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TASTE ON TAP : In Search of the Best Water That Orange County Can Offer

August 18, 1989|MARK LANDSBAUM | Times Staff Writer

Where's the best-tasting water in Orange County?

In Costa Mesa, where tap water is treated with ozone and chlorine to offset complaints it smells and looks funny? Or Fountain Valley, where well water and imported water are mixed and treated with fluoride? Or the El Toro Water District, where chloride and ammonia are used as disinfectants?

Ugh.

Whether water is delicious or disgusting may simply depend on what you're used to. Good taste depends on the individual taster. For purists, however, the best taste is no taste.

State and federal safeguards ensure your water's safety, but no official taste test exists, said Frank Hamamura, district engineer for the public water supply branch of the state Department of Health Services.

"Taste is not a required analysis," Hamamura says.

Therefore, in a search of the perfect glass of water, The Times Orange County Edition asked the Metropolitan Water District's Flavor Profile Panel to taste-test county drinking water. The panel, which includes district chemists and other laboratory personnel trained somewhat like wine-tasters to detect flavors and aromas, trouble-shoots problems in their and other agencies' waters.

Of the county's 41 water retail agencies, 12 were chosen for the test, based on Hamamura's recommendations that they are representative in their sources, treatment, number of customers and private or public ownership. For good measure, one of the few remaining small mutual companies--where the customers themselves are the owners--was included.

The tests were conducted under laboratory conditions. The water was protected from contamination and brought to room temperature in a specially ventilated room. The taste experts--principal chemist Sylvia Barrett, chemist Russell Chinn, chemist Ching-yuan Kuo, assistant microbiologist Nancy Lieu and lab technologist Peggy Moylan--gathered, sipped and swallowed.

Their task: Detect flavors and aromas.

Their winner: The Eastside Mutual Water District, serving all of its 300 Midway City customers from a solitary well.

For the most part, the panelists had few comments about Eastside--a high compliment when the absence of taste is the ultimate standard. However, even ranking as the best, the water had a musty flavor and a slight dryness, meaning it was not as refreshing as some other samples, panelists said. They also noted barely perceptible aromas, described as chlorine, musty and chalky. At the other end of the spectrum, panelists judged the Capistrano Valley Water District of San Juan Capistrano as the worst tasting water. It had the most intense and noticeable flavors and aromas. The water registered a slight to moderate dryness and had slight earthy, chalky flavors. Some panelists also noted chlorine and salty flavors, a chlorine odor and a moldy aroma of slight to moderate intensity. One panelist even detected a solventlike aroma.

As for the rest of the candidates:

"Nobody would complain" about this Fullerton sample, Barrett said, raising a glass of water drawn that same morning from Fullerton City Hall's employee lounge. "I don't think anybody would complain about the Los Alamitos water, either."

Water from Los Alamitos, which is served by the Southern California Water Co., ranked fourth in the test, while Fullerton's municipal water came in second.

The Moulton Niguel Water District, serving Mission Viejo, rated seventh. Panelists found a slight to moderate dry flavor and a slight earthy flavor. They also found a perceptible chalky flavor.

"Sensitive people might complain about this water for the earthy" flavor, Moylan said.

All the water tested met government health and aesthetic standards, panelists said. Overall, they found no water to be severely objectionable, although they said consumers may have some complaints about some samples.

Eastside Water Assn. Director Joseph McCracken was glad to hear about his agency's No. 1 assessment but said he was not surprised.

When contacted before the test, McCracken had been confident of good results: "We have excellent water. We pump our own water from a depth that has none of the things that give some of the bigger purveyors problems."

McCracken--one of five members of the association's board of directors who share "pump house duty" to check the equipment--said his group "will be changing the piping system" in the next few years, so the water "should only get better." In the bottom-ranked Capistrano Valley district, quality-control technician Ray Vaughan said the agency has few complaints about odor or taste.

Three complaints of odor have been logged since Jan. 3, but it was determined that those customers had smelled their sewer systems through their bathroom sinks, not their drinking water, Vaughan said. Two complaints of taste and nine of off-color water were noted in the same period.

Some Capistrano Valley customers do prefer bottled water, Vaughan said, but he stressed that the water is safe to drink and its acceptability is a matter of aesthetics.

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