City Tap Water: Picking the Clear Favorite

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 11, 2007

In an era of flavored, sparkling and distilled water, the liquid that gushes forth from the ordinary household tap is often overlooked. Many Americans go through the trouble of schlepping unwieldy packages home from the grocery store, or popping into a Starbucks to plunk down a few dollars for a single bottle of the clear stuff. In 2005, according to the consumer group Food & Water Watch, U.S. consumers spent $8.8 billion for almost 7.2 billion gallons of non-sparkling bottled water.

Those people, according to a fledgling coalition of government officials, chefs, environmentalists and public health advocates, are making a huge mistake. Why go to the trouble of buying water when perfectly good H2O is ready and waiting for you at home, especially since your local government has already paid for it by maintaining the infrastructure that delivers it?

"Bottled water generally is no cleaner or safer or healthier than tap water," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. "Rather than buying into this myth of purity in a bottle, consumers should drink from a tap."

That's why on June 6 I found myself standing in a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting room, staring at a row of bottles in an array of colors, shapes and sizes containing water from 15 unidentified cities. Once a decade the conference holds a taste test to determine the best-tasting city water in the nation; somehow this time I had qualified as a "celebrity judge," along with Tommy Jacomo, the Palm restaurant's executive director, and Benjamin Grumbles, the Environmental Protection Agency's assistant administrator for water.

Ninety-two cities vied for the honor this year. Mercifully, the conference staff had weeded out the less-appealing contestants. Jacomo, Grumbles and I were charged with rating each of the semifinalists on taste, clarity and aroma in a blind taste test: Judy Sheahan, the conference's assistant executive director for environmental programs and policy, instructed us to take a break and snack after eight tastings to preserve the integrity of our palates. (Jacomo prefers to have his water served with Scotch, but that wasn't in the offing.)

Sipping from a succession of slender flutes over the course of a couple of hours, the three of us experienced the depth and breadth of American tap water. A few glasses carried a faint whiff of chlorine; others were blessedly free of such scents. One sample had small particles floating in it; just before imbibing, Jacomo looked at me and cracked, "Should we drink this or chew it?"

Most of the selections tasted just the way you'd want: clean, crisp and neutral. "It's a quality product," enthused Grumbles, whose division works to ensure that the country's tap water is safe. "The taste and smell differs somewhat, but the overall product is one of the greatest buys for Americans."

And while the tap water of my native city, Washington, has struggled to overcome its reputation as a lead-contaminated, over-chlorinated liquid (it didn't even make the tasting's semifinals), I tend to side with Grumbles on what he calls "one of America's greatest liquid assets."

After all, nearly 40 percent of bottled water is just filtered or treated tap water, according to Food & Water Watch, while the Container Recycling Institute reports that 86 percent of the country's emptied water bottles end up in a landfill.

Some of the most chic restaurants in the Bay Area -- such as Chez Panisse and Boulette's Larder -- now serve only their own filtered still and sparkling tap water. New York's Del Posto has announced plans to do the same.

Plus, the District's tap water now meets EPA standards, so there are few excuses left not to drink it, especially once you put it through a filter.

After much contemplation, Jacomo, Grumbles and I selected five tap water finalists: Anaheim, Calif.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Long Beach, Calif; St. Louis; and Toledo. (Surprisingly, the 1998 winner, Anchorage, Alaska, survived through the semis but did not make it into the final round.)

On June 26, hundreds of mayors conducted their own blind taste test at their annual conference in Los Angeles, awarding St. Louis the top prize, $15,000 and bragging rights for the next decade.

A surprising outcome, perhaps, given that St. Louis, unlike Colorado Springs, isn't exactly known for its water. But the result gave Grumbles some hope that perhaps this nation will come around to embracing tap water once again.

As the American Water Works Association likes to say in its official slogan, "Only tap water delivers."

Washington Post staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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