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How to Win a Tap Water Taste Contest

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The verdict is in: Don't spend another penny on bottled water in Boston. That city, derided in the 1960s song "Dirty Water," came out on top of the 2014 "Best of the Best" Tap Water Taste Test.

The honor was particularly fitting since 11,000 water professionals had descended on Boston for the 133rd annual conference of the American Water Works Association. In a taste test judged by a panel of experts at the conference, Boston took first prize.

Boston's secret ingredient? Watershed protection. The Quabbin and Wachusetts reservoirs to Boston's west are the sources of Boston's largely pristine water. Standard practice is to treat water contaminants with a cocktail of chemicals in a filtration plant. Conserving the forests around Massachusetts' reservoirs means that Boston's water requires only minimal treatment with ozone and ultra-violet, per Environmental Protection Agencies (EPA) standards. The EPA requires filtration by all utilities that supply drinking water from "surface" sources, unless they can demonstrate that watershed protection suffices to meet drinking water standards.

When the Boston Red Sox win -- an infrequent occasion this season -- fans belt out, "Well I love that dirty water. Oh, Boston, you're my home." That song was written in 1966 by the Standells when Boston Harbor and the Charles River were notoriously polluted.

How did the clean up happen? The Conservation Law Foundation sued Massachusetts State agencies, claiming that sewage discharges violated the Massachusetts Clean Water Act. One result of the litigation was the formation in 1985 of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA). It was charged with cleaning up the mess and selling wholesale water to municipal services like the Boston Water and Sewer Commission. On top of the billions the MWRA spent on restoring the Boston Harbor and Charles River -- resulting in some of the cleanest urban beaches in the country -- it invested $131 million in land preservation around Boston's drinking water sources. Four hundred square miles of forest now ring Boston's water supply.

Water engineers are natural problem solvers. They're good at rolling up their sleeves, wiping their brows, and treating whatever contamination flows their way. The president of the West Virginia utility that scrambled to keep Charleston water consumers safe after the Freedom Industries chemical spill kept a standing-room-only crowd at AWWA spellbound as he narrated a harrowing tale of emergency management. His take-away lesson for his engineer colleagues: water utilities need to look further upstream than the intake pipe to their treatment plant. They ought to study potential threats all the way back to the water supply's source.

Inside the AWWA sits a source water protection committee, a part of the Source Water Collaborative. The committee embraces not only traditional grey infrastructure solutions (filtration plants and the like) but green or natural infrastructure as well -- for example, managing land to enhance water quality and quantity, similar to what the MWRA has done. New York City is perhaps the best-known case of this sort. The water authority there saved ratepayers over $6 billion in 15 years by obtaining an EPA waiver, which allowed it to avoid building a filtration plant and instead conserve land and help upstream farmers divert cow poop from the city's water supply. NYC claims to have the "champagne" of drinking water. But clearly, they have been edged out by Boston.

Environmental protection hasn't always been center stage at AWWA -- and it still has a long ways to go. But in recent years, a source water protection committee member said, conversations about an integrated approach to water management have picked up pace. The conference program listed dozens of talks on source protection, climate change adaptation and related land and water stewardship topics. In an increasingly water-stressed world, that shift is comforting news for the world's understandably-nervous water consumers.

Who will win the next Best of the Best Tap Water test a year from now in Anaheim? Forest-filtered water sure seems to taste good. Aspiring utilities might borrow a page from Boston's playbook and collaborate with state conservation agencies to protect their watersheds. With improved source protection, consumer confidence in tap water is likely to rise -- and could spell trouble for the bottled water boom.

About the author: Daniel Moss has worked in community-based resource management in the U.S. and Latin American for 30 years. He writes on water issues for a variety of journals and blogs and coordinates Our Water Commons. He recently published a study entitled, "Urban Water Utilities and Upstream Communities Working Together", about how Latin American water operators collaborate with upstream communities for watershed protection and water governance.

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