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House Urged to Cut Back After Bottled-Water Tab Nears $1 Million

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 (AP/Reuters)

If the Potomac River, which supplies water to the nation's capital, had run dry, Congress might be able to explain itself. But it hasn't. 

And that has left one group calling out the U.S. House for spending $860,000 last year on bottled water -- money it says could have gone toward installing fountains of perfectly potable water. 

A report from the nonprofit Corporate Accountability International found that between April 2009 and March 2010, House lawmakers spent an average of $2,000 per member on bottled water. 

It might sound like an obscure case to make, but in an era of cost-savings, reducing consumption of bottled water and reinvesting in the country's public water systems go hand-in-hand, the group contends. 

Corporate Accountability International is now joining with other advocacy groups to call on the House to set an example, by cutting bottled water out of its budget. 

"There's just a lot of money that's being poured down the drain," said Kristin Urquiza, director of the group's "Think Outside the Bottle" campaign. 

About 70 percent of the water-bottle cost on the Hill went toward Nestle water products, mostly Deer Park. 

In advance of the report, Nestle sent a letter Monday to congressional lawmakers urging them not to cut out bottled water, arguing that doing so will not improve water conservation or fund public water infrastructure.

"Some interest groups have advocated an end to bottled water products at state and municipal buildings and here on Capitol Hill, as if the mere act of turning from bottled water would solve the challenges they seek to address," wrote Brian Flaherty, Nestle Waters' vice president of government affairs, adding that the company is "proud" to serve Deer Park to so many Capitol Hill offices. The company contracts with the offices of individual lawmakers and committees. 

"Many of the claims being made against bottled water simply fail to provide a complete picture of bottled water's real environmental impact and its importance as a contributor to a healthy lifestyle," Flaherty wrote.

Corporate Accountability International estimated that with the amount of money spent on bottled water, the House could have installed more than 1,500 basic water fountains, or more than 900 fountains using refrigerated, filtered water. 

Urquiza said 16 House lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have already pledged to use "bottled-water alternatives" in their offices. She added that with so many issues dividing Republicans and Democrats, water could unite the parties. 

"We really see this as a way for the two parties to come together to work on an issue," Urquiza said. 

Bottled-water consumption varied significantly among different offices on the Hill, according to figures released in the report. The House Information Resources office racked up a nearly $13,000 bill, followed closely by the House Appropriations Committee's $12,500 water tab. 

Following closely behind was the office of the speaker, then Rep. Nancy Pelosi, with about $8,800 in bottled-water costs. 

Reached for comment, Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill noted that Pelosi's offices have had a water filtration system in place for more than a year now, a system that should lower costs. He also noted that the House of Representatives recycles bottles -- among a host of "green" initiatives that were expanded under Pelosi's speakership. 

A representative for House Speaker John Boehner, who is pushing a 5 percent cutback in some areas of the legislative budget, had no comment on whether he would target the abundance of water bottles as part of those cuts. As minority leader, Boehner's offices spent $3,354 on water bottles during the period studied, according to the report. 

The study noted that other members are making aquatic reforms. 

Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, has gotten off the plastic bottle. Several U.S. representatives held a panel discussion in September on a film that looked at the impact of bottled-water consumption. D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, whose office spent a little more than $1,300 on costs related to water bottles last year, got behind the anti-bottle campaign Tuesday. 

"Congress is spending almost a million dollars annually on bottled water for itself that often carries misleading claims of purity, when water of equal or better quality is available through the public drinking water system installed here in the House," she said in a statement.