By DAVE FISHER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Bottled water is big business in the United States. How big? Well, according to a report by the Beverage Marketing Corporation, U.S. consumers chugged 8.6 billion gallons of bottled water in 2008, representing nearly 29 percent of the liquid beverage market and exceeding sales of all other beverages except carbonated soft drinks.
In the past few years, sales of bottled water have declined slightly, but bottled water still remains the second largest selling pre-packaged beverage in the country. This recent dip in sales can be partially attributed to the decline of the economy and partially to increased awareness of the environmental costs of bottling this important resource. Nielsen Scantrack data, as of December 2011, estimated the average cost of a gallon of bottled water at $1.47. The same volume of water from the tap, at current U.S. average rates, costs 0.15 cents, or less than two-tenths of a penny.
You might expect ecoRI News to report on the outrageous environmental costs of depleted aquifers and plastic waste associated with the bottled water industry, or even the ridiculous retail markup on a product that most consider a human right, but this story is centered on the indubitable waste of taxpayer dollars on bottled water in Rhode Island.
Consumers who have seen a drop in their income or an increase in awareness may have begun to opt for reusable water bottles filled from the tap, but many state and federal government agencies haven’t begun to tighten the purse strings regarding the bottled drink that many are beginning to view as a luxury item. A 2010 report from Corporate Accountability International (pdf), which looked at state expenditures on bottled water in five states, showed purchases of bottled water by state agencies ranging anywhere from $78,000 to $475,000.
Oddly enough, the driest state in the study, New Mexico, spent the least on bottled water ($78,000), while Minnesota, which borders lake Superior, the largest body of fresh water in North America, was the big spender at $475,000. The other states in the study were Oregon, Colorado and Maryland, which spent $90,200, $154,000 and $200,000, respectively, on bottled water.
Dehydrating Rhode Island's budget
So where does Rhode Island stand in this lineup? Surely, the Ocean State doesn't spend as much on bottled water as a state the size of New Mexico or Oregon? It turns out that we spend that ... and much more.
According to information from the state’s open government portal, Rhode Island state agencies spent more than $110,000 in taxpayer dollars on bottled water in fiscal 2011. At the aforementioned average rate of $1.47 per gallon that amounts to slightly less than 75,000 gallons of bottled water.
That same volume of water from the tap on Block Island, where residents pay the highest rates for public water in the state, about 1.8 cents a gallon, would cost a mere $1,350.
At Smithfield’s water rates — the lowest public water rates in the state at about 0.3 cents a gallon — those 75,000 gallons of water would have cost $225.
The actual rate for public drinking water in Providence — where the largest percentage of government agencies are based — is about 0.46 cents a gallon. At that rate, 75,000 gallons of water would cost $345. At literally any rate, using tap water would have eliminated about 98 percent of that $110,000 bottled water expenditure.
These purchases seem to fly even further into the face of common sense given that as recently as 2009 Providence’s public drinking water was rated second best in the nation for taste and lack of contaminants by the Environmental Working Group.
In fact, given the state’s crumbling water infrastructure and the contamination of the public water supply by lead pipes and galvanic corrosion in some of the oldest pipes in the nation, any tax dollars spent on bottled water, rather than on improvements to our public drinking water systems, seem extravagant.
The lion’s share of the state’s bottled water is provided by the Poland Spring Water Co. — a division of Nestlé Waters North America — which gleaned more than $82,000 from Rhode Island’s coffers in fiscal 2011. More disturbingly, about 750 of the nearly 950 line item purchases in the various budgets were for less than $100, and nearly 250 of the purchase receipts were for less than $10. The state isn’t even using its substantial purchasing power to procure these beverages in bulk. Moreover, nearly 70 state employees saw fit to seek a $1.99 reimbursement for what one could assume was a single bottle of Poland Spring water.
State agencies did spend some money with a local water bottler, Middletown-based Crystal Spring, but only for the comparatively paltry sum of $370.
These purchases of bottled water were listed in the various agency budgets in such diverse budget categories as water purchases, food, kitchen supplies and office supplies. Also, keep in mind the fact that water and/or soft drinks provided by caterers or foodservice companies to state agencies aren't listed in these line items.
Rhode Island's thirstiest
The state Judiciary spent more than $14,000 on bottled water in fiscal 2011; the Department of Public Safety spent more than $13,000; and the Department of Environmental Management spent more than $11,000. But far and away the most parched folks in state government are the senators, representatives and staffers at the Statehouse. No doubt all of that hot air that blows on Smith Hill dries them out.
You can view the spending on Poland Spring bottled water, by agency, here.
The General Assembly spends more than $50,000 on bottled water and soda annually. The General Assembly contracts with Coca-Cola to provide not only Dasani brand bottled water, which is simply filtered tap water, but soft drinks, as well. In fiscal 2011, the legislature spent more than $42,000 on Coke-brand beverages — about $18,000 of which was for glorified tap water and the remainder was spent on cans of soda laden with high-fructose corn syrup and artificial colorings.
The General Assembly, which is only in session for six months out of the year, also contracted with the Culligan water company and DS Waters for coolers and water amounting to more than $8,700, bringing the grand total of bottled water and cooler expenditures at the Statehouse to nearly $27,000.
What does my town spend on bottled water?
As with so many financial responsibility issues, Rhode Island’s municipalities are leading the way. Under the leadership of then-mayor and now U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, Providence passed an ordinance in 2008 preventing the city from spending tax revenues on bottled water.
The city of Newport doesn’t disallow bottled water in city government buildings, but all coolers and bottles are paid for through an account funded independently by city employees.
In Warwick, the only city department that charges bottled water purchases to its budget is the Sewer Department.
Many local governments provide beverage vending machines for employees in their offices. Usually, the provider of the vending machine provides the machine at no cost, contracting instead for the proceeds from vending. The beverages contained in them are paid for by city and town employees.
Even if you don’t begrudge your tax dollars being spent on astronomical markups on a natural resource — or on your local senator and representative's soft drink habits — there are companies in Rhode Island that could provide these overpriced products and services.
The Ocean State is home to two spring water bottlers — Crystal Spring in Middletown and Girard Spring in North Providence. Both have assured ecoRI News that they have the capacity to provide bottled water to every state agency at nearly the same cost as Poland Spring. The state even promotes an underutilized buy local campaign.
The General Assembly's spending on soft drinks is even more mind boggling, considering that in 2004 the legislature saw fit to deem Yacht Club Soda as “Rhode Island’s Official Soda.”
ecoRI News recently spoke to John Sgambato, co-owner of Yacht Club, about the state’s disingenuity in naming his product the official state soda and then buying $24,000 worth of soft drinks from corporate giant Coca-Cola.
Sgambato was disappointed, but not surprised. He said that for the same price, “(Yacht Club) could supply nearly 38,000 bottles of soda at the wholesale price.” Purchasing soda from the North Providence bottler also would contribute to the sustainability of state government, because “Yacht Club would gladly pick up the glass bottles from the Statehouse and reuse them. We do that for all of our big accounts. We also give a $2 per case refund on all returned bottles," Sgambato said.
Such a refund would amount to about $3,000 returned to the state coffers on 38,000 glass bottles of locally produced beverages. Add into that the reduced cost of waste removal from the marble mansion on Smith Hill, as no more aluminum cans would have to be removed from the premises, and Yacht Club conceivably beats Coke every time. Yacht Club also uses sugar cane and not questionable sweeteners such as high-fructose corn syrup.
While the General Assembly is freezing cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs), state lawmakers are downing plenty of out-of-state cola and marked-up bottled water. If the economy is forcing citizens to tighten their purse strings and forgo raises, there's no reason state government shouldn’t do the same. Plus, there are better ways — both environmentally and financially — to rehydrate lawmakers and staffers without buying them water in a throwaway plastic bottle with a massive carbon footprint.