Thursday, May 4, 2006
One morning in late April eight people sat down to a table in the upstairs dining room at Stokes Restaurant in downtown Monterey. Before each place stood a phalanx of wineglasses and a score sheet. Arthur von Wiesenberger, a distinguished-looking man with blue eyes and smooth manner, introduced himself and gave the panelists some pointers on what to look for over the next hour.
The taste might be sweet or bitter, the aftertaste refreshing or rank, he said. There might be swampiness, rotten-egg smell or a chemical odor. The panelists listened and watched as their glasses were filled.
The tasting began. The tasters held their glasses aloft to check clarity. They waved samples under their noses and sipped carefully to detect fugitive flavors. They scribbled notes. When their palates grew dull they nibbled on water crackers, which von Wiesenberger assured them would re-sharpen their senses. The room was quiet except for the clinking of glass.
The first local blind tasting of one of the world’s most important and undervalued resources, municipal tap water, was underway.
~ ~ ~
It’s National Drinking Water Week, brought to you by the American Water Works Association, former New Jersey Rep. Robert Roe and former Arizona Sen. Dennis DeConcini.
In 1988 the two politicians sponsored a resolution designating the first week in May a time to celebrate the water we drink. I don’t know Roe’s motivation, but I can guess at DeConcini’s. I lived in Phoenix in the late ‘80s. The tap water tasted as if it had been wrung out of sullen desert bedrock with grim determination that had met even grimmer resistance. The message from the Phoenix tap water, which is actually drawn from four tepid rivers, was: Don’t drink this. It will hurt you. No one should be living here. Go back while you still can. Perhaps DeConcini wanted to instill in his constituents proper gratitude for having any water at all.
No water has seemed that hostile to me since, but when I moved to upper New Monterey I did find the water unpleasant. It tasted metallic and minerally, almost salty. It was too much for the Brita filter to handle except for the purposes of making coffee or cooking. For drinking, my boyfriend and I haul 2.5-gallon containers of spring water up the stairs each week, grumbling all the way.
We weren’t alone. Most of the people I know drink bottled water, or at least filtered water. Chefs complain about it; customers endure it. The Weekly’s Ray Napolitano has complained bitterly in these pages about the poor taste of the local tap water.
Ramsay Borthwick, owner and brewmaster at English Ales in Marina, is right there with him. “I did not like the water in Monterey,” says Borthwick, who now lives in Prunedale and has well water. “My wife is a great bottled-water drinker, and I thought she was daft because I always drank from the tap. But [Monterey water] turned me into a great bottled-water drinker too.”
Borthwick is well aware of the arguments against bottled water: it’s bad for the environment; the water companies exploit the poor; the product itself is sometimes nothing more than repackaged tap water. And yet for him, as for myself and so many other people, bad taste trumps good politics. Bottled water may cost thousands of times more than tap, but it’s still cheap, and as long as tap doesn’t taste good, chances are people will reach for the plastic bottle.
Which leads to the question: Why does our tap water taste so bad?
~ ~ ~
All the county’s water sources have their own problems. The Pajaro Groundwater Basin, which supplies water for the Pajaro Sunny Mesa and Aromas districts as well as countless private wells, faces seawater intrusion and has high mineral content. The Aromas district administrators yearn for a treatment plant to help remove the minerals.
California Water Service Company, which supplies water for most of Salinas and King City, draws from a very hard water source.
“It’s what Mother Nature gave us to work with,” says James Smith, district manager.
At California American Water Company, which supplies 90 percent of the Peninsula’s water, the people work hard to make a good product, and they don’t like to hear it criticized. Their general view is that taste is subjective, and if there is some hint of chlorine to the water, well, it beats cholera.
They have a point. Sometimes water systems fail, like at San Jerardo in the Salinas Valley, where nitrates from ag runoff have left 300 people with unpotable water. The owner, Alisal Water Corporation (ALCO), was ordered to sell San Jerardo and seven other small Monterey County water systems in 2002 after a judge found the company guilty of falsifying drinking water reports. The $500,000 fine against ALCO, which still serves 20,000 people in East Salinas, is the biggest ever levied against an American water company.
In this country the water-related diseases that kill 6,000 people around the world every day are virtually unknown. No Westerner has ever had to suffer as an 18-inch guinea worm, which enters the body as larva in dirty water and later crawls slowly and excruciatingly from a blister on the ankle.
At the same time, Americans grow ever more finicky about their water. One in six drink nothing but bottled. In Carmel Valley, fear of nitrates from septic fields spurs people who have wells to buy bottled water. Elsewhere on the Peninsula, people complain about the taste. The main culprit is chlorine.
Cal Am employees seem to be sick of hearing about it.
“I get upset with people who say, ‘Why do I have chlorine in my water?’” says Ken Shuck, the amiable, bear-sized supervisor of Cal Am’s Begonia Iron Removal Plant in Carmel Valley. “Well, it’s because the state requires it.”
“It’s the cheapest, most effective disinfectant,” adds plant foreman Robert James. “There are others—”
“—ozone, ultraviolet light,” says Schuck.
“But if you don’t use chlorine, you have to get permission from the Department of Health Services,” Superintendent Tom Peterson chimes in.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires a chlorine residual of .2 parts per million in all public water systems. That means that at end of the line, after the water has traveled miles through pipes, there must still be that much chlorine in the water—enough to take care of any bacteria or other contaminant that might come along. To be on the safe side, Cal Am aims for a slightly higher residual of .5 parts per million.
Shuck says when he started at the plant 34 years ago, that was the amount of chlorine the water left the plant with. Now the water leaves the plant with 1.5 to 2.5 parts per million—up to five times as much chlorine as before, all to ensure a sufficient chlorine residual at the far end of the system, 20 miles away. The system average is about 1 part per million, higher in households closer to the wells.
So that explains how it happens: changing laws coupled with the size of the system take their toll on taste. Then there are the minerals in the aquifers.
If we could draw water from the granite beneath the Peninsula, it might taste fresh and sweet. We’ll never know. Water sources in valleys are far more reliable and economical—and filled with harmless but bad-tasting minerals. As the water in riverbed aquifers passes through all sorts of rock and sand deposited over millennia, it picks up lots of minerals, including calcium, magnesium, sodium, iron and manganese.
The Begonia Iron Removal Plant is the first stop for water drawn from the eight wells between mid-Carmel Valley and the mouth of the river. Here, in 18 big submarine-shaped tanks full of sand and rock, our drinking water is stripped of the iron and manganese that leach from igneous and sedimentary rock.
Walking through the plant, it’s plain to see what we would be ingesting if the treatment facility didn’t exist. The sides of the three concrete holding ponds are caked with rust, their floors coated with ochre sludge.
Kris Filice, a plant operator, shows off a beaker of untreated water. It’s the color of very weak iced tea, a watery yellowish orange, and smells exactly like iron. Each day 10 to 12 million gallons of this water are treated with some 450 gallons of liquid chlorine, which oxidizes the iron so it assumes a larger size that’s easier to filter out. The solution is then run through the filter tanks, where coarse anthracite (a kind of coal) and fine green sand grab onto the enlarged particles of the iron and manganese. Every other day the filters must be rinsed. The waste, a rich orange brew, bubbles into the concrete ponds where the sediment settles into a slick at the bottom to be carted off to the landfill every few months.
Iron and manganese are common contaminants that won’t harm humans, but they will leave reddish-brown and black stains, respectively, on clothes, toilets and sinks. They smell and taste bad, so the EPA has set maximum levels for aesthetic purposes of .3 parts per million of iron and .05 parts per million of manganese. In the dry season, when the wells are drawing from deeper in the aquifer, Schuck says the water can come in with as much as 8 parts per million of iron and .5 of manganese.
These eight mineral-laden wells are the heavy-lifters in the Cal Am water supply system. They provide most of the Peninsula’s water and work year-round.
“This is the heartbeat of the Peninsula as far as the water supply,” says Schuck. “The wells upstream aren’t as big. Rancho Cañada—that’s our lowest well—should pull 2,200, 2,300 gallons a minute. That’s a big well.”
All 18 wells in Carmel Valley draw from the underground part of the Carmel River, also called the Carmel Valley Alluvial Aquifer. During the rainy season, these 18 wells supply all the Peninsula’s water, about 17 million gallons each day. During dry season, the upper Valley wells shut down in order to keep river flows healthy enough for steelhead to reach their spawning grounds. At that point Cal Am starts the wells in the Seaside aquifer to make up the deficit. Nine wells on the lower river keep working.
After the water is processed at the Begonia plant, it’s what Schuck calls “very aggressive,” meaning highly acidic, with a pH of 6.5 or 6.6. In this state water will corrode pipes, so sodium hydroxide, or lye, is added to boost alkalinity. A bit of zinc orthophosphate further helps to protect the pipes.
And now the water is ready to flow down the valley, through the system and out household faucets. It’s been taken from iron-satured earth, chlorinated, filtered and treated with caustic agents. It still has a bit of calcium and magnesium in it, which make it very hard. All these elements contribute to its flavor profile.
Seaside presents another set of issues. Beneath the city are two aquifers, one atop the other. The Paso Robles is the shallower of the two. It is subject to contamination by nitrates from nearby agricultural runoff. The Santa Margarita aquifer that underlies it contains pockets of hydrogen sulfide gas—which has a rotten-egg smell. In the summertime the odor comes on strong, says Cal Am water quality supervisor Leslie Jordan. “There is a difference,” she says. “You notice in PG when Seaside water is running.”
At two of Seaside’s eight wells, the odor is strong enough that Cal Am has decided to treat the water with ozone, a method widely used in Europe to combat odor. Ozone kills bacteria and gives good esthetic results, but it’s too expensive for widespread use. Schuck and Peterson say the few American systems that use ozone are using it only as a primary treatment, then treating with chlorine afterward. Part of the problem is that ozone dissipates very quickly, so it has no residual that can tackle problems that might crop up at the far end of the system.
“And you can taste it,” says Schuck.
~ ~ ~
One of the tasters has cancelled at the last minute, so out of curiosity I sit down at her empty place and start sipping samples of tap water. Since I am the only one in the room who knows which water is which, my scores won’t count in the final tally. But I can’t resist trying for myself.
The flavors are distinct from one another but hard to describe. Several taste strongly of chlorine. One has a musty taste, one evokes black walnuts.
Most of the eight panelists assembled at Stokes aren’t seasoned water tasters. Mark C. Anderson is the deputy editor at the Weekly. Michelle Knight sits on the board of directors of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District. Ian Brown is a media strategist for niche craftsmen, sent as a proxy by local restaurateur Michal Jones. Jeanne Howard is a writer and partner of Weekly CEO Bradley Zeve. Laura Lienk directs the Watershed Institute at CSUMB. Ramsey Borthwick owns English Ales. Raul Vasquez is a reporter at the Weekly. Amateurs all, although Borthwick tinkers with water for stylistic purposes— for example, adding salts to approximate Thames River water when he’s brewing a porter.
The exception is Arthur von Wiesenberger—who may be the world’s pre-emininent water-taste expert. Each year, von Wiesenberger presides as water master over the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting and Competition in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. The event draws purveyors of municipal water, bottled water and spring water from two dozen states and a dozen countries to compete to determine whose water tastes best.
Von Wiesenberger, who owns a house in Pebble Beach, is unapologetic about his preference for bottled water. In fact, he runs a bottled water advocacy clearinghouse called Bottled Water Web.
“If one can afford it, bottled water is a much better
option,” he says. He holds water tastings because they’re
educational. “All water is different,” he says. “That’s what I
hope people come away with. Some people think all tap water is
generic. It’s not.”
~ ~ ~
And how. We have water from Monterey, Carmel, Seaside, Aromas, Salinas and Marina, all noticeably different. The day before the tasting I drove around the county collecting samples in 1.5-liter plastic water bottles. To collect the samples, I had emptied brand-new bottles of Calistoga and Crystal Springs water to use as more-or-less sterile containers.
Before refilling them, I swished a little sample water around each bottle, dumped it and then filled the bottle to the top, and capped it so no air would get in. I took water from various sources: from household faucets in Monterey, Carmel and Salinas; from the kitchen at the Marina Coast Water District office; from a drinking fountain at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Seaside; from the well-side faucet where the Aromas Water District draws samples for the state health department.
For comparison, I arranged to bring in some noteworthy waters from outside the immediate area. I took a sample from my boyfriend’s mother’s house in San Jose, where the water is considered so rank that no one in the family will drink it. I gave a friend in San Francisco careful instructions on how to gather a sample of Hetch Hetchy’s best, long praised for its good flavor, and had her overnight it.
And I had the proud folks at the water treatment plant in the village of Montpelier, Ohio—Grand National Champion of the 2006 Berkeley Springs Municipal Water Competition—overnight a jug of their elixir.
By the time the tasters arrive, all nine bottles have been numbered, and the key is safely stashed in my purse.
As the tasting begins, von Wiesenberger reminds the panelists not to make sounds of approval or disgust, as that might lead to kibitzing that could influence scores.
So there is silence and clinking. And after 45 minutes, most people are finished. An informal poll reveals some trends. Two samples didn’t make anyone’s top three. Two other samples made the top three for six of the eight panelists.
To me, these results validate the process somewhat—most tasters agree about which water tastes best and which tastes worst.
Von Wiesenberger later remarks that he recognized a lot of chlorine throughout the tasting. “We got to taste some jacuzzi-style waters,” he says.
Finally I reveal the sources of the water samples. The truth confirms some suspicions and blows some minds. San Jose does unexpectedly well. So does Seaside (the city’s small water service draws from the underlying aquifer year-round). Carmel is the top choice of several people, even though Monterey, from the same source, doesn’t fare so well.
Here are the results, with some comments from the tasting sheets:
Ninth place: Marina Coast Water District.
“Chemical, laboratory aroma and taste.” “Dull.” “Mouthfeel is fine.” “Metallic aftertaste.” “One of the stinkiest at the dance.” (But this panelist gave high marks for flavor.)
Eighth place: Aromas Water District.
“Tastes minerally.” “Chlorine.” “Feels like I accidentally swallowed water while swimming.”
Seventh place: California American Water (Monterey).
“Metallic aftertaste.” “Bitter minerals.” “Smells like M-town tap water.” “Powerful pipey odor. Scent worse than the taste.”
Sixth place: California Water Service Company (Salinas).
“Medicinal/phenolic nose.” “Quite acceptable. Minerals, but they’re kind of good.” “Rusty nail.” “Not bad.”
Fifth place: California American Water (Carmel).
“Great taste. Soft in my mouth. Eureka!” “Can taste chlorine.” “Chlorine aroma present but dissipates quickly.”
Fourth place: Seaside Municipal Water Service (serves hilltop in Seaside)
“Mildly sweet.” “Bad aftertaste. Makes me not want to drink more unless I have to.” “Best so far. Crisp, fresh.”
Third place: San Francisco Water Department.
“Damn good stuff here.” “Flat taste. Unobtrusive.” “Light chlorine up front but mellows.”
Second place: San Jose Water Company.
“Bright. Clean feel.” “Refreshing.” “Smooth.” “Slight metallic aftertaste.” “No chlorine odor or taste.”
First place: Village of Montpelier, Ohio, Winner of the 2006 Berkeley Springs Municipal Tap Water Tasting.
“No chemical aroma. Nice aftertaste.” “I like this (but I am a little dehydrated).” “Acidic aftertaste.” “Very good, tastes fresh.” Surprises abound. So Seaside—which draws from the same aquifer that produces sulfur-scented water in PG in summertime–has the best-tasting water in Monterey County? And Monterey rates many points below Carmel, which is from the same source? And San Jose’s water is delicious?
It would suggest the tasting were a farce, if not for the fact that our panelists were nearly unanimous in their designations of best and worst—and that they agreed with the Berkeley Springs panel’s assessment of the waters of lovely Montpelier, Ohio.
I should confess that I took the San Jose sample five days before the tasting, on Easter Sunday, which may have affected the results. On the other hand, bad flavors persisted for at least that long in some other samples, which I kept in my back room for a week after the tasting. Maybe San Jose water is better than I thought it was.
For fun, after the tap-water tasting, we sampled bottled water. We had a reverse-osmosis Glacier from a vending machine and Crystal Geyser spring water in a bottle.
“The Cadillac of waters!” one panelist raved about the Glacier. “Refreshing,” said one of the Crystal Geyser. The two received high marks all around.
Except from me. Tap water snob that I am, I’d expected to
love the bottled stuff. But the Glacier tasted artificial and
the spring water astringent. I found myself wanting the vague
hint of mustiness and rock I’d found in tap—minus the
chlorine, of course.
~ ~ ~
The thing about drinking tap water is it puts you on the side of the angels, assuming the angels are thrifty populists who make ecologically correct choices.
It’s certainly thrifty. The American Water Works Association has calculated the cost per gallon of select liquids. Chanel No. 5: $45,056. Evian bottled water: $21.19. The cost of Cal Am water rings in at about one cent per gallon.
That’s an astonishing bargain when you consider that 1 billion people on the planet do not have access to clean drinking water. The demands of a rising human population, coupled with higher rates of evaporation due to climate change, means global freshwater sources are being depleted faster than they can be recharged. A water crisis is on the way, but prices don’t yet reflect that. This is still The Era of Cheap Water.
Drinking tap is definitely populist. It’s a way of supporting the commons, says Andy Bell, district engineer at the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District. “My personal view of bottled water is—I’m pretty old, and I’m pretty traditional,” he says, “and I believe in free libraries and public education and all that. And I trust the tap water is safe.”
Bottled water companies have earned the wrath of activists for drawing down groundwater levels in poor countries, as Dasani has in India, and for selling expensive water to poor people. Three years ago Anna Tibaijuka, the Tanzanian-born head of the UN Settlement Program, warned that in the fast-growing slums of Africa people were sometimes paying five times what Americans pay for a liter of water. The subject has become a lightning rod. At the World Water Forum in March, protesters marched through the streets of Mexico City against bottled water companies.
From an environmental standpoint, tap vs. bottled presents no contest. The $100 billion global bottled water industry uses 2.7 million tons of plastic each year, 86 percent of which ends up in landfills. That may or may not count the 438,763 plastic beverage containers (two liters or less) that volunteers picked up on International Coastal Cleanup Day in 2003. California contributed 23,654 of those.
Add the fuel needed to transport bottled water from sources and plants to markets around the world, and bottled water starts leaking red ink on the karmic balance sheet.
But there’s no getting around the taste issue. If you really can’t stand the taste of tap, a Brita or Pur filter will remove most chlorine flavor, but not the calcium and magnesium that make water hard and give it a minerally character. A whole-house carbon filter installed for about $40 will reduce chlorine from all faucets, but is a pain to replace, requiring the services of a plumber.
Leaving tap water out so the chlorine will evaporate, or refrigerating it, doesn’t work as well but improves the taste somewhat. Probably the best thing to do from an ecological and economic standpoint is to buy a hard plastic container and fill it up at a vending machine for about 30 cents a gallon. These machines generally use a combination of reverse osmosis and carbon filtration that result in water that tastes very close to distilled—which is no great shakes, either.
If schlepping big bottles isn’t your bag, you can always have a vendor deliver it for about $25 a month. John Wheeler, president of Pure Water Bottling Company in Salinas, says he uses reverse osmosis to filter out chlorine and minerals, and ozone to blast bacteria like coliform (the source is Cal Am tap). And by the way, Wheeler, who just won a US Small Business Administration award for the state of California, says it’s not true that regulation of water bottlers is lax—at least not here.
“Our state has really gotten involved,” he says. “Before, you could just set up shop and sell water. Now you have to get credits to maintain your bottling license. I think they’re trying to weed out a certain element.”
It’s a vexing problem. Having to pay someone to re-filter bad-tasting tap water isn’t ideal. But a lot of things aren’t ideal.
It isn’t ideal that humanity fails to regard fresh water as a precious resource to be conserved and shared. It isn’t ideal that Americans can’t be relied on to choose the common good over personal satisfaction, unless market forces make that choice really easy. It isn’t ideal that, knowing consumers and the ecological cost of bottled water, neither scientists nor water companies can seem to be bothered to create better-tasting tap water.
But that’s the way it is. So go ahead, go over to the sink
and get yourself a glass of water—just put a slice of lemon in