Which City Has the Best Water?

As a New York City resident, I’ve never had concerns about the quality of the water coming out of my tap.

In fact, many cite NYC’s tap water as the reason that the pizza and bagels are just better here. While I definitely agree that the bagels and pizza in NYC are miles ahead of anywhere else in the USA (I’m looking at you, Chicago) there’s no actual consensus on if it’s the water that’s to thank for it.

So what is it about the water here that makes it so great?

NYC Water, Unfiltered

That’s right, NYC’s precious tap water is unfiltered! In fact, it’s the largest unfiltered water system in the country and it moves over a billion gallons a day.

Illustration of NYC's water system
How NYC gets its water. Image via The New York Times.

That water doesn’t just go to NYC however—the same water that makes NYC pizza the best in the country also supplies water to 4 other counties outside of the city. Has anyone had the pizza in Kingston?

One of the more interesting facts I came across in my research is that NYC’s water contains tiny shrimp called copepods. That means that the tap water in NYC is neither kosher or vegan.

However, the copepods are actually there for a reason; they clear the water of mosquito larvae.

Copepods, image via Wikipedia

Weird facts aside, is NYC’s tap water really that great?

Nonprofit group EWG (Environmental Working Group) actually has a tap water database that they update every year that allows you to enter in your zip code to get more information on the quality of the water in your area.

According to their site, there are 16 total contaminants found in the water supply in NYC and 8 of those exceed their health guidelines.

List of contaminants found in NYC tap water
List of contaminants found in NYC tap water that are above the EWG’s recommended health guidelines.

Results from the EWG Tap Water Database

How does that compare to other cities? I entered each of the top ten most populated cities in the USA into the database to find out:

Top 10 Cities by Population in USATotal Contaminants FoundTotal Contaminants Above EWG Health GuidelinesPopulation Served
New York, NY1688,958,659
Los Angeles, CA2173,935,257
Chicago, IL20102,896,016
Houston, TX46102,319,603
Phoenix, AZ1871,579,000
Philadelphia, PA2261,600,000
San Antonio, TX35111,663,221
San Diego, CA26111,326,200
Dallas, TX37101,197,816
San Jose, CA3011998,000

It’s hard to say definitively which city is the “worst” on this list.

The EWG claims that the government standards in place now (that water utilities are accountable for), do not necessarily mean that water is “safe”. According to them, the EPA hasn’t set a new tap water standard in 20 years and some of the standards are over 40 years old.

Additionally, many of the contaminants measured do not have legal limits set by the government which means that the water suppliers do not need to check for them regularly.

The EPA’s website lists 3 new regulations that are currently under development and one contaminant regulation on Chromium that is “being reviewed”. However, as part of The Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA is required to review each national drinking water regulation at least once every six years and revise them if appropriate.

There have been 3 reviews since the process was made a requirement and you can read each one on the EPA’s website. A fourth review is ongoing and anticipated to be completed in 2023.

The reports each list out which contaminants have been considered “not appropriate for revision at this time” and which ones are “candidates for revision”. However, there is not any information on if the standards around the candidates for revision were actually updated after the fact.

I reached out to the EPA to ask if the claim that EWG made about not updating standards was true. They denied the allegation saying, “The EPA has made regulatory revisions to drinking water standards and treatment techniques, including for lead and total coliforms, in the last 20 years. What is most important, is that the EPA conducts comprehensive reviews of the current science and occurrence data on drinking water regulations every six years.”

I’ll dive deeper into the EPA’s website and the information listed there later in this post.

The Best Tasting Water

As I worked on evaluating which city has the best water, it became clear that there’s not one determinant that can prove that claim. So, I decided to look at a number of factors to see if there was any one city that I noticed popping up across the board.

First up, taste.

Obviously, this is the least “scientific” way of looking at water and is pretty much entirely subjective. There is, however, an annual water tasting event that provides some clues to the answers to my question: The Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting.

Water judging during the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting
Judging the water at the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting; Image via National Geographic

The tasting is held in the historic spa town of Berkeley Springs, West Virginia and claims to be the largest water tasting competition in the world. The next tasting will take place February 20-23, 2020.

The competition includes both bottled and municipal water but for the purposes of this post, I’ll be looking at the tap water entries. The entries are judged and rated in a similar manner to wine tastings with points for appearance, aroma (there should be none), taste, mouth feel, and aftertaste.

I wasn’t able to see how many cities entered the contest last year so I don’t have a sense of how competitive this event is. But for what it’s worth, these are the winners in the “Best Municipal Water 2019” category:

  • Best in the World: Clearbrook, BC, Canada
  • Best in the USA: Eldorado Springs, CO
  • 2nd: Hamilton, Victoria, Australia
  • 3rd: Independence, MO
  • 4th: Mission Springs Water District, Desert Hot Springs, CA
  • 5th: Berkeley Springs, WV

The Environmental Performance Index (EPI)

Taste does not always equal quality, as those of us with a sugar habit know.

So which city has the cleanest, healthiest water? Trying to find an answer to this question proved much more difficult than I thought it would be.

I started by looking at the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), which ranks 180 countries on metrics around environmental health and ecosystem vitality. The index is produced jointly by Yale University and Columbia University in collaboration with the World Economic Forum.

They created a table of the top countries that have remained dedicated to clean water and sanitation services for the past decade:

World leaders in water and sanitation
Screenshot from the EPI’s 2018 Report

So Europe looks like the big winner here! But these are countries, not cities. The report unfortunately doesn’t cover city level information.

EPA Civil and Criminal Cases Around Water

The EPA seemed like a good place to start looking for which city has the cleanest water. After all, they are the ones who enforce the requirements around water in the United States.

There are two ways the EPA does this:

The Clean Water Act which covers:

  • Wastewater management
  • Pretreatment
  • Stormwater pollution
  • Animal waste from concentrated animal feeding operations
  • Spills – oil and hazardous substances
  • Wetlands – discharges of dredge and fill material

and the Safe Drinking Water Act which monitors:

  • Drinking water
  • Public water systems
  • Underground injection control

The EPA has information about civil and cleanup enforcement cases and settlements as well as criminal cases for violators of these acts. While these cases don’t necessarily provide information on the water quality in each area, they do provide some context on the water issues that are facing communities.

I looked over the cases listed in both sections to determine which states had the most over the last 10 years.

West Virginia had the highest number of civil and cleanup enforcement cases and settlements with 15 listed between 2010 and now. It was followed closely by Pennsylvania with 14, then Texas with 11.

It’s interesting to note that I found cases in almost every state and U.S. territory (including American Samoa and Puerto Rico). There were only 6 states that have not had any civil cases in the past 10 years: Idaho, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wisconsin.

In the criminal cases section, Louisiana had 34 cases in the past 10 years, far more than any other state. It was followed by California with 18, and then Missouri and Washington with 12 cases each.

When I added up the total civil and criminal cases the top states with the most were:

States with the Most Civil and Criminal Cases from 2010-Present

StateCivil CriminalTotal
West Virginia15722
New York71017
North Carolina61016
Missouri4 1216

And the top states with the least number of cases were:

States with the Least Civil and Criminal Cases

South Dakota000
North Dakota011
District of Columbia202
Rhode Island202
New Mexico202

Information is available at the city and county level as well for each state but there’s not a best/worst list that I could find on the website.

Envirofacts: Water

The EPA has a cross-program platform called Envirofacts that provides data on air, waste, radiation, water, and more to the public. The water section has 3 datasets: Information Collection Rule (ICR), Permit Compliance System (PCS), and Safe Drinking Water Information System (SDWIS).

For the purposes of this post, I took a look at the SDWIS, which contains information about public water systems and their violations of the EPA’s drinking water regulations.

Data is available at the state, city, and county level. I’ve embedded a widget here that will allow you to search for your area if you are interested in seeing the results.

I conducted the same exercise as I did on the EWG Tap Water Database and entered in the top 10 most populous cities in the USA into the system to see what came up.

SDWIS Results

CityHealth ViolationsMonitoring, Reporting, or Other ViolationsTotal Violations
New York, NY167
Los Angeles, CA325
Chicago, IL03737
Houston, TX213
Phoenix, AZ112
Philadelphia, PA2911
San Antonio, TX0263263
San Diego, CA066
Dallas, TX000
San Jose, CA202

I also entered in all of the winners of the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting from 2019 that were located in the United States.

CityHealth ViolationsMonitoring, Reporting, or Other ViolationsTotal Violations
Eldorado, CO044
Independence, MO000
Desert Hot Springs, CA055
Berkeley Springs, WV033

It does seem like the cities who placed in the best tasting water contest had much less violations than the larger cities. However, many of these water providers are much smaller and serve a lot less people which is something to keep in mind.

Which city has the best water?

After spending all this time sifting through the available information online, I’m still not confident about answering this question. There are so many different ways you could answer it and so many factors that impact each city.

Looking at the most populated cities list again we might be able to pick a winner. Let’s start with the EWG Tap Water Database.

According to the information there, New York, NY has the least amount of contaminants found. But if we look at the total contaminants above EWG health guidelines the winner is actually Philadelphia, PA. I’m going to make the call that having the least amount above the health guidelines is better so the winner according to the EWG is Philadelphia.

Best water winner Philadelphia, PA
EWG Tap Water Database Winner: Philadelphia, PA

The SDWIS information from the EPA’s Envirofacts tool shows Dallas, Texas as the clear winner, with a total of 0 health violations and 0 monitoring violations.

Best water winner Dallas, Texas
EPA SDWIS Winner: Dallas, TX

It’s interesting to note that in the EWG database, Dallas actually had the second highest number of contaminants found after Houston and was in the top half of cities with contaminants above their health guidelines.

Also of note is Philadelphia’s ranking in the SDWIS results. They have the third highest number of violations on the list with 2 health violations and 9 monitoring violations.

The information on civil and criminal cases by state is also interesting. Pennsylvania is number four in the US in number of cases and Texas is number 11.

In conclusion, I can’t really make any conclusions.

Water supplies can be very small, serving a couple of hundred people in a town or huge, like the one that serves New York City and the 4 counties surrounding it.

Some places are likely less regulated and others are subject to continual monitoring.

Industrial activity, fracking, oil spills, pollution, combined sewer overflows, and more can contribute to water quality in an area.

Having a higher number of civil and criminal cases might be an indicator that environmental violations are being caught and dealt with more in an area, or could mean that there are just more violations.

Asking the right questions, finding the right answers

In the end, finding out which city has the best water is not the right question to ask.

Debates over environmental regulations around water are heating up in the United States right now. Some look at water crises like the ones in Flint and Newark as well as climate change reports as examples of the need for more oversight in our water systems. Yet others cite regulations as a huge burden on the farming, fossil fuel, and real estate industries and the overall economy of the country.

One thing that is certain, however, is that we need more information on the water in our taps, around our neighborhoods, and in our oceans.

Water data that is easily accessible, understandable, and hyperlocal could help span the gap between sweeping regulations and the health and wellness of citizens and the planet.

That’s what we’re hoping to help out with. We’re working with community based organizations like the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, home to a Superfund site, to collect information that can help them make the water in their neighborhood healthier.

Person canoeing in the Gowanus Canal
The Gowanus Canal is highly polluted from years of industrial activity in the area. Photo via Curbed.

If you are working on an environmental monitoring solution at a non-profit, community based organization, or government agency, we want to help.

We offer special programs and discounts for using Temboo’s Kosmos IoT System for environmental monitoring applications that contribute to sustainability, legislation changes, or community improvement. Contact us at hey@temboo.com for more information.

One last thing—if you found this post helpful or just interesting, let us know! Or better yet, share it with your friends, families, or co-workers. As a small part of the booming tech industry in the United States, we’re aiming to contribute to building a healthier democracy, rather than harming it. We’re doing that with our no-code environmental engagement platform, Kosmos, and through the educational content we publish here, every week.

There’s one thing that I think we can all agree on: safe, clean, water is something everyone needs, and it’s up to us to make that a priority for today, tomorrow, and the future.