Who's Drinking North Florida's Water?
Seven miles north of Interstate 10 in the Northwest Florida town of Marianna sits a stocky, 330,000-square-foot building — big enough to fit five football fields — humming with the effort of producing 43,200 bottles of water per hour. The Canada-based Ice River Springs plant supplies bottled water to stores in much of the Southeast, using a combination of spring water trucked in from Chiefland, Fla., and Marianna’s city water to produce the purified water it sells. The company used to draw water from springs in nearby Liberty and Bay counties but instead chose to rely on a network of providers rather than one source. The plant is permitted to purchase up to 300,000 gallons of water a day from the city of Marianna. Although Ice River Springs manufactures its own brand of bottled water, the company also produces bottled water for Wal-Mart, Crystal River and Nantze Springs. Ice River Springs opened its Marianna facility in 2009, bringing much-needed jobs to Jackson County during the depths of the economic recession. It’s part of an ambitious expansion plan by the Canadian company to enter the fast-growing U.S. bottled-water industry.
Water for Sale A Canadian company taps Into North Florida’s springs — and city water By Lilly Rockwell Originally published in the Apr/May 2010 issue of 850 Business Magazine
Seven miles north of Interstate 10 in the Northwest Florida town of Marianna sits a stocky, 330,000-square-foot building — big enough to fit five football fields — humming with the effort of producing 43,200 bottles of water per hour.
The Canada-based Ice River Springs plant supplies bottled water to stores in much of the Southeast, using a combination of spring water trucked in from Chiefland, Fla., and Marianna’s city water to produce the purified water it sells. The company used to draw water from springs in nearby Liberty and Bay counties but instead chose to rely on a network of providers rather than one source.
The plant is permitted to purchase up to 300,000 gallons of water a day from the city of Marianna. Although Ice River Springs manufactures its own brand of bottled water, the company also produces bottled water for Wal-Mart, Crystal River and Nantze Springs.
Ice River Springs opened its Marianna facility in 2009, bringing much-needed jobs to Jackson County during the depths of the economic recession. It’s part of an ambitious expansion plan by the Canadian company to enter the fast-growing U.S. bottled-water industry. A privately owned company, Ice River Springs declined to say what its revenue or profit was last year.
Bottled water is the fastest growing category in the beverage industry, with $11.2 billion in annual sales, snatching market share away from rival beverages such as sodas, milk and juice because it is perceived as healthier, according to the International Bottled Water Association.
To claim its share of the market, Ice River Springs has opened bottled-water plants in North Carolina, Indiana and Massachusetts over the past five years.
“Marianna is very important because of the availability of spring water,” said plant manager T.J. East. “Also the proximity to Interstate 10 — it’s a perfect corridor. Logistics is the most important piece of the puzzle.”
Recipe for Water
On a recent evening, East offered a tour of the colossal plant. The silver machines that whittle the plastic bottles were so loud that workers wore ear protectors. Much of the work is done by those tractor-trailer-size machines, which carve half-liter bottles out of rigid plastic tubes through a complex process that involves heating and cooling the plastic resin as it is injected into molds shaped like water bottles.
The spring water is filtered inside the plant after it is trucked in from Chiefland and treated for bacterial growth. That water is used for Ice River Springs’ own brand of spring water. The company’s purified water, called True Essence, is simply water purchased from the city of Marianna that is filtered using reverse osmosis, a process that removes all of the minerals in the water.
“But if you take water and strip everything away from it, it’s kind of bitter,” East said. “Once you add those minerals back into it, it starts to taste better. It’s amazing how many different recipes can be out there, too, with different companies having their own recipes for purified water.”
Once the water is ready, it is squirted into the newly molded plastic bottles, a label is slapped on, and a cap and seal are placed on top. The entire process takes less than three minutes from start to finish. Each bottle then is placed within a case of 24 bottles and put on pallets holding 72 cases. Trucks deliver to stores throughout the Southeast, starting in Florida and stretching as far away as Missouri.
On this particular evening, the bottles whirring through the silver machines were headed to another country — Haiti. Nearly 700 pallets of water were donated to the earthquake relief effort in Haiti from Ice River Springs and its client, DS Waters.
Helping the Environment?
One of the biggest criticisms of the bottled-water industry comes from environmentalists. Although water bottles can be recycled, eight out of 10 times they are thrown away, according to the Container Recycling Institute. That’s hundreds of millions of water bottles that end up in landfills each year, the institute says. Although biodegradable plastic bottles, made from corn starch, do exist, Ice River Springs doesn’t use them.
Other environmentalists criticize the decision by Florida’s water management districts to allow bottled-water companies to take water from state springs. That water, said Linda Young of Florida’s Clean Water Network, “belongs to all of us.” Selling it to bottled-water companies robs Florida’s residents of potential drinking water, she said.
Ice River Springs has permission to take the spring water from Chiefland through the owner of the spring and the local water management district, East said.
“They have over-committed our groundwater resources,” Young countered. “Our water tables are dropping precipitously.” Florida should protect its natural resources from an industry that offers very few jobs or other tangible benefits, she said. “What is the benefit to Florida when you put it in balance with potential repercussions?”
But the company is taking steps to fight the perception that bottled water is environmentally unfriendly. Ice River Springs is the first private beverage company to manufacture its own plastic resins — the tubes it uses to make the bottles — from 100-percent recycled bottles, East said. It purchases bales of recycled water bottles that it transforms into new bottles. According to East, a bottle can be reused up to 22 times before the quality of the plastic starts to disintegrate.
The company also is experimenting with other environmental initiatives, such as using solar-cell technology at its plants.
“We, as a company, feel it’s our responsibility to minimize our own carbon footprint,” East said. “We’re not just going to say we’re the lowest in our carbon footprint; we will show you how we are doing it.”
Marianna rests just a few miles north of Interstate 10, near the Georgia and Alabama state lines. Its location makes the city attractive for companies looking to transport goods throughout the Southeast. Marianna is home to several major distribution centers, including discount retailer Family Dollar, which employs up to 500 people during its peak season. The city’s biggest employer is the prison system, which supports 2,000 jobs in the area.
Before Ice River Springs landed in Marianna, the building it occupies was used by an assortment of other manufacturers, including West Point Homes, which makes sheets, towels and other bed and bath accessories, and Russell Athletic, maker of exercise wear. Local business boosters were happy to see a new company occupy the space after a six-month vacancy.
Ice River Springs is “a very important player in a growing industry segment,” said Art Kimbrough, president of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce. “In a rural economy like Jackson County, (the company) is very important to the overall economy.”
Ice River Springs drew thanks from top officials in Florida, including Gov. Charlie Crist, for bringing jobs at a time when the state was reaching double-digit unemployment figures. East said the plant has 12 employees, with plans to hire about eight more.
“We are extremely pleased because they moved into a facility that was being vacated,” said Kenny Griffin, a spokesman for Chipola Regional Workforce Development. “Some of the people were able to transfer existing skills, and at the same time it allowed them to learn a new set of job skills.”
Jackson County hasn’t been hit as hard as the rest of Florida; it had an unemployment rate of 7.7 percent for the month of December 2009, compared to the state’s overall rate of 11.8 percent. Kimbrough said that at its best, Jackson County had an unemployment rate of 3 percent.
“Our highs weren’t as high and our lows weren’t as low,” he said.
Kimbrough noted that Ice River Springs is a good steward of the community, eagerly donating bottles of water to events such as the send-off party for local troops sent to the Middle East.
“They are the kind of company we want to be here,” he said.
Who’s Drinking Our Water?
The Northwest Florida Water Management District reports that Ice River Springs is not the only entity permitted to bottle the area’s spring water. Current permittees for this use include:
Cherokee Spring Water, Inc.: Mill Pond Spring, Jackson Co.
Nestle Waters North America, Inc.: Cypress Spring, Washington Co.
Johnny & Jimmy Patronis: Econfina Spring, Bay Co.
Both the City of Marianna (Water Use Permit 19870045) and Johnny & Jimmy Patronis (Water Use Permit 19860027) are permitted to provide Floridan aquifer water to Ice River Springs.