ZEPHYRHILLS — ''The City of Pure Water," read the signs, beckoning visitors to this sleepy outpost, named a hundred years ago for the gentle winds that breeze through its hills. Zephyrhills, population 14,000, has long made its name on water. But it was when the bottling plant south of town began filling 4 million to 5 million bottles of water every day, emblazoning the city's name on its bright turquoise label, that its reputation became something more.
"It's an identity," City Manager Steve Spina said. "I can go to Miami and say I'm from Zephyrhills now, and people won't say, 'Huh?' "
This weekend, Zephyrhills Natural Spring Water celebrates 50 years of existence, having grown from a small, local operation to a brand that stocks its wares in stores throughout the Southeast — though the brand's expansion was not without controversy and growing pains.
"In some ways, it put the town on the map, because you can go anywhere now and people recognize the brand," said local historian Madonna Wise.
In 1964, long before the bottled water industry became a $12 billion business, a man named Don Robinson began bottling local water as the Zephyrhills Water Co. In 1987, the Perrier group bought out his 50-person company and turned its attention to Crystal Springs, a few miles southeast of the city.
Every day, 30 million gallons of water gush from the Floridan aquifer into Crystal Springs. Nestled in what is now a 525-acre wildlife preserve, the springs are almost alien in their beauty: impossibly clear, perpetually cool and, in spots, the same turquoise color as the Zephyrhills label.
Perrier partnered with the spring's landowners, the Thomas family, installing a pipe to pump water to a plant, while the family continued to run a beloved swimming hole there.
Several years later, Perrier was acquired by Nestle Waters North America, which installed a larger, stainless-steel pipe — and eventually closed the swimming spot to the public. The pipe runs 3.2 miles underground to a 550,000-square-foot plant near Zephyrhills' airport.
The plant runs 24/7, molding plastic into bottles at an unbelievable rate. Once formed, bottles fly along the ceiling on conveyors, heading to the filling room. Then they're capped, labeled, packaged and placed on pallets to be shipped out.
Quality control monitors check the water hundreds of times throughout the day.
Florida springs have been suffering in recent years due to pollution such as fertilizers and nitrates, said Cynthia Barnett, a journalist and author who writes about water. She said bottled water "has the best advertising minds that money can buy."
"They convinced us that this water was somehow better than the water in our taps even though it's no better, and then convinced us to pay 1,000 or 10,000 times more for it," she said.
Bottlers often get an unfair reputation for damaging the environment, though they generally care about water quality, said Robert Knight, director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute, a nonprofit organization that raises awareness about the need to reduce groundwater pumping.
In all, bottled water takes up a fraction of all water pumped from the aquifer, especially compared with major users like agriculture, Knight said.
"They're targeted because they make this profit off the water that's obvious to everybody," Knight said. But, he said, industries such as agriculture also profit from water, while often polluting it with fertilizer.
Karen Pate, director of Crystal Springs Preserve, which is sponsored by Nestle Waters, said the overall amount Zephyrhills pumps from the springs is minuscule. The plant pumps about 650,000 gallons from Crystal Springs per day, though it is permitted to take 756,000 gallons.
A natural resource manager for Nestle Waters said that if pollution were to threaten the springs, "we're going to be first in line to make sure it doesn't happen."
Kent Koptiuch, one of 11 such managers for Nestle Waters, said bottled water's competition is not tap water — it's soda, beer and juice. "There's a misconception out there that for some reason we don't want people to drink tap water, and that's completely false," he said. "If you choose our water, that's because we're doing something right."
While the community has largely embraced the brand — the plant has rooted 250 jobs in the city — it wasn't always so. With the closing of the Crystal Springs swimming hole came a nasty battle involving protests at City Council meetings and letter-writing campaigns. The small group that fought Nestle and the Thomas family's bid to increase pumping, called Save Our Springs, has been quiet for years.
"The place was essentially being loved to death," said Robert Thomas, who closed the springs in 1996 and was the target of much criticism. "It was being dramatically overused, so we had some issues with too many doggone people in such a small place."
Thomas said a deep nostalgia remains for the swimming hole, where visitors came by the carload, lounged on a man-made beach and ate watermelons they cooled in the 72-degree water.
Now, instead of day-trippers and vacationers, 50,000 students flock to the preserve each year for educational programs and immersion in restored wildlife. The goal is to instill the idea of environmental stewardship in Florida's youths.
It's a place where kids can gawk at gators, catch their first crayfish and learn about water systems firsthand, Pate said, letting them truly understand Florida. "Many of those critics at that time have come in and made comments like, 'My golly, if we knew you were going to do this, we wouldn't have been opposed to it,' " Thomas said.
Having Zephyrhills' name on a healthy household item is better promotion than the city could have asked for, said Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce executive director Vonnie Mikkelsen.
"It's the perfect sort of marriage between what Zephyrhills is about, which is clear blue skies, clear water and healthy, active living," she said.
As part of its 50th anniversary celebration, the Zephyrhills brand presented $50,000 to environmental groups Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful and Tampa Bay Watch. With it, the groups will continue their work, including cleanup efforts and habitat restoration.
"I don't think there's any question about it," Thomas said. "You can go really anywhere in the U.S. and say, 'Zephyrhills,' and they'll say, 'Oh, the City of Pure Water, where the really good bottled water comes from."
Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected] or (813) 909-4613. Follow @clairemcneill.