Bottled water companies have quite the deal. They pump about 5.4 million gallons of water a day from state springs and aquifers, bottle it and sell it — and Florida does not collect a dime on those sales. Gov. Charlie Crist would not end the giveaway outright. But his proposal for a 6-cents-per-gallon tax is a reasonable starting point the Legislature should embrace.
Even if Florida were not in the throes of both a drought and a recession, it is indefensible to give away the very product these companies sell. By law in Florida, water is a public resource for all. Yet, to name just one example, the nation's largest bottled water company, Nestle, takes an estimated half-million gallons per day from Madison Blue Springs. The company fills 102,000 plastic containers an hour, slaps a brand name on the carton and ships about half of the product out of state. The only fee the company pays is a one-time water permit costing $150. Mary Ellen Klas of the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reports that the two dozen companies that operate in Florida make a profit of 10 to 100 times the cost of each bottle.
Why should taxpayers hand over for free millions of gallons of the state's most precious resource to drink giants Nestle, Coca-Cola and Pepsi Co., among others? The governor's "severance fee" would raise $56 million in its first year, and the money would pay for alternative water supply projects, such as desalination plants, that seek to reduce the public's reliance on groundwater. States have long levied royalties or taxes to companies that mine natural resources, such as oil, phosphate or natural gas.
The bottlers say it is unfair to single them out. They argue that farmers and golf courses use more water than they do and are not taxed for the withdrawals. But those uses are different. The water used to irrigate crops and golf courses eventually recharges the state's groundwater supply. The water also is a resource for a larger industry; it is not the industry itself. And it is not shipped out of state.
A severance fee is reasonable. Some bottlers, clearly aware of public sentiment about their cushy deal, have offered an alternative solution that would cost them less money: Remove the sales tax exemption on bottled water. But that's a different issue lawmakers should consider separately from Crist's idea. A state that limits when Floridians may water their lawns should not be giving away water to for-profit companies to sell in other states. Crist's proposal brings a dose of sanity to state water policy, and the Legislature should adopt it.