Tapping the Source

Aug 1, 2003
Outside Magazine
All About H2O

The wet stuff is always there for us—it grows our food, puts splash and spirit in our adventure, and (by the way) keeps us alive. CLICK HERE for a special report on the health of America's most vital resource.

CLICK HERE for a complete list of Outside's articles on American water, from William T. Vollmann's filthy Salton Sea journey to the new hero of the Mississippi.

Photograph by Mark Hooper

AMERICANS ENJOY SOME OF THE SAFEST DRINKING WATER IN THE WORLD, but quality varies widely, and it's surprisingly tough to find out definitively which cities serve the good stuff and which do not. Some 54,000 community water systems are regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but no government body or private watchdog group is able to keep close tabs on them all. For Outside's sip test of tap-water quality, we talked to water officials, academic experts, and environmentalists. We also pored over the most comprehensive roundup available on the subject: the Natural Resources Defense Council's June 2003 report "What's on Tap?" (available at www.nrdc.org). All the cities and towns mentioned here offer drinking water that meets federal standards, so don't feel too queasy if you live in one of the ten places that, uh, have a little work to do. If you reside in one of the five towns that are success stories, raise a glass. Here's hoping the rest of us catch up soon.

Chicago, Illinois
Chicago's drinking water garnered an "excellent" quality rating from the NRDC and was declared the best in its 19-city study. The Windy City's water does contain low levels of chlorine-disinfection by-products, as well as lead, which enters water systems through corroded pipes and faucets and has numerous negative health effects. But relatively speaking, Chicago citizens have very little to worry about. Credit the city's top-notch treatment facilities and source water from a clean stretch of Lake Michigan.

Cherryvale, Kansas
In April, the National Rural Water Association declared that the tap water in Cherryvale (pop. 2,500) was the best-tasting in America. "It was crisp, cool, and refreshing, without a prominent taste or aroma," reports Sarah Lucas, a former NRWA staffer who helped judge the contest. Cherryvale's water comes from the Big Hill Reservoir, on Big Hill Creek, and contaminants detected in 2002 were found at levels well under maximum national standards.

New York, New York
The nation's largest city gets an A for effort. In 1997 the five boroughs joined the New York State and federal governments in a plan to control urban and agricultural pollution on the Delaware River and 19 Catskills reservoirs, which supply 90 percent of New York's drinking water. The $1.5 billion, five- to 15-year plan illustrates "what we ought to be doing everywhere—working to keep our source waters clean," says Richard Wiles, cofounder of the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group.

Des Moines, Iowa
Nitrates, used in the fertilizers that feed Iowa's cornfields, are considered especially dangerous to the health of pregnant women and infants. Nitrate levels increased in the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers throughout the 1970s and 1980s, so Des Moines took action. In 1991 the city opened the nation's largest ion-exchange treatment facility, a state-of-the-art $3.7 million system that removes 100 percent of the nitrates—on average, more than one ton each day—to produce drinking water that easily meets EPA standards.

Tampa, Florida
Faced with dwindling freshwater supplies, the Tampa Bay Water Authority invested in the nation's first large-scale desalination plant, a $110 million facility on Tampa Bay, which began operation in March 2003. Time will tell whether desalination is a viable long-term option; environmentalists are rightly concerned that the brine the plant dumps back into the bay—up to 19 million gallons daily—may damage the fragile marine ecosystem.

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