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Tap Water's Budget Bottleneck

Washington is humming with debate about how to trim the debt without stunting our economic recovery. Yet somehow, with all the recent rancor over spending cuts, pundits and politicians have largely overlooked one of our most essential public services--supplying the public with clean tap water.

Interestingly, House lawmakers, who control many federal purse strings for the nation's water supplies, spend nearly $1 million a year on bottled water.

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Given the House of Representatives' commitment to rein in its own office budgets, you would think bottled water would be an easy place to start cutting. Not only is bottled water far less regulated than what comes from the tap, up to 44 percent of bottled water originates from the tap.

But not only is the expense needless, it sends the wrong message about both the quality of the tap and our commitment to public water as a nation.

Bottled water marketing has had a profound impact on the public's confidence in the tap and the political will to adequately resource public water systems. Today, these water systems face a $23 billion annual funding gap that the proposed 2012 budget threatens only to deepen.

Nestlé, the corporation that provides the House the bulk of its water, knows the impact of its marketing. It is staking its future fortunes on the ultimate decline of public water infrastructure--a trend it abets by leading people to believe its product is somehow "Born Better" than other water. Not coincidentally, that's the name of its most recent advertising campaign.

In 2003, one in five people drank only bottled water. Public opinion has come around after years of education by campaigns, including our own Think Outside the Bottle initiative. In 2010, a Harris poll found that about 40 percent of Americans had returned to the tap.

There's a new spirit among some lawmakers. After my organization, Corporate Accountability International, released a report about the volume of bottled water members of Congress drink, 16 lawmakers from both sides of the aisle stated they had either abandoned bottled water or intended to do so. The move helped Congress join the ranks of more than 1,200 cities that have already resolved to buck the bottle and support the tap, as well as the states of Colorado, Illinois, and New York.

These moves are the first steps in trimming the fat so that national, state, and city governments can refocus their resources on economic recovery and growth. According to a report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, every dollar invested in water and sewer infrastructure increases GDP in the long-term by $6.35. Furthermore, every job added in the water and sewer industry creates nearly four additional jobs in the national economy.

In other words, water systems are today what they always have been: the engine behind economic development and the guarantor of our public health for generations to come. And by cutting the flow of dollars to a non-essential use of our most essential resource--except in emergencies--we can take the first important step in rebuilding public confidence and funding for the tap.

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Leslie Samuelrich

Leslie Samuelrich is the chief of staff of Corporate Accountability International.

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