Some legislators again are taking aim at water bottling operations in Florida.
This week, members of the Senate Committee on Agriculture said they’re concerned about shipping water out of Florida and the effects of pumping during drought and in areas with water shortages.
“Obviously there is money being made on use of a public resource — that is water,” said state Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah.
Committee members persisted with questions even after being told that the amount of water being pumped for bottling is very small.
Water bottling is a lightning rod for the public and has received attention from state officials in the recent past although no action was taken. But it’s so often a distraction from the need to reduce water use and improve the efficiency of the state’s largest water users, including the average homeowner.
In 2009, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist proposed placing a 6 cents per gallon tax on water bottling plants to raise $66 million a year. The revenue would have been spent on water supply and pollution reduction projects.
But the proposal went nowhere after legislators raised concerns about a possible loss of jobs and whether it could lead to taxes on other industrial water users.
In 2011, state Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, filed bills to impose a 10-year ban on new water bottling permits and apply a 6 percent tax on the retail sale of bottled water. Neither bill was heard in a committee.
Florida overall uses about 6.5 billion gallons of water a day, down from more than 8 billion gallons per day in 2000, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Steve Minnis, governmental affairs and communications director for the Suwannee River Water, told the Senate Agriculture Committee this week that 44 water bottling permits in the state allow a combined pumping of 20 million gallons per day.
“That’s very small — tiny,” Minnis said, compared to the state’s overall water use.
But Garcia and state Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee and committee chairman, didn’t seem satisfied. Their questions veered into the economics of bottled water and whether the state could share in the revenue.
Lane Stephens, a lobbyist representing Nestle Waters North America, said his company employs close to 1,000 people at its bottling plants in Madison County and in Zephyrhills. The company pays $1.2 million in state and local taxes at the Madison County plant.
The bottling tax proposed by Crist in 2009 would have caused 45 workers at the Madison County plant to lose their jobs, Stephens said.
He tried to dispel the idea that large quantities of water are being shipped out of state, noting that Nestle has 16 brands pumped at various locations around the nation so the water can be bottled close to users.
There are 75,000 types of beverages available to consumers in the United States, not counting bottled water, Stephens said.
“Yes, the bottled water industry obviously uses water and they make a profit on that water,” he said. “They wouldn’t be in business otherwise. So does every other beverage manufacturer and every other user of water.”
Montford said the purpose of the meeting was to begin a discussion on the issue. He said legislators have difficulty explaining to their constituents why water can be hauled out of state when some areas are facing water shortages.
“That’s what’s generating this discussion,” he said. “It’s not the question of trying to cost people their jobs.”
Bruce Ritchie (@bruceritchie) is an independent journalist covering environment and growth management issues in Tallahassee. He also is editor of Floridaenvironments.com.