Taking the Waters
After this week, we could all use a bath and a tall drink. So when I hit the mailroom and found a package from the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, I was intrigued.
Inside the package, a six-pack of bottled water from the WSSC, which supplies tap water to 1.6 million residents of Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Yes, bottled Potomac River water. Mmmm.
While other bottled waters sell their wares by touting its freshness, clarity and purity, the WSSC has settled on this sales pitch: "WSSC has never had a drinking water violation," says the press release that accompanies the water. Yummmm.
The last time one of our local utilities touted the taste of its water, I donned a white lab coat, set up a table on 15th Street and recruited passersby to take part in an official Washington Post taste test. We compared D.C. tap water, suburban tap water, bottled water and a specially mixed cocktail of waters collected from local swimming pools.
I kid you not: The pool water won the taste test. (Full text of that story on the jump.)
This time, WSSC is not actually selling its bottled water. The utility distributes about 100,000 bottles of its water a year as giveaways at community events and commission meetings.
I am sipping a bottle of the stuff even as I type. It has an earthier, flatter taste than the bottle of Dasani, the Coca-Cola company's bottled water, I have here. And it has none of the sweeter, smoother taste of Evian or other high-end spring waters.
Seriously, the federal government, to my surprise, concedes that there are advantages to bottled water over regular tap water--the bottled stuff likely has lower lead levels. On the other hand, the tap water has flouride and bottled generally doesn't. (Though some bottled waters are just tap water that's gone through an extra filtering process.)
Coke and Pepsi's entries into the water field, Dasani and Aquafina, fall into that category, and they are pretty much the worst of the field, though they sell enormous amounts of the stuff.
The WSSC water isn't bad-tasting. It's better than the metallic, sour taste of Dasani. Still, if I get to choose, I'll go with pool water.
Speaking of taking the waters, I am. I'm handing the big blog over to the Post's Valerie Strauss for a while. Valerie is an education writer who has done just about everything in this business, from foreign news to city government, writing, editing--she even wrote some memorable columns while subsituting for Bob Levey a few years back. She'll be here writing about anything and everything--please treat her well.
I'll be back on the blog later in August. Stay cool.
July 11, 1996, Thursday, Final Edition, STYLE; Pg. C01
Tasting The Waters; How Does D.C.'s Stack Up? We Conduct a Pool. Er, Poll.
By Marc Fisher, Washington Post Staff Writer
In a wildly unscientific sidewalk survey, The Washington Post yesterday offered random passersby a chance to compare the tastes of freshly chlorinated District tap water, bottled water, samples from the suburbs, and some carefully mixed swimming pool water.
Incredibly enough, the pool water won -- but only by the barest of margins.
In a two-hour blind taste test conducted by a reporter wearing a white lab coat, pedestrians on 15th Street NW sampled four waters. The idea was to see whether the District's new tap water with extra bonus chlorine was quite as repellent as some cynics had imagined.
It was not.
While a good many of the 31 people who completed the test winced or grimaced at the taste of D.C.'s much-maligned elixir -- and at least seven identified it as the pool water -- others called it "fresh," "not that bad" and "a little bit different." Only three people preferred the District water to all others; curiously, one of them was the publisher of this newspaper.
Eight testers chose the pool water as best; seven picked one of the suburban waters, which came from Silver Spring, McLean and Fauquier County. Four preferred the bottled stuff, while three selected the District water. Others did not have a preference.
Many passersby were eager to test the District water, which since Tuesday has been juiced up with extra chlorine in an effort to kill bacteria in the city's aged pipes. Mayor Marion Barry's televised swig of D.C. appeared to have assuaged few fears, but he did manage to pique interest in the quality question.
"Having him stand up and drink the water doesn't impress me," said Dan Pennington, an accountant. "That just tells you there's a problem with the water." Pennington, who drinks tap water at home in Great Falls but only bottled water in his District office, preferred the McLean tap water in the sample. ("It has a very light chlorine, interesting taste to it.")
"You get to the point where you don't trust anybody," said Bill Ford, who runs a business selling cookies to street vendors. "There's got to be something wrong with the D.C. water or else the mayor wouldn't be talking it up."
While some testers reacted violently to the pool water, spitting it out or immediately blurting "yuck!" or "blech!," others savored the heavily treated water. (All participants were informed they would be tasting pool water.)
"It just has a lighter taste, very nice," said Dennis Franklin, a bike messenger.
"Absolutely clear -- the best," said Uwe Peter, a German tourist who carefully sniffed each sample, swishing the water around in his mouth before swallowing. "This one has no taste, not any." Peters quickly rejected the District water, calling it "chlorine, it's absolutely chlorine."
Marketers of pricey bottled waters often trade on the presumed superiority of foreign fluid, but foreign visitors in the Post survey appeared to have rather exotic tastes. Frederique Chaisson of France -- who until recently lived in the Alps -- declared the swimming pool water to be "like very good bottled water, like Evian." She had a predisposition to dislike D.C. water, which she said usually "tastes and smells funny." But in the blind test, the worst Chaisson could say about the District brew was that it tasted "chemical."
The proud brewmaster of the swimming pool water in the Post sample, Steve Lockwood of McLean, agreed to reveal his recipe for readers interested in stirring up a fresh pitcher: To 22,000 gallons of tap water, add two three-inch jumbo chlorine tablets, half a box of Bio-Guard calcium hardness increaser, three pounds of Power Powder calcium hypochlorite, and just a pinch of Leslie's Algae Control algicide.
"That's what gives it that unique fresh and zesty flavor," Lockwood said.
Among the suburban waters, the preferred sample was drawn from a 400-foot-deep well in the foothills of the Blue Ridge in Fauquier County. While some found that water too redolent of minerals, others declared it "soft" and even believed it was bottled water. McLean's water also had its fans, while the Silver Spring sample was often criticized as too heavily chlorinated or acrid.
Many testers had little confidence in their ability to discern one water from another. "I can barely tell the difference between perked coffee and the instant stuff," said Ford, the cookie seller. But he quickly picked out the District and swimming pool samples as overly chemical in taste. "I've been on bottled water at home for three years, and once you get off tap water, you can tell the difference," he said.
That's music to the ears of water retailers, who say sales of all forms of non-tap water -- spring, purified, mineral -- have soared in the District in recent days. "We've had a substantial increase, probably 50 to 70 percent, in calls for home and office delivery into the District since the Fourth of July," said Trish Baldassarri, co-owner of DrinkMore Water Store in Rockville.
But while bottled waters may have fewer impurities than the municipal stuff, the Deer Park Spring Water used in the Post test fared no better than the suburban samples. "This one tastes like spring water," former D.C. School Board president R. David Hall said after sipping the Fauquier sample. The Deer Park water left Hall underwhelmed: "This seems to have more chlorine in it."
Hall, who has returned to his real estate business and no longer holds elective office, nonetheless recommended that the District sell bonds to raise whatever money is necessary to fix the city's water. "I'd buy a municipal bond to straighten out the water," he said. "Three things drive people out of the city: crime, water and infrastructure. It's got to be fixed."
Some people were so deeply biased against District water that they refused to accept their own palate's preferences. "I don't even like coffee that's filtered with D.C. water," said Patrick Leary, sales manager of the Lincoln Suites Hotel. "It's the taste." But Leary declared the District sample to be "regular water"; it was the pool sample that he found "the best, very good."
"It just goes to show, you can't taste bacteria," said Susan Edgar, an editor at the Mortgage Bankers Association, after she picked the Fauquier and D.C. waters over the bottled and pool samples.
Some residents found the whole liquid imbroglio rather overblown. "The public's reaction has been kind of silly," said Jennifer Savary, a Capitol Hill staffer and one of the few testers who correctly guessed all four samples. "The experts are doing a fine job and we should let them do their work."
Opinions of taste seemed to have little to do with views on the political handling of the water controversy. John Hooks, a carpenter from Northeast Washington, said he will keep drinking D.C. tap water at home even if he called it swimming pool water in the taste test. "It does taste, well, different from time to time, but I don't think the health effects are any more than minor. I think you have to criticize the mayor so things get done right, but really, I don't think they could have done any better than they have."
Staff writers Roxanne Roberts, Joel Garreau and Phil McCombs and special correspondent Dierdre Davidson contributed liquid and other assistance to this article.
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