ZEPHYRHILLS (FOX 13) -
It’s two worlds in one that create this city’s namesake product: Bottled water.
There’s the industrial complex – the maze of stainless steel pipes and pounding machines. Then there’s the lush springs complex – with shimmering aqua ponds and brilliant tropical greenery.
Nestle, which owns Zephyrhills, granted us access inside both compounds to see how bottled water is made. It turns out that this seemingly simple task isn’t simple at all.
“You would think that getting water in a bottle wouldn’t be that complicated,” said plant manager Donnie Bowden.
The journey to your lips begins inside an idyllic place called Crystal Springs Preserve – the source of Zephyrhills Natural Spring Water. Contrary to public opinion, it’s private property. A man named Robert Thomas’s family owns it.
And he is the unlikely proprietor of the state’s most famous water works.
“I’m a rancher,” Thomas said.
Thomas said his family – longtime cattle ranchers – bought the Crystal Springs in the 1960s. Today, the Thomases have turned this unique slice of the state into a working preserve.
“It’s a great source of pride for us,” he continued. “It is absolutely gorgeous.”
The Thomas family employs a team of naturalists who are charged with keeps the springs complex as beautiful as possible – while also allowing water to be pumped out.
“We are private stewards of some of Florida’s most amazing habitat,” said Karen Pate, who oversees the 525-acre complex.
She takes us to the water’s edge.
“It’s awesome,” she observed.
But it wasn’t always that way. Thomas tells stories that are backed up by pictures in Florida’s photo archive.
“It became the old swimming hole,” he said.
Tourists and locals alike were loving the springs to death.
“It was a mess back then,” said Kent Koptiuch, a Nestle hydrogeologist who also looks after the springs. He keeps a balance. Koptiuch monitors the springs’ natural health while also safeguarding the bottling plant’s daily take.
It’s ironic in a sense. The consumption of this natural water feature’s sole offspring is the key to its preservation.
“I love my job,” he offered. “It’s one of the best jobs in the world, I think.”
Koptiuch said the springs produce 30 million gallons of water a day. The bottling plant takes 600,000 gallons of that. The ‘straw’ is a 10-inch diameter stainless steel pipe. It’s visible from the surface, but far from remarkable.
“People that come out and see it, they think I’m playing a joke on them,” he said. He lifts his arms and stretches them as wide as he can. “They think there’s going to be some pipe this big. And they ask, ‘That’s it?'”
The submerged pipe snakes underground – under roads, under intersections — and over 3.24 miles. It arrives at the plant as unceremoniously as it left the springs. The pipe emerges behind a tall chain link fence and connects to a silo farm.
“The first thing we do is run it through carbon filtration,” said Bowden. “Each of those holds about 45,000 gallons of water.”
But it’s not there long. Inside the sprawling factory lives a thundering mechanical marvel.
“We have 10 production lines,” Bowden continued. The pacing rivals NASCAR. Just 35 minutes pass between the time water arrives and it is bottled, labeled, and ready to ship.
It’s genuinely dizzying, as many components spin like a merry-go-round operated by the devil.
One type of machine feverishly converts three-inch plastic molds into full-size bottles at a rate of 17 per second – as it spins, no less. Another machine flash-fills as many as 1,000 a minute.
The plant produces an ocean a day.
“It’s somewhere around five million bottles of water every day,” Bowden said. “There’s a lot of thirsty people out there.”
Nestle sees great potential in bottled water. It enlisted a dietitian to press that point.
“Water is trending up,” said registered dietitian Carissa Bealert. “There’s actually research to support that. In 2014, for the first time ever in U.S. supermarkets, we bought more bottled water than carbonated drinks.”
Bowden said Zephyrhills is constantly testing the water’s chemistry for consistency. But there is one test that does not require a scientist.
“It’s a taste test,” he said. “We’re the first to taste it.”
Bowden says all 230 plant employees are required to taste at least 40 samples per week.
“We’re looking for any kind of off taste, any kind of off odor,” he explained.
The next people who will lap up the plant’s product are consumers – as many as five million a day. Many are likely unaware of the many people it takes. Even fewer likely realize the delicate balance between man and nature that brings them that refreshing bottle of H2O.
But Thomas says it works.
“I think it works quite well,” he added, standing on the edge of the glistening springs complex. “And this is where it starts.”