We’ll Drink to That

Johnny Patronis and Jay Trumbull mine a natural resource to quench the thirst of Northwest Florida.

We’ll Drink to That One’s got the water. The other’s got the bottle. A perfect business relationship. By Wendy O. Dixon

It’s no secret Bay County is home to breathtakingly beautiful emerald waters in the Gulf of Mexico. Tourists by the thousands flock to Panama City Beach to bask in the sun and swim in the warm salt water.

But most have no idea that less than an hour away, an equally precious treasure hides — the purest spring water in the world.

This according to Johnny Patronis, co-owner of Patronis Brothers Enterprises and Gainer Springs, which is part of Econfina Creek in north Bay County. The cascading waterfalls, glorious tree canopies and serene natural beauty make a hidden gem in Youngstown.

Brothers Johnny and Jimmy Patronis have been doing business together all their lives — opening the Seven Seas restaurant in 1953, purchasing Gainer Springs in 1957 and opening Capt. Anderson’s Restaurant & Waterfront Market in 1967. While the younger generation of the Patronis family runs Capt. Anderson’s now, both Johnny and Jimmy are still active in several joint ventures — including the sale of Bay County’s spring water to Culligan Water Services Inc.

A Rare and Precious Resource

Econfina Creek was first called “Natural Bridge” for a natural limestone arch that crossed the pristine creek at the mouth of the spring. During the War of 1812, Gen. Andrew Jackson and his army crossed Econfina en route to Pensacola. In 1821, when the territory opened for settlement, one of Jackson’s land surveyors, William Gainer, returned to the sparkling creek and settled there.

The Gainer Springs Group, named after William Gainer, is the most significant group of fresh-water producing underground vents located in the middle section of Econfina Creek. They produce 114 million gallons per day, nearly twice the requirement to make it a first magnitude spring — one of only five such springs in Northwest Florida and 75 in the country.

The creek’s main beneficiaries are the people who drink out of their taps in Bay County. The creek flows into Deer Point Lake Reservoir, which supplies Bay County’s drinking water.

Johnny and Jimmy Patronis thought that bottling the creek water for sale to the general public just made good business sense.

“When you’ve got a spring, it’s all you ever think about,” Johnny Patronis says.

The icy creek’s location is idyllic. Just off State Road 20, it’s easily accessible for transportation vehicles that draw the water. And the stream is in a protected area, surrounded by 1,800 acres of Patronis family land and bordered by a little more than 39,000 acres of protected land owned by the Northwest Florida Water Management District.

The Patronis brothers are the only ones with an individual water use permit within a mile buffer of Econfina Creek, though there are various users that operate under a general water use permit, such as a number of private residences that fall within the buffer.

The seclusion has been a crucial blessing for the creek, which gets nearly half of its average flow from Floridan Aquifer Springs (water filtered through sand and limestone). The rest comes from rainfall runoff.

“One of the biggest threats to the water quality would be the release of nitrates from septic tanks if there was rural lakefront development,” says William Cleckley, the water management district’s director of the Division of Land Management and Acquisition. “We protect the water supply in Bay County by preserving the groundwater recharge area property.”

Sandy soil created a perfect environment for the clear spring water, but not for farming. The absence of industrial centers and large farms with dangerous pesticides, combined with the natural addition of beneficial silica beds and limestone that filter nearby shallow sand ponds, provides one of the purest natural spring waters in the world.

A Partnership Emerges

Econfina began working with Panama City-based Culligan Water Services Inc. in 2000, bottling the crystal clear spring water in five-gallon jugs, then eventually single serving bottles.

Jay N. Trumbull, 50, owns Culligan Water Services and a 15,000-square-foot bottling plant that each month produces 60,000 five-gallon bottles of Econfina water and 120,000 half-liter bottles.

Both the Trumbull family and the Patronis family have been friends for generations. Johnny and Jimmy Patronis’ grandfather, Theo Patronis, first settled in Apalachicola, then Quincy, Patmos, Tallahassee and finally Panama City. Meanwhile, Jay Trumbull’s grandfather, Den A. Trumbull, started the Panama City Culligan dealership in 1950. His son, Den Trumbull, Jr., joined the company in 1955, and Jay Trumbull, current president of the company, came on in 1985.

Close friends, Den Jr. and Johnny and Jimmy Patronis always talked about bottling the spring water in Econfina, and eventually started the permitting process by hiring a geologist and getting state approval.

In addition to Bay County, Culligan, now distributes Econfina water to Fort Walton Beach, Mobile, Ala., Dothan and Tifton, Ga. and, most recently, Tallahassee.

Water is Water, Right? Well, No.

Next time you take a sip of water, whether out of the tap or a bottle, think about the “mouth feel,” a term used by water experts as the primary way to describe the flavor.

“Taste is pretty subjective, but you can tell a difference between hard and soft water,” says Kris Barrios, director of the field services section at the water management district. Rainwater is soft because it has no nutrients whereas ground water is hard. Econfina, Barrios explains, is somewhere in the middle.

Water is primarily measured by Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), a measure of all the dissolved solids or minerals, including calcium, magnesium and caltrates. The fewer the better. High levels will affect the taste of water and may also affect toxicity, says James P. McMahon, an ecologist with Sweetwater, LLC based in Brookside, Utah. Generally, a low TDS is considered by some health practitioners to be more hydrating.

Purified drinking water like Dasani and Aquafina is not spring water, Trumbull says. “They take water and strip everything out of it to make it taste like Econfina.” What’s so special about Econfina, he says, is its low TDS measure. “Some people think you drink bottled water for the minerals, but you get minerals from food.”

The majority of bottled waters do not contain optimal levels of fluoride, according to the American Dental Association, potentially decreasing the decay-preventive effects of optimally fluoridated water. “But the nice thing about Econfina is that it’s naturally slightly fluoridated,” Trumbull says.

The tankers extract 6,000 gallons of water at a time and bring it back to the Culligan plant 20 miles away. Then the water is transferred to a 30,000-gallon stainless steel holding tank. From there, the water is pumped through several filters to take out any particles and put through ultraviolet light to kill organisms. But no change is made to the water itself.

The Ebb and Flow of the Bottled Water Business

Beginning in the mid-2000s, and until very recently, the bottled water industry grew at close to double-digit percentage rates in both volume and sales, according to the Bottled Water Reporter, a publication produced by New York-based Beverage Marketing Corp., which tracks market trends in the beverage industry.

Despite a movement by some environmental groups encouraging people to abandon single-serving water bottles in an effort to reduce the buildup of the plastic containers in landfills, the per capita consumption in the United States increased from 23.2 gallons in 2004 to 29.0 gallons in 2007, then took a slight dip in 2008 and 2009 with a 28.5 gallons and 27.6 gallons per capita consumption, respectively, according to the Reporter.

“It’s interesting because the negative of the small bottles is that they live forever in a landfill,” Trumbull says. “So the alternative is to use the five-gallon recyclable bottles. While sales in the smaller bottles has been hurt, the five-gallon sales are starting to take off again.”

Patronis says he won’t even think about the creek drying up. He has no worries about running out of supply to keep up with the demand. “We’ve got over 100 million gallons a day coming out of there. We only use 30,000.”