Looking for Clarity
A Report on the bottled water industry in Florida.
But over the next decade, as bottled-water sales began to float upward to steady 10% annual increases, bottled water companies of all sizes began to spring up all over Florida. In the Suwannee district today, three of the world's largest bottlers pump springs along the Suwannee and Santa Fe Rivers: Nestle Waters North America, a unit of Swiss giant Nestle SA, the world's biggest food and beverage company; Atlanta-based CCDA Waters, owned by Coca-Cola and French food and beverage powerhouse Danone; and DS Waters of America, the top company for home and office water delivery in the U.S.
Around 60 bottling-related companies operate elsewhere in the state. They range from boutique firms that will slap a company logo on bottles of water to "water dealers" that pump water from various parts of Florida and sell it to bigger bottlers. What begins as a free resource passes from dealer to bottler for some 5 cents a gallon. Consumers eventually pay up to 100 times more.
Florida offers a strategic location for the industry. Bottlers get both a ready, untaxed supply of water (see "Swapping Water for Jobs") and proximity to a large, thirsty population that keeps shipping costs low. "Florida has become one of the top-consuming states for bottled water in the United States," says Gary Hemphill, managing director of Beverage Marketing Corp. in New York, who estimates U.S. bottled water sales at close to $10 billion in 2005. "It is associated with good weather, outdoor activities and an active lifestyle."
Bottling companies also get little oversight in Florida, at least when it comes to the source of their water. The Division of Food Safety, the state agency responsible for monitoring the water companies, tests bottled water to make sure it's safe and inspects bottling facilities for sanitation. State law also requires the division, part of the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, to ensure that bottled water is "from an approved source." But the food-safety regulators say that simply means they have to ensure the bottling company has the proper approval from an agency such as a water-management district to withdraw water. No agency keeps track of precisely what the companies are bottling.
So where does the water in the bottle actually come from? Some non-spring bottled water, such as "drinking water" sold in grocery stores, is essentially tap water poured into a bottle or jug. Nearly half of Florida's 60-plus water companies don't have a permit to withdraw water from one of Florida's five water-management districts. In most cases, that means they're either bottling municipal water or buying water in bulk from another supplier. A water dealer such as Heartland Water Products in Highlands County, for example, sells in bulk to a bottler such as Arctic Spring in Lakeland.
Packaging water from wells and municipal sources is neither illegal nor unusual. Publix, for example, pumps groundwater from wells under its huge Lakeland Industrial Center in Polk County to produce some of its store-brand drinking water. Some Publix water also comes from municipal sources. Winn-Dixie uses Plant City tap water for its store-brand drinking water. A company known as the Dickson Trust of Silver Springs has plans to use water directly from Silver Springs Regional Water and Sewer Inc. -- a public supplier -- and sell it in bulk to commercial water-bottling companies.
In fact, an estimated quarter of all bottled water begins life as tap water. The top-selling bottled water in the U.S. -- Pepsi's Aquafina -- is simply tap water that's been additionally purified via reverse osmosis and carbon filtering. The same goes for the No. 2 product, Coca-Cola's Dasani, which counts Jacksonville tap water among its sources.
Labels and marketing -- including Florida-bottled products featuring snow-capped mountain peaks -- often suggest a source more exotic than the water's origins, however.
Few companies still make grandiose claims like those of Golden Springs LLC, which runs a spa at Warm Mineral Springs in North Port and markets "Fountain of Youth Natural Mineral Water" for $9.95 a liter. The company's promotional director, Robin Sanvicente, says the water "rejuvenates, replenishes, restores, actually heals arthritis, fibromyalgia, you name it."
But consider Silver Springs Bottled Water Co. of Marion County, which calls itself Florida's largest privately held bottled-water company. The firm's name harkens the deep-blue spring waters of north Florida and the longtime tourist attraction that's the largest artesian spring formation in the world. But the company uses Ocala well water for many of its products, according to its water-use permit from the St. Johns River Water Management District. It buys spring water from a company called Spring of Life, which is based outside Orlando not far from Florida's Turnpike.
Meanwhile, Zephyrhills' famed spring water doesn't come from Zephyrhills, although some of it is bottled there. For its Zephyrhills and Deer Park brands, Nestle Waters pumps from four springs in various parts of Florida and also buys water from dealers.
Even the term "spring water" isn't as clear as it might seem. Florida environmental scientists and regulators don't agree where groundwater stops and "spring water" begins. Some argue it's not spring water unless there's an intake pipe poking into the spring itself. Others say it's spring water as long as the well is in the spring's "zone of influence."
In several cases, the wells of spring-water companies are thousands of feet from the actual spring. For example, Nestle's borehole at its Blue Springs plant that bottles both Deer Park and Zephyrhills Spring Water is more than 4,000 feet from the spring. Under federal law, "spring water shall be collected only at the spring or through a borehole in the underground formation feeding the spring." The companies must hire a licensed hydrogeologist to certify to the federal government that the groundwater they're pulling up is of the same composition and quality as that flowing from the nearby spring. But officials with the Food and Drug Administration, the federal agency that regulates bottled water, say that since much of Florida's water never crosses the state line, not all companies may adhere to its rules.
Nestle Waters North America pumps water from Cypress Spring in Washington County, as well as from Blue Spring in Madison County and Crystal Spring in Hillsborough County for its Deer Park and Zephyrhills spring-water products. Environmental regulators in north Florida say the company has helped protect springs from development and pollution.
A matter of taste?
Spring water companies, for their part, say consumers can taste the difference. At the Spring of Life Spring Water Co. outside Orlando, President Diane Roesch says it took her family nearly a decade of testing and other work at the artesian source they own to satisfy regulators and begin selling water to bottlers throughout Florida in 1990. "I live four miles from here, and my well water doesn't taste nearly as good as this spring water," she says.
Industry officials say the added value in bottled water, regardless of its source, comes from purification processes, the lack of chlorine and the fact that it doesn't travel through old pipes. "Bottled water provides consistent safety, quality and good taste," says Stephen Kay, vice president of communications at the International Bottled Water Association. "Consumers like that consistency."
Ultimately, of course, both spring water and the water that bottlers draw from non-spring sources originate in the same Floridan Aquifer that supplies 92% of the state's drinking water.
At the Northwest Florida Water Management District in the Panhandle, home to a half-dozen water bottlers, Angela Chelette, chief of groundwater regulation, says the point is that Florida boasts good-quality water -- whether consumers get it from their faucets or pay a dollar a pint to drink it from a bottle. "I would call it groundwater -- it's the water that we drink out of our taps and our spigots," she says of the bottling permits in her district. "They may run it through a couple of more processes, but generally, it's all the same. It's good water -- we all have good water."
Does the source really matter to consumers? Continued soaring sales of bottled water may mean they care more about the convenience of the product and the fact that it's healthier than soft drinks. Style and status play a role, too. Consider the new Boca Raton eatery Bova, with a two-page, 25-bottle water menu whose offerings begin at $6.75 a liter.
Hemphill, the beverage analyst, thinks consumers buy bottled water for three primary reasons: Convenience, packaging and price. "Whether it has a sport cap or a twist-off cap is often more important to the consumer than whether it's drinking water or spring water."