Legislature Eyes Tax on Bottled Water as Supplies Dwindle

Tallahassee, FL – It's been said that Florida would be nothing without water. Not only is the state surrounded by salt water on three sides, it also sits atop trillions of gallons of fresh water. There's so much of it, you'd think there would be plenty to go around without dispute. Tom Flanigan reports you'd be wrong.

With so much of Florida sitting atop a massive aquifer, the bottled water industry has located a huge portion of its domestic production in the Sunshine State. Today, Florida's bottled water business is booming. It employs more than 8,800 people, and, as it pumps millions of gallons of water out of Florida ground, it pumps millions of dollars of payroll into Florida's economy. There are about two dozen companies producing bottled water in Florida. They range from small, family-type firms to multinational corporations. The largest is Nestle Waters, Inc. It sells its water under such mega-brands as Zephyrhills and Deer Park. Nestle Waters National Resource Manager Kent Koptiuch says his company does nothing more than market a desirable, popular beverage product.

" a vital, supplemental, on-the-go drink that people can choose when they're away from home and they don't have to worry about any after-effects from drinking that water. They can count on it being a good, pure product and it's going to be healthy for them."

Not everyone is a fan of bottled water, however. Dr. Andy Opel is a media professor at Florida State University.

"What we have is a situation where private corporations have been very aggressive about buying up local water supplies and selling the product back to consumers at two-thousand times the cost of tap water," Opel said.

Despite objections like Opel's, though, it doesn't seem like Florida's bottled water business will be drying up anytime soon. At least a few Florida lawmakers have reason to hope it prospers even more. That's because natural, unflavored bottled water is exempt from Florida sales tax. That would change under a bill just filed by Republican state Sen. Evelyn Lynn of Ormond Beach. It would impose a six percent sales tax on bottled water sold in Florida. It would produce nearly $45 million a year in tax revenue. That money would go into an environmental trust fund. That would be used to rehabilitate ecosystems and clean up pollution, such as that produced by discarded water bottles. Nestle's Koptiuch doesn't see the point.

"Plastic water bottles make up less than one-tenth-of-one percent of the solid waste in the United States," he said. "It's a very small part. And they would make up even less if people recycled more, so yes, we want people to recycle more and we are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to promote that."

Over the long haul, Florida's bottled water industry may be looking at a slowdown in its growth curve. For one thing, Prof. Andy Opel says, at some point, there may simply be less Floridan aquifer water available to be bottled.

"A recent report from the Suwannee Water Management District notes a declining level of the Floridan Aquifer," Opel said. "Their twenty-year projections estimate an increase of between 10 million to upwards of 60 million gallons a day that are going to be taken out of an already declining aquifer based on population growth rates."

There's also the matter of growing public resistance to the industry's expansion. Nestle is looking at tapping the Wacissa River watershed in rural Jefferson County. That plan is drawing fire from environmentalists and some county residents. There was a similar flood of opposition to locating a small bottled water plant near Wakulla Springs a few years ago. So much so, that the project was scuttled. Howard Kessler was a Wakulla County Commissioner while that fight was going on.

"I think that we have to look at this public resource as what are we doing when we don't encourage the preservation and utilization of the tap water as opposed to giving incentives for the commercialization of that same resource," Kessler said.

But there's something beyond whatever impact the bottled water industry may have on how much water is available to local public water systems. It's the looming threat that South Florida may someday tap the Floridan Aquifer to meet its growing thirst for fresh water. The very prospect has North Florida people like Howard Kessler concerned.

"Always a worry, always a worry and Wakulla County lives with that threat."