Rain in a Bottle

“It’s the best water I’ve ever tasted” says a taster from the 2011 Berkeley Springs Water Tasting Contest in West Virginia. Bottled rainwater is the newest innovation, or reinvention, in the purified bottled water industry. Texas Independence Co. from League City, Texas snatched first place in the purified water category. Sister company, Virginia Natural took fifth place and Tasmanian Rain grabbed the People Choice Award.  The non-profit American Water Works Association has sponsored the event for the past two decades, testing water quality by feedback from samplers.

While taste is of some concern to consumers, rainwater stands tall with traditional bottled water  and “has none of the after taste that most waters have,” says one taster from Pittsburgh. This taste may be attributed to the low mineral-content found in rainwater, which is nitrate-free. In remote, and unpolluted parts of the world, rainwater harvesting for drinking purposes has taken hold. Recently, companies in Oregon (Oregon rain), Australia (Cape Grim), and Tasmania (Cloud Rain) have slipped into the marketplace with hopes that nature itself will fulfill drinking needs.

Industry legend Richard Heinichen uses 6100 square meters of parabolic metallic rooftop to collect rainfall on his property just outside of Austin, Texas. Driving past the interstate, Heinichen’s “tank-farm” consists of 13 holding tanks 5 meters high that can hold 17,000 gallons of water. At any given point, he has around 757,000 liters of stored rainwater that can’t be bottled and sold fast enough. In 2001, Heinichen was forced to dump 946,000 of collected rainwater across the highway due to heavy rains. Demand is beginning to grow as hotels, cafes, and grocery outlets as far as Oregon and New York are ordering his bottles online at www.rainwatercollection.com.

Heinichen was recently certified as a bottle plant operator by the Texas Department of Health despite the fact he uses alternative purification techniques. Instead of using chlorine like most bottling companies, Heinichen uses several filtering processes, ultraviolet light, and reverse osmosis to kill any leftover bacteria or virus’. His “closed-looped” process is possible because of airtight infrastructure; rainwater is not exposed to air once it leaves the rooftop.  The 16-ounce bottles often sellout in local marketplaces, but Heinichen says he can afford to sell the water cheaply at US $1  (Rs 45) due to his low operational costs. He fills about 1,500 bottles a day with what he calls, “cloud juice.”

Despite its holistic approach, bottled rainwater is still a business, and Heinichen and other entrepreneurs have a long haul if they hope to match the US$7 billion (Rs 312 billion) industry. Nevertheless, the use of rainwater over groundwater for drinking purposes is a monumental achievement in the sustainability category. Catching water before it hits the ground and applying various purification techniques requires a degree of expertise, but considering the alternative consequences, Heinichen says you can put a “spigot on a cloud instead of a pump in the ground.”