Long before there was a Zephyrhills, and even before there was a Pasco County, people would journey through the dense, dangerous Florida forests to find a small oasis near the headwaters of the Hillsborough River.
There they could find plenty of fresh, clean water bubbling up from the ground, always at a refreshing 72 degrees.
The waters at Crystal Springs may not have had the healing and restorative powers some believed at the time, but it was certainly quite tasty. And by the time Zephyrhills itself was founded in 1910, the area already had a reputation for some of the best water in the state.
So it’s no wonder a businessman named Don Robinson saw the potential of turning that water into more than just a local commodity in the early 1960s, and Zephyrhills bottled water was born.
Today, hundreds of thousands of gallons of that commodity is shipped throughout the state. The plant, off 20th Street and Alston Avenue in Zephyrhills owned by Nestle Waters North America, employs 250 people making an annual average wage of $46,000. Another 900 more people or so have jobs related to the operation around Florida.
“It’s a great economic driver, but it’s also a great story for Zephyrhills to tell, and one it has told for decades,” said Vonnie Mikkelsen, executive director of the Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce.
This year, Zephyrhills bottled water celebrates its 50th anniversary, continuing to put this small city of nearly 14,000 people it borrowed its name from on the map. Local historian and retired educator Madonna Wise remembers the first time she saw Zephyrhills water after moving to the area in the early 1970s.
“The whole phenomenon of bottled water was developed more in the 1990s, but I do recall a lot of businesses before that having that big bottle and drinking station,” she said. “Even then, you would pull out a small paper cup to get a little bit to drink, and it was fresh water from a place just down the road.”
The spring water operation of Zephyrhills requires an average of about 650,000 gallons of water per day from Crystal Springs, said Kent Koptiuch, a natural resource manager with Zephyrhills parent company Nestle Waters. It’s shipped directly from the spring on a more than three-mile journey in an underground 10-inch diameter stainless steel pipe.
Once it arrives at the plant, it goes through a complex purification and packaging process — but it can be ready to ship in less than 15 minutes.
“I grew up in the country, and we would drink our water out of a hose as kids,” Koptiuch said. “But if you look at history — especially ancient European, Asian and African history — people have been bottling water for thousands of years.”
Of course, those methods would have been in goatskins or sheep stomachs … not exactly the most appetizing way to make water portable.
“They didn’t have plastic bottles, but they still had to travel, and they had to carry water somehow,” Koptiuch said.
The springs naturally push out an average of 35 million gallons of water per day, literally turning a small stream near the site into the Hillsborough River.
While people no longer visited the springs hoping to be cured of ailments, Crystal Springs was a popular local recreational attraction for decades. However, when landowner Robert Thomas closed the springs in 1996, some residents in the 150 homes near the springs were outraged. They fought for years to reopen the springs to the public, and even tried to block Nestle’s ability to extract water from the site.
Today, the only remnant of those recreational days is a set of cement steps leading into part of the pooled water. The rest of the springs have been restored to their natural state and deeded over to an organization known as the Crystal Springs Foundation that created the Crystal Springs Preserve.
More than 50,000 students ranging in age from elementary school to college visit the springs every year. An indoor classroom nearby teaches them all about the environment, and even water ecology. And small wooden bridges give visitors a chance to see where the springs and the Hillsborough River interconnect.
“The most students we get are fourth- and fifth-graders,” Koptiuch said. “Our focus is to educate the youth because they are going to be our future leaders.”
Zephyrhills has been the “City of Pure Water” long before the bottling plant existed, but the business has helped solidify that slogan and made it even easier to market the city as a whole, the chamber’s Mikkelsen said.
“It’s an international brand anchored right here in Zephyrhills,” she said. “It’s clean manufacturing, and very high-tech. It’s exactly the kind of company you want to have, and we’re very fortunate that we already have them.”
Published August 20, 2014
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