Florida has the largest concentration of freshwater springs in the world and they’re a revenue source, not only for their ability to draw tourists to places like Ginnie Springs and Blue Springs in Gilchrist County, but also as a source for drinking. Water bottling companies like Nestlé extract water from the springs, bottle it, and sell it. Some lawmakers and advocates are concerned that the more than 1 million gallons of water withdrawn daily could cause water shortages.
The bottling companies want to extend their permits so they can extract more water. Sen. Annette Taddeo (D-Miami) said that this should come at a price.
“Currently our state imposes excise taxes on the extraction of oil, gas, phosphates, and other minerals,” Taddeo said. “However, we do not impose such taxes on the extraction of our most valuable and precious resource: our water,” she said during a January committee meeting as she introduced a bill to impose a 12.5 cent tax per gallon on water extracted from the springs. The collected tax money would go into a trust fund that local governments can use for quality improvements and water infrastructure projects.
“The 12.5 cents would be a massive tax increase on the public and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you bringing this issue up, but at the end of the day it’s going to be very tough for us to move forward with any type of tax increase,” said Sen. Joe Gruters (R-Tampa), who also serves as the state GOP chairman.
The legislation could have big impacts on the counties where springs are located. Gilchrist County houses a water bottling plant recently purchased by Nestlé. The county’s Administrative Assistant, Donna Creamer, said legislation like Taddeo’s could prevent Gilchrist from receiving test wells to evaluate water quality. The county fears if Nestlé has to pay more in taxes it won't install the wells, putting the cleanliness of the county’s springs on the backburner.
“We want that company to be successful, but there’s legislation that wants to shut it down and to [us, Nestle] would be very beneficial for the county because they would put test wells in,” Creamer said. “They will make sure the water is clean, if they are going to sell it they are going to keep our water clean and we really would like legislation to step up and do it.”
Taddeo decided to put the bill on hold due to the likeliness of its failure, though she’s still planning to push the issue.
“I believe that water is Florida’s oil. It’s something that we’re very proud of, but we’ve got to make sure that it’s clean,” Taddeo said. “We know that there’s a lot of contaminants and that we need to invest in protecting our water.”
She’s not alone in her desire to fight the problems with Florida’s water consumption and quality. There have been multiple bills involving water bottling regulations and monitoring permits for the extraction of water. Among backers is Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando).
“We have to make sure that corporations aren’t just pumping water without any type of thought to what that impact is on our greater ecosystem, especially when that water is then bottled up and profited from and again that water is being used in so many different types of beverages sold across the world at the cost of Floridians not having water in the future,” Eskamani said.
Water bottling companies pay a one-time permit fee of about $115-$130 to pump water out of Florida’s natural springs. After that fee, they have no other fees that must be paid for them to pump millions of gallons of water.
Eskamani says that water bottle companies shouldn’t be treated differently from other companies that also extract water like agriculture and wastewater management. If you’re going to tax one company, you have to tax all of them.
“My perspective is that when everybody gets worked up about bottled water, it distracts people and the discourse away from what really needs to happen, which is that the state needs to engage in real measures to constrain the amount of water that’s pulled out of the aquifers,” said hydrogeologist and Project Baseline founder, Todd Kincaid.
He says there should be a general cap on groundwater consumption and says water bottling companies are only one example of Florida’s water usage. He says the companies take less than one percent of the water. The bigger issue, he says, lies in where the rest of Florida’s water is going.
“What I would hope comes of this attention that’s being paid now is that instead of focusing on one particular industry, we focus on the mechanisms, the systemic mechanisms that are in place that are failing the state of Florida, failing Floridians,” Kincaid said.