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How Does the Water from Your Tap Taste? A PEOPLE Panel Surveys the Nation to Find Out

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In this, the Perrier Period in North American civilization, the bottled-water taste test has become both a social event and an act of consumer guidance. But strange things are happening: When expensive imported and domestic waters competed in New York, Chicago and San Francisco, the winner did not come from underground France or an Appalachian mountain stream. It came out of the tap. Yes, in all three cities the municipal water beat out all its fancy rivals.

With that in mind, the editors of PEOPLE decided to survey the liquid assets and debits of the U.S.—a test of the tap water from 37 communities, large and small, across the country.

Water is big business. The average citizen consumes, straight and in food, more than two quarts a day. That means 117 million gallons disappearing into Americans every day. It amounts to a veritable Niagara of 42,743,325,000 gallons a year.

The PEOPLE taste test involved most major cities and a few highly touted small towns such as Lynchburg, Tenn., where the limestone-filtered spring water is said to be an essential ingredient of Jack Daniel’s whiskey. From source to spigot, water sometimes must travel far—518 miles south to Los Angeles, 1,400 feet up from artesian wells in Orlando, Fla. Its origins range from polluted (Cincinnati drinks from the fetid Ohio River) to pristine (Seattle’s snow run-off). It is treated with a wide variety of chemicals and other additives to insure better dental checkups (fluoride) and to control purity, color, taste and odor. An outraged African-violet fancier has sued the Nashville waterworks for $500,000, charging that excess chlorine had “killed my little babies,” the hundreds of seeds he planted.

PEOPLE’S water samples were collected under rigid scientific guidelines by the magazine’s correspondents, and served up to a distinguished panel of four. They were Baron Roy Andries de Groot, the author of a syndicated column on good food and drink and former house oenologist for Esquire; Terry Robards, the New York Times wine critic, and William Massee, author of Massee’s Wine Almanac and other books. The fourth member was Richard Oulahan, an associate editor of PEOPLE. He is a former foreign correspondent who has lived—and drunk the water—all over the world.

The test took place in New York. The waters, which ranged in temperature from 45° to 50° F., were identified only by number and were judged, like wines, on a scale of 1 (totally unacceptable) to 20 (elixir of the gods). A verdict was reached after an hour and 10 minutes of swirling glasses, sniffing, sipping, clearing palates with morsels of French bread, and—in Massee’s case—skillfully expectorating tested mouthfuls into an ice bucket. The results were encouraging. Tap water of 1980 vintage, PEOPLE is pleased to report, is generally good all over the U.S.

The average rating for all the waters sampled was a respectable 10.45 points. No single town was condemned by the entire panel. De Groot pronounced the water of Dallas, Philadelphia and Hot Springs undrinkable, expressing himself in scatological terms. Massee concurred, calling Hot Springs “worst yet. Terrible chemical taste.” (The sample came from the resort’s faucets, not from its celebrated thermal springs.) Robards, a voice of moderation, gave his lowest rating, a 4, to Nashville’s Cumberland River product (“Pungent, chemicals, minerals, foul”). Oulahan felt that Fort Worth (“Stinks”), Denver and Omaha all rated no better than 1.

The best tap water in the nation? According to critical consensus, it was a tie between two cities with fascinatingly different sources: Seattle, whose water comes from two protected mountain streams on the western slopes of the Cascades, and Louisville, where it is mostly drawn from the polluted Ohio River. Both earned an outstanding 15.3 points. (“Pure but not bland, with a refreshing hint of assertiveness,” Oulahan said of Seattle.) Indianapolis, where the water comes from underground rivers and springs for which that part of the country is famous, was third in the survey and Clearwater, Fla. lived up to its name to take fourth. Neighboring Orlando was fifth, Lynchburg sixth, and Sweetwater, Texas and Pittsburgh tied for seventh. Ninth place was another tie, this one between Plains, Ga. and Houston. No member of the panel gave a 20 to any sample, but de Groot awarded Pittsburgh a 19, the equivalent of a dipper of country well water. Omaha, whose water comes mostly from the Missouri River, was at the bottom of the barrel, with a dismal 5.3 rating.

After the test and before lunch (where the taste of water was washed away with French wines), Baron de Groot, who is blind, submitted three samples of water to his amiable Seeing Eye dog, Ateña. She accepted a few swigs of Clearwater’s best, refused to touch the sample from top-ranking Louisville and lapped up the third sample right to the bottom of the glass. It was from Plains.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]