When news came out last week that the San Francisco mayor’s office was banning bottled water at all city offices and agencies, it was easy to roll our eyes and think, “well, isn’t that something we all expect from those folks?”

According to environmentalists there are some very solid reasons to applaud San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s announcement - which actually follows similar decisions made by other large cities. Salt Lake City department heads were ordered several months ago to stop supplying bottled water for employees. Instead, they were instructed to offer fountains or coolers. Proponents of the ban point out that the plastic used to produce the bottles for packaged water consumed by Americans annually requires more than 47 million gallons of oil. Add fuel and emissions caused in transporting the final product to the stores, and the environmental toll continues to climb. Finally, as concern over available landfill space and what we’re putting into our landfills continues to grow, the fact that estimated 1 billion plastic water bottles end up in landfills each year gives some groups all the ammunition they need to denounce bottled water.

After all, they argue, water is a product that most of us have readily available as close as the nearest sink. In fact, they point out, some of the largest producers of bottled water actually use municipal water supplies and in effect are simply packaging what is available to most of us.

Members of the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) have reason to take notice of the ongoing debate. Americans purchased 8.25 billion gallons of bottled water last year, which represents more than $10.8 billion in wholesale sales. Water is now the second most popular bottled drink in terms of sales, trailing only longtime leader soft drinks. Over the past 10 years, sales of bottled water have tripled while soft drink sales have remained relatively flat.

And that’s precisely where the situation becomes muddied. As our nation continues to battle obesity — which can be attributed in part to the more than 15 billion gallons of sugary soft drinks we consume annually — should we be discouraging people from drinking zero-calorie water? Many schools are now taking steps to remove soft drink vending machines from cafeterias in order to promote healthier drinks. Bottled water is for many people an efficient and easy way to make sure they are receiving the daily amount of water that doctors recommend. There are even many people who refill their bottles, using them several times before discarding them in the trash or recycling bin.

The IBWA makes the point that cities should focus on educating the public about the importance of recycling in general, rather than focusing on banning a particular product. Jennifer Gitlitz of the Container Recycling Institute recently told Newsweek that fewer than 14 percent of all beverage bottles were recycled in 2004. It’s statistics like that which led San Francisco to take the additional step of offering a free stainless steel water container to any resident who will sign a pledge not to purchase bottled water.

The type of water municipalities and companies choose to provide for their employees should be left to those decision-makers, which so far is all that has happened. It would seem that many governmental agencies would choose to provide the most economical form of water, which I cannot imagine would be the bottled variety. Environmental issues aside, that’s just good fiscal management of taxpayer money. However, if the general public chooses to spend additional money at the store to buy bottled water, it should be allowed to do so. Water is a healthy drink, and the public should be encouraged, rather than discouraged, to drink more of it — regardless of the container.

Bill Crist is associate publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Wednesday. He may be reached by e-mail at bill.crist@brownwoodbulletin.com.