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DWP Pays to Drink Sparkletts

Times Staff Writer

Despite spending $1 million in the last two years to assure Los Angeles residents that their tap water is not only safe to drink but also top quality, city officials spent $88,900 in public money during that time on bottled water from private firms.

The Department of Water and Power, which supplies the city’s water and promotes it, spent the most on bottled water, paying $31,160 to Sparkletts.

“I am stunned,” said City Controller Laura Chick, whose office compiled the bills in response to a Public Records Act request from The Times. “This is the same department which spent millions of dollars for public relations promoting themselves and the quality of their drinking water.”

The city’s use of bottled water comes despite a 1995 directive by former Mayor Richard Riordan that said: “The city’s tap water satisfies most needs, and bottled water should not be provided ordinarily at city expense.”

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As a result of that order, many City Hall offices pay for water coolers with money collected by employees.

The bottled water purchased by the city in the last two years includes water coolers for city offices and small sports bottles for city workers in the field or for the public at special events in hot weather, officials said.

The DWP spends about $500,000 annually to mail a report on the quality of its water to its customers, as required by federal law, according to Jim McDaniel, chief operating officer of the agency’s water division.

The latest report brags that DWP water “meets or surpasses all water quality standards.”

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Even so, McDaniel said, some people prefer bottled water to DWP tap water because of the taste, noting that the city puts chlorine in its water.

“I don’t think it’s necessary,” McDaniel said of buying bottled water. “But if people prefer it, and they can afford it, that’s their choice. There is a taste issue for some people.”

McDaniel could not say how the bottled water the DWP bought was used, but he said at the DWP’s downtown Los Angeles headquarters workers are encouraged to use tap water.

“If you are inside the building and you need water for a meeting, you should get a pitcher of tap water because it’s perfectly good,” he said.

McDaniel said he believed some of the bottled water was for remote locations, including the Owens Valley, where DWP employees work without easy access to L.A. tap water. Also, some DWP labs need to buy distilled water for chemical procedures, he said.

Gayle Harris, a DWP spokeswoman, noted that some of the water may have been used for community events or distributed to neighborhoods when water service was interrupted.

The DWP has ordered from Sparkletts even though at any given time it has about 25,000 bottles filled with its own water. It is bottled by the agency for use by its employees in the field and for storage in case of emergencies. Some of the bottled city water is provided to City Council offices for events held in the field on hot days.

Chick questioned why the tap water that DWP bottles is not sufficient to meet the department’s needs.

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“They hand out thousands of bottles of their water to the public each year at various community events,” she said. “But behind closed doors, the DWP management has been spending ratepayer dollars on water for their employees from an outside supplier. There is something very wrong about that.”

The city Public Works Department was the second-biggest consumer of bottled water, paying more than $21,600 to Danone and Arrowhead for bottled water used in offices and in the field.

The department’s bills, including $141 spent by the Board of Public Works itself, could not be explained by board President Cynthia Ruiz.

“That is a good question. Let me look into it and give you a call back,” Ruiz said. She did not call back.

The Harbor Department came in third, paying $13,300 to Sparkletts.

The City Council paid $3,702 in tax dollars for bottled water to Danone, including $20 per month for a water cooler and bottled water for the office of Council President Eric Garcetti.

“Some people like the hot-water” feature, that comes with bottled water dispensers, Garcetti said. “I, at home, always drink regular water, and at the office I make tea using regular water.”

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Councilmen Jack Weiss and Bernard C. Parks are the only elected city officials to pay for bottled water from accounts funded by political supporters. In the last two years, Weiss and Parks together have paid $970 from their political officeholder accounts for bottled water, records show.

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A spokeswoman for Weiss said he uses his officeholder account to pay for bottled water because it is “a luxury” and he does not think taxpayers should be billed.

Villaraigosa’s office contracts with Sparkletts primarily because the water cooler also provides hot water, according to spokeswoman Janelle Erickson.

“The 140-plus members of the mayor’s staff are provided with hot water for tea, soup and other needs, which is not paid for with taxpayer money,” she said.

Still, some City Hall watchers found the purchase of bottled water by officials in a city with its own water utility to be odd.

“It strikes me as ironic that the city spends money touting the safety of its water to drink but won’t drink it themselves,” said Doug Heller, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.


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