Photograph by Mark Hooper
Photograph by Mark Hooper

Tapping the Source

Photograph by Mark Hooper

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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 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.

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 Photograph by Mark Hooper


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.

Troubled Waters


South Lake Tahoe, California

Like a growing number of U.S. communities, South Lake Tahoe has a problem with MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether), a gasoline additive that causes cancer in lab animals. Tests in the 1990s confirmed that MTBE had seeped out of local storage tanks and contaminated the groundwater, closing one-third of the city’s wells. South Lake Tahoe sued 31 oil companies, gas stations, and MTBE manufacturers, who are now footing a $69 million cleanup bill. The work will take decades to complete.

Boston, Massachusetts

Lead levels in Boston’s water, high throughout the 1990s, surpassed recommended levels in 2001. Filtration, which eliminates disease-carrying microorganisms, is also an issue. Boston claims its watersheds are clean enough that it shouldn’t have to filter its municipal water before sending it to taps. The EPA disagrees, but it lost a 1998 lawsuit that would have forced the city to augment its current chlorine-based disinfection system.

Atlanta, Georgia
More than 1,400 potential pollution sources, including 558 hazardous-waste facilities, 121 industrial sites, and 14 mines, threaten the health of the Upper Chattahoochee watershed, the primary source of Atlanta’s drinking water. The city has a century-old water system in need of modernization, and residents have reported muddy, discolored tap water over the past four years.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Philadelphia’s drinking water comes from the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers, which are contaminated by pesticides and industrial chemicals. But pollution controls in the watersheds, governed mainly by the state of Pennsylvania, are “incomplete at best,” warns the NRDC. Lead, which enters water supplies via corroded pipes, is such a concern that, in October 2000, some city schools began serving bottled water to students.

Rancho Cordova, California

Up to 20 million Americans may be drinking tap water containing perchlorate, a toxic ingredient in rocket fuel. From the 1950s through the 1980s, fuel used at Rancho Cordova’s Aerojet rocket-engine plant seeped into the groundwater; contaminated wells continue to be discovered. Cleanup of the ten-square-mile underground perchlorate plume at Rancho Cordova, funded by Aerojet, will cost more than $111 million—and take an estimated 240 years to complete.

Phoenix, Arizona

Phoenix tap water, which comes mostly from the Colorado, Salt, and Verde rivers, has in recent years contained unacceptably high levels of chlorination by-products and DEHP, an industrial chemical that causes liver damage. In 2000, perchlorate, a toxic chemical that disrupts thyroid function and is a suspected carcinogen, was also detected. Phoenix has been less than forthcoming with its citizens: In 2000, the city paid the EPA and the state of Arizona $350,000 for numerous reporting and monitoring violations.

Fresno, California

Urban runoff and pesticides from farms in California’s Central Valley taint Fresno’s watersheds. As a result, in 2000 and 2001 the city’s drinking water contained nitrates, radon, pesticides, and industrial chemicals at levels the NRDC calls a “serious concern.” With nitrate levels spiking above national maximums those same years, pregnant women were advised to consult their doctors before drinking Fresno’s tap water.

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Arsenic levels in Albuquerque’s tap water are some of the highest in any major U.S. city. The naturally occurring element was found at an average level of 14 parts per billion in 2001—under the current limit of 50 ppb but exceeding the ten-ppb limit that goes into effect in 2006. The city expects to spend at least $30 million on new systems to keep its water in compliance.

Washington, D.C.

The capital’s drinking water isn’t winning any purity awards. Levels of coliform, a bacteria associated with the presence of disease-causing organisms, nearly tripled between 1999 and 2001. Lead content approached the EPA’s maximum limits in 1999 and 2000. While still found at relatively high levels, chlorination by-products (associated with cancer and birth defects) have decreased in Washington’s water, thanks to new disinfection strategies.

Houston, Texas
Houston reports water with levels of radioactive radon averaging 700 picocuries per liter—more than double the EPA’s proposed maximum of 300 pCi/L. (Radon, a naturally occurring gas, has been proven to cause lung cancer.) Trihalomethanes—by-products of chlorine disinfection—spiked to levels 1.5 times the national standard in 2001. Pesticides from upstream farms and urban runoff also threaten the city’s chief drinking-water sources, the San Jacinto and Trinity rivers.

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