Volcanic Water Makes a Big Splash

Young Santa Barbara CEO Is Building One of the Fastest-Growing Eco Water Empires

Ryan Emmons
Courtesy Photo

CEO Ryan Emmons is not your typical 26-year-old. From creating a high school business venture that raised tens of thousands of dollars for Hurricane Katrina victims to graduating early from the University of Southern California in order to start his own company, this Santa Barbara native is making a name for himself in social entrepreneurship. In a time when water is one of the hottest topics in California, his company, Waiakea Hawaiian Volcanic Water, is paving the way for change in the bottled-water industry.

The son of area philanthropist Dr. Robert Emmons, Ryan was born and raised in town, but the heart of his company lies in his Hawaiian roots. “I spent a lot of summers and winters at the islands,” says Emmons. “When I was 17, I found out my family had access to this amazing well, and I started researching everything about water.” In the midst of his research on everything from water economy to desalination, he found an opportunity in bottled water. “The world doesn’t need more premium water,” he explains. Instead, he opted to “create a triple-bottom-lined premium beverage,” one that takes into account environmental and social performance in addition to its financial bottom line.

The water itself is “filtered through 14,000 feet of porous rocks,” according to Emmons. “There are a lot of other alkaline waters that just have tap water and baking soda, but ours is naturally enriched through volcanic filtration.” As for the sustainability of his bottles, “They’re 100 percent postconsumer recycled plastic,” explains Emmons, who attributes his environmental consciousness to where he was raised.

Not only is the source of his bottled water sustainable, with a recharge rate of 1.4 billion gallons a day, but also for every liter of water purchased, 650 liters are donated in Africa. “Thankfully, it’s not like we’re shipping water from Hawai‘i to Africa. That wouldn’t be sustainable at all,” he laughs. “We’re installing these UN award-winning elephant pumps. Basically, we install these pumps and do sanitation work.”

Even bigger changes are in store for the future; soon, Waiakea Hawaiian Volcanic Water will be expanding its social initiatives. They’ll still be donating enough clean water for all uses — 325 liters for drinking, cooking, bathing, and more — but will also be donating money to nonprofits in Hawai‘i dedicated to conservation. Emmons also hopes to expand locations where his water can be purchased, including “cafés, delis, hopefully a couple of resorts soon.” For now, Santa Barbarans looking to support Emmons’s feat of social entrepreneurship can buy Waiakea Hawaiian Volcanic Water at Whole Foods Market. His ever-expanding aspirations for changing the business of water lie in his founding principle: “We wanted to give people what they wanted — the ability to improve their health while minimizing impact [and] also helping people that don’t have the same resources we do.”

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