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Liquid Asset: Bottling Water in Phoenix Actually Makes Sense

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Cady Gokey understands the concerns some people have about bottled-water plants in drought-stricken Phoenix. But she also knows what people want: a cool drink of bottled water.

As president of Sedona Bottling Company, the 28-year-old oversees a small water factory in a nondescript West Phoenix industrial park. The 20-year-old company is just now coming into its own, with Gokey following in the footsteps of her father and former plant boss, Langer Gokey, who helps advise her. Sedona Bottling utilizes purified, municipal tap water for some of its products, and for others, spring water from — naturally — the scenic northern Arizona town of Sedona.

As controversy brews over Nestle Waters North America's planned 395,000-square-foot bottling plant in Phoenix, Gokey has been preparing to launch new products to quench the rising demand for packaged H2O.

"I love manufacturing," she said while giving New Times a brief tour on Tuesday. "I don't think I'm doing something bad. I think I'm doing something good."

Mainly, she's providing a product that, in Arizona, is in great demand. Most of the water Sedona Bottling sells is consumed in-state, Gokey said.

In fact, statistics obtained from Gary Hemphill of the New York City-based Beverage Marketing Corporation show that Arizona is among the states with the highest per-person consumption of bottled water.

According to Hemphill's stats, the Southwest region, which includes Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma, has the third-highest consumption of bottled water compared to other regions when calculated by the gallon. But the Southwest drinks far more on a per-capita basis — an estimated 61.9 gallons per person in 2015, compared to the next-highest on the list, the Pacific region at 53.5 gallons. That makes sense considering the above-average heat in most of the region.

Nationwide, bottled-water consumption has more than doubled in the past 15 years, from 4.7 billion gallons to 11.7 billion gallons, saving Americans who switched to water from sugary drinks a total of more than 61 trillion calories, the marketing company reports.

Nestle, which estimates its plant at 1635 South 43rd Avenue will use 35 million gallons of water in 2017, its first year of operations, claims demand for bottled water in metro Phoenix has increased 10 percent in the past year.

Meanwhile, as New Times reported last year, most of the state and metro area have more than enough water to meet current needs, with shortages expected in a few decades if millions of new residents move in. Phoenix and its suburbs, home to more than four million of the state's six million people, is watered by four sources: Salt River and Verde River water that comes from snow in the White Mountains; the Central Arizona Project canal; reclaimed water; and precious groundwater that's mostly stored instead of used.

If Nestle using 35 million gallons a year sounds daunting, it shouldn't: That's out of a total annual state demand of 2.2 trillion gallons, 70 percent of which goes for agriculture. The City of Phoenix used about 87 billion gallons in 2015 (56 billion for residential use and 29 billion for non-residential). Only the most renewable of the four above-mentioned sources will serve the Nestle plant: the Salt and Verde water. Phoenix only uses half of its allotment of those supplies, says city spokeswoman Stephanie Bracken.

The city was inundated with calls and e-mails after news of the Nestle plant broke last month.

"It definitely upset some residents," Bracken said. City staff members returned every call and explained the reality of the situation, and most citizens seemed to get it, she said.

The City of Phoenix Water Services Department issued a somewhat snobby-sounding letter in defense of the plant, which the city points out will use far less water than many other production plants, like beer breweries or semiconductor factories, which the public doesn't seem to care about.

"We live in a desert, not a vacuum," the May 31 statement read. "Industrial water use provides high-paying jobs, is a critical part of our economy, and supports the well-being of all who live here. The bottom line is that Phoenix has enough water to support a vibrant economy in a responsible and sustainable manner."

Phoenix already has several smaller bottled-water facilities, including a Niagara Water plant in Phoenix and several water-cooler-type delivery services.

Gokey's plant aims to be continue as part of Phoenix's vibrant economy by taking a tiny fraction of Arizona's water and doing to it what people demand — namely, making it cleaner, improving the taste, and placing it in an eye-catching package that Americans would select among competitors on a store shelf. Gokey wouldn't allow photographs inside the plant, nor would she discuss specific figures about the operation, but she explained and showed roughly how it works.

The plant at 120 North 57th Drive is a converted warehouse-type building with a high ceiling and room for long, steel-tracked, conveyor-belt-type "lines" upon which the bottles ride on their journey from empty container to store-ready product. No weird smells assault the senses, as they might in, say, a plastic factory. When the product spills onto the floor as it inevitably will, it's just water.

The plant's most noticeable features are the large, plastic water containers in one corner — one can hold 10,000 gallons — and the skyscrapers of empty water bottles on wooden pallets that dominate the largest storage room.

Sedona Bottling's bottles are made by another company and purchased through a long-term contract. They're a tad thicker and sturdier than Nestle's Pure Life bottles, which means they're more expensive and make heavier garbage (or recyclable material). Gokey said the big companies typically "blow" their thinner bottles on-site, using expensive machines and proprietary technology to lower cost on a mass scale. 

For its Desert Quench brand and some of the water that local resorts and companies buy, putting their own labels on the bottles, Sedona Bottling uses Phoenix municipal water. Commercial users, whatever they do with the water, pay on a sliding scale that encourages conservation by increasing the per-unit price the more they use. No new water rights are granted.

Purifying the Phoenix metro area's water improves the taste and removes potentially harmful chemicals, but leaves in necessary minerals.

The company also sells water it collects from a spring with approval from the city of Sedona, Gokey said. That water is pumped into a container and trucked to the Phoenix plant.

"We're not even denting the amount of water that's there," she said, adding that there's a public spring nearby that anyone can use.

Next to the storage room, a couple of men load empty plastic bottles upright in one end of a metal catcher and push them gently into the line. The bottles are sorted into single file, rinsed, dried, then put on a spinning machine to receive their stickers. A special machine in a smaller room receives the bottles and fills them with water, purified tap or spring, then they're transferred to another line to receive their caps.

The company has about 250 customers statewide, including hotels and grocery-store chains. But as a small business, Sedona Bottling can't begin to touch the "floor costs," or what it costs to put a package of water bottles on a retail store floor, of Nestle or other big companies.

"We're trying to be a premium producer of water," Gokey said.

In a few weeks, Sedona Bottling will launch glass-bottled, carbonated and non-carbonated water, which Gokey said will be one of the only lines of domestic glass-bottled water in North America. She hopes the "Purely Sedona" brand will appeal to customers who enjoy the upscale packaging as well as the more environmentally sound use of glass instead of plastic.

"It's an effort to be less wasteful," Gokey said.

Bottled-water industry trash is something to consider, she acknowledged. Each bottle the company produces contains a request to recycle.

Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter, is a critic of Nestle and bottled water in general. She doesn't drink the stuff, she said, preferring a home filter. People are fooling themselves about bottled water and being fooled by slick ad campaigns that convince them they need it, she claims.

Fewer people would buy bottled water if they knew the implications, Bahr said. "It should tell us something about how we value water if it looks attractive to do water-intensive activities in one of the drier parts of the country. Excuse me for thinking of future generations!"

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