October 23/Atlanta/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution -- Coke and Pepsi have stepped up efforts to use less water in key Atlanta production plants as state officials consider restricting industrial water use.

However, several years of aggressive water conservation within the beverage industry could leave few options for significantly more savings at the plants.

"Sometimes there are things you can do but not sustain," said Bruce Karas, Coke North America's director of sustainability, safety and environment. "The opportunity to have huge gains aren't there anymore."

Georgia environmental officials could ask Governor Sonny Perdue to limit the water used by commercial and industrial users as the state struggles through one of its worst droughts in years. State officials have said the current outdoor watering ban might not be enough to stretch depleting freshwater reserves in Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River.

Two plants owned by Coke and Pepsi are among the city of Atlanta's largest water customers.

Coca-Cola's Atlanta soft drink syrup plant makes product for soda fountains across the Southeast and the World of Coke's 70-drink tasting room.

Pepsi's Atlanta Gatorade plant is one of nine in the United States.

Executives at Atlanta-based Coke and Chicago-based Gatorade said they have received no requests from the state to cut back on water usage. However, the executives said they are voluntarily cutting back consumption beyond conservation programs already in place or in the works internally.

"We feel the same sense of concern and the call to action concerning this drought," said James R. Lynch, senior vice president of supply chain for Quaker, Tropicana and Gatorade, all Pepsi brands. "We completely understand the issues today may continue or even worsen."

To save water in the short term, both companies are adjusting production schedules so machines and mixers do not have to be rinsed as often.

"The biggest challenge for us in making a food product is we have to be diligent about sanitization," Karas said.

Assuming industrial restrictions come at all, state officials have not hinted how they would work.

According to the Atlanta Regional Commission, metro Atlanta's 10-county planning agency, industry uses about 3% of the tap water supplied to the region. Commercial uses, such as warehouses or office buildings, account for 21%, so restrictions there could be more meaningful.

The possibility of industrial restrictions in metro Atlanta comes during a recent beverage industry push to cut water usage globally as pressure mounts to conserve.

Water is the primary ingredient in Coke and Pepsi drinks.

Greg Koch, Coca-Cola's managing director of global water stewardship, environment and water resources, said Coke's global system of 900 manufacturing plants uses nearly 76 billion gallons of water per year. By comparison, the Atlanta and Fulton County water systems distributed nearly 54 billion gallons of water last year, according to public records.

However, activists point out that does not take into account water used to produce ingredients, such as sweeteners, before they get to the beverage plant.

Since 2004, Coke has cut the water usage in its Atlanta syrup plant by 6 million gallons a year, Karas said. To do so, the company reworked production schedules, plugged leaks and even stopped watering the grounds, Karas said.

The order in which various flavored syrups are produced makes a difference, he said, because the equipment has to be rinsed between batches. The production equipment also has to be rinsed after sitting idle.

"What is the minimum it takes to match public safety with water use?" Karas said, adding that it now takes 1.3 gallons of water to make 1 gallon of soft drink syrup.

Globally, Coca-Cola sold 14.5% more beverages between 2002 and 2006 but cut its water usage 6%, Koch said.

Gatorade has cut water usage in its Atlanta plant by 10% so far this year, Lynch said. Instead of rinsing new bottles with water before filling, the company invested in waterless ionized air rinsing technology that blows the dust out. Gatorade also installed a more efficient water filtration system, which is used to prepare public water brought in to make the sports drink.

Further efficiencies are planned at the Gatorade plant, Lynch said. The company soon will go to a silicone-based lubricant that uses less water for its conveyor system. Gatorade also will transition to more efficient cooling systems, which use water in various ways to cool filled bottles of Gatorade. The drink is bottled hot to protect against bacteria.

Lynch said he expects the plant to cut water usage by an additional 20-30% by year's end.

One seasonal factor making that possible: People drink less Gatorade during the cooler winter months.

From the November 5, 2007, Prepared Foods e-Flash