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Associated Press photos
Bottles of Sunkist move down the line at the Houston bottling plant of Dr Pepper Snapple Group, which is investing $1.1 million in the Nature Conservancy to help preserve the plant’s water supply.

Conserving a key ingredient

Protecting water supply serves drink firms well

A steady supply of water is crucial for the plant, where root beer bottles wait to be filled.

– Fifty miles outside the nation’s fourth-largest city is a massive field of waist-high grass, buzzing bees and palm-size butterflies, just waiting to be ripped up by an entrepreneur.

Rather than develop this pristine remnant of coastal prairie, vast enough to house more than 300 football fields, the Dr Pepper Snapple Group is investing hundreds of thousands of dollars to ensure it remains untouched.

The project is part of the company’s $1.1 million investment in the Nature Conservancy, designed to benefit five Texas watersheds – including Nash Prairie outside of Houston – from which its bottling plants draw water.

The money will go toward preservation work, such as reseeding the grass, to restore and expand an ecosystem that once covered 6 million acres from southwestern Louisiana through Texas.

The projects will improve water quality and quantity by preserving the prairies’ sponge-like attributes. But for Dr Pepper and other beverage companies, the impetus is their bottom line – conserving water guarantees long-term access to the most crucial ingredient in their products.

“If there’s not fresh water, there’s no business – it’s just that simple,” said Laura Huffman, state director of the Nature Conservancy in Texas. “It is their No. 1 infrastructure concern. ... Water tops the list, above roads, above energy, above all else, because if you don’t get water right, you’re not making anything.”

The biggest players – from Coca-Cola and Pepsi Co. to Miller and MolsonCoors – as well as smaller, regional beverage companies list water as a risk in long-term plans.

In 2006, 18 companies created an alliance called the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable to tackle water, energy and other issues that could affect the industry’s growth.

Thomas Lyon, a professor at the University of Michigan who researches connections between industry and the environment, said three factors have pushed beverage companies to conserve water: Future markets in developing countries don’t drink enough soft drinks, from their perspective; the effects of climate change are starting to become more apparent; and some of the countries targeted for growth are the same ones experts believe will be most affected.

“At the heart of it ... is their bottom line,” Lyon said. “Water is a finite resource and they desperately realize that it could become a major problem.”

About a decade ago, when advance planning started to highlight water constraints, many companies streamlined processes and installed new, more efficient technologies within factories and plants, conserving millions of gallons of water and millions of dollars.

About five years ago, the corporations began partnering with environmental groups, funding projects to bring water to people in developing countries.