Despite Budget Woes, University Still Has Money for Bottled Water

April 15, 2010 at 10:04 PM Leave a comment

Published: April 15, 2010
Times are tough at the University of California. The state’s budget crisis has led to cuts, layoffs and higher student fees.

It is enough to drive someone to drink — as long as it’s not plain old tap water.

Even though money is tight, the university has spent about $2 million in recent years  on brand name, commercially produced and delivered bottled water to campuses in San Francisco and Berkeley. With both cities boasting some of the nation’s highest-quality drinking water, critics see bottled water as a questionable expense that is bad for the environment.

“Bottled water is, largely, an unnecessary waste of money,” Peter H. Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security in Oakland and a MacArthur genius fellowship recipient for his work on water issues, wrote via e-mail from Alexandria, Egypt, where he was attending a conference on water sustainability. “But there are also substantial environmental, social and political costs not captured in the price alone.”

To be clear, university staff members and students are not sitting around sipping emerald bottles of sparkling Perrier. The bottled water tends to be delivered in three-to-five-gallon jugs, then dispensed in rented coolers. Both campuses have contracts with Arrowhead, a division of the Swiss corporation Nestlé.

The University of California, San Francisco, has paid Arrowhead $250,000 to $320,000 a year since 2004, according to estimates supplied by the university.

At the Berkeley campus, officials said a total of $522,215 had been paid to Arrowhead for the three fiscal years that concluded in 2009.

Contrast that with the City of San Francisco, where bottled water has been banned in government offices. The move came after a 2006 investigation by The San Francisco Chronicle, which revealed that the city spent $500,000 a year on bottled water and supplies.

“Bottled water is hundreds to thousands of times more expensive than providing tap water,” said Dr. Gleick, whose new book, “Bottled and Sold. The Story Behind Our Obsession With Bottled Water,” explores the issue.

Beyond the expense, there is the environmental impact. Tap water to both San Francisco and Berkeley is transported at little cost and pollution free by gravity, while bottled water arrives on trucks that burn fuel.

Michael Rodriguez, director of strategic sourcing at U.C.S.F., said the university reviewed its bottled-water policy when San Francisco adopted its ban. Purchases of single-use bottles have since declined, he said, but orders for jugs and coolers continue, in part for safety reasons.

Mr. Rodriguez said that infrequently used faucets and aging plumbing could affect water quality, and that tap water was not readily available in every office of 20 university buildings scattered around the city. And with the U.C.S.F. Medical Center on campus, he said, Arrowhead would supply drinkable water in the event of an earthquake.

“I might be taking a conservative approach,” Mr. Rodriguez said, “but I’ll take that criticism, rather than be unprepared in the event of a disaster.”

It sounds reasonable, except that the city already has a plan to supply water to the hospital after an earthquake. Also, Mr. Rodriguez said he did not know of any test results that show tainted water from old pipes. And rented coolers are clearly not needed everywhere. On a recent afternoon, Arrowhead made a delivery to the modern Kalmanovitz Library, placing bottled water in a fully-outfitted kitchen, next to a working sink.

There is an effort in Berkeley to wean the campus from bottled water. Janet Gilmore, the university spokeswoman, said an “I Love Tap Water” campaign initiated by the university’s health services department had raised awareness of the issue. As a result, Ms. Gilmore said, spending on bottled water is on track to decrease by 25 percent in the current fiscal year.

Ariel Boone, a student senator at Berkeley, said, “Our funds are going to bottled water instead of keeping our libraries open,” and noted that just $15,000 was at stake recently to extend library hours during final exams.

Ms. Boone said the student government recently banned student organizations from using money on bottled water. “We decided it mainly for environmental purposes,” she said, “but also because we’re concerned about money.”

But does the saving make a difference? All told, the University of California budget is more than $20 billion. Even if the expense of bottled water is cut, that would surely be — excuse the pun — just a drop in the bucket.

But Dr. Gleick does not agree with that argument. “There are the direct economic costs,” he said, “and while they may not be huge, we live in an era where we can no longer afford to waste money unnecessarily.”

Scott James is an Emmy-winning television journalist and novelist who lives in San Francisco.


Entry filed under: San Francisco local, Sustainable Living, Water. Tags: , , , , .

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