Who Has America's Best Tap Water?

Rachel Tepper Paley
February 13, 2014

Photo credit: Getty

Not all tap water in America is created equal. New Yorkers swear there’s something wonderful in their city’s water that’s responsible for superior bagels. On the other end of the spectrum is West Virginia, where in some regions the tap water was flammable for a time earlier this year.

How does tap water in other parts of the country stack up? The National Rural Water Association drank to the best of the bunch at the Great American Water Taste Test, part of an annual conference held in Washington, D.C.

A panel of officials from the Department of Agriculture and the White House—including two from the Water and Environmental Program—judged the water in three major categories: taste, clarity, and bouquet. Only rural communities competed, which represent roughly a quarter of the country’s total population, says NRWA marketing and public relations director Michael Harris. (And as of 2010, 97 percent of all land in the U.S. is rural.)

Without further ado, here are the results:

1st Place, Gold: Curtis, Nebraska

2nd Place, Silver: Stansbury Park, Utah

3rd Place, Bronze: Callaway County, Missouri

Do you live in one of those places? Lucky you!

So what, exactly, makes for a gold medal tap water? “In essence, the best-tasting water is the water that is most pure and typically lacking any need of chemical treatment,” explained Randy Norden, the deputy executive director for the Missouri Rural Water Association. “Hard water … is usually sweeter and better [tasting] due to the higher calcium and magnesium content.”

Treatment with chemicals like chlorine, which is used to kill bacteria, can give tap water an unpleasant smell. ”You smell the chlorine more than you taste it,” said Randy Hellbusch, a technical expert with the Nebraska Rural Water Association. “[Drinking chlorinated water is] like drinking a very, very weak mixture of Chlorox and water.” That sounds rather unappealing—although that’s the story with New York City tap water, so it can’t be all bad.

"The public takes [tap water] for granted," Harris told us. "They expect it to be safe and clean. They’re not really aware of how volatile it can be or invaluable it is, until you get something like West Virginia."

Of course, if tap water isn’t ritzy enough for you, there’s always the bottled water tasting menu at Los Angeles eatery Ray’s and Stark Bar, which has its own water sommelier.

The concept of water sommeliers seems silly to us, especially since there’s award-winning tap water out there. But since the tap water in L.A. isn’t winning an award anytime soon, maybe the city’s on to something.