with public agencies.

In 1900, water-borne diseases such as typhoid accounted for almost half of all mortalities in U.S. cities. As cities began to provide treated drinking water and adequate sanitation of sewage, public health improved dramatically. By the 1940s, typhoid was virtually eliminated, U.S. infant mortality rates dropped by half and life expectancy at birth for the average American rose by a decade and a half. The U.N. Development Program concluded that the singlemost pertinent factor in this monumental upswing in public health was the widespread establishment of public water systems.

Unfortunately, since the 1970s, not much has been done to improve our public water systems, which were recently graded a D-minus by the American Society of Civil Engineers. And make no mistake; water bottlers are banking on the decline of those systems to boost their revenue. According to the CAI report:

For the corporations that sell bottled water, the jeopardized condition of the nation’s water infrastructure is an opportunity for tremendous profit. Kim Jeffery, the CEO of Nestlé Waters North America, projects that as infrastructure in the U.S. declines, “people will turn to filtration and bottled water to meet their needs.” The bottled water industry isn’t just seizing an opportunity; it is banking on the decline of our water infrastructure as a key to the success of its business model. And Nestlé, the leading international bottler, is unabashedly furthering this decline. Jeffery boasts that, “Our company is the only one out there driving the consumption of bottled water in America and the need to consume bottled water in America."

There is also the industry-fueled misperception of bottled water as a cleaner, healthier alternative to the tap, but according to Kristina Urquiza, director of advocacy for CAI's Think Outside the Bottle campaign, "Tap water has, in fact, far more regulatory oversight than bottled water and public water systems are the backbone of our country's health, economic growth and well-being. Bottled water marketing has eroded confidence in our public water systems to the extent that one in five Americans drinks only bottled water, illustrating how many people believe the only place to get clean drinking water is from a bottle."

In a time of widespread economic crisis, one would think that deficit hawks at the state and federal level would have picked up on what some would argue is a massive misappropriation of tax dollars, but as per usual, cities and towns have led the way on this issue.

In 2006, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the city was spending nearly $500,000 a year on bottled water. In response, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered an audit which confirmed the findings. He then issued an executive order to phase out city spending on bottled water, with the funds earmarked for investments in the city’s public water systems and to provide municipal employees with alternatives to bottled water. Soon cities such as Seattle and New York followed suit.

In 2007, Newsom — along with Mayor R.T. Rybak of Minneapolis and former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson — introduced a non-binding resolution to the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) Environment Committee, which called for a study to look at the importance of public water to cities and towns, and the impacts of bottled water on municipal waste. The resolution was adopted by the USCM.

In 2008, a follow-up resolution sponsored by 18 mayors was passed encouraging cities to phase out, wherever feasible, government spending on bottled water, and promote the importance of municipal water supplies.

Last year, CAI rallied on the steps of the Statehouse to protest the purchase of $73,000 worth of Poland Spring bottled water by the state. Members of the House agreed that the figure likely didn't include other brands of bottled water consumed at the Statehouse.

According to the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, which is the business office for the General Assembly, the legislature alone spent $18,671 this fiscal year — July 2010 through June 2011 — on the purchase of bottled water for all legislative offices and legislators.

According to the recent CAI report, Massachusetts and Connecticut spend about $500,000 a year on bottled water statewide. Getting to the statewide cost of bottled water to Rhode Island taxpayers proves to be a little more difficult.

“From a budget perspective, we do not budget at such a detail level to know how much is being spent on something like bottled water. We do have a budget category for water as a utility (i.e. purchased from Providence Water Supply), but not for bottled water," according to an e-mail from Thomas Mullaney, executive director/budget officer for the Department of Administration. “The state controller can identify expenditures by vendor, but since a vendor that sells bottled water would likely sell other items, it may be difficult to get down to that level of detail without looking at every invoice.”

I guess we’ll have to extrapolate.

If the General Assembly spends $18,600 annually on bottled water, and if the host of other state agencies spend even half of that on bottled water, we’re talking about anywhere between $300,000 and $500,000 of taxpayer money spent on a product that is virtually free from the tap.

And you thought you weren’t buying bottled water.