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Taste Test of Samples From Cities Yields Unsavory Findings

September 29, 1996|MARY F. POLS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When it comes to taste, the distinctions in the drinking water of Ventura County's 10 cities can be as sharp as comparing a fine California cabernet to a bottle of rotgut.

Sometimes there is a suspicious ocean taste. Even the flavor of household bleach or plain old dirt. Then again, the water that flows from our faucets is sometimes pure and fresh.

We invited elected representatives from each of the county's cities to an evening of water tasting in a decidedly unscientific survey that nonetheless produced some surprising results.

For one thing, all but one of the political leaders preferred the taste of bottled water to their own city's water.

As a group, they also easily and consistently picked out the same three cities--Port Hueneme, Fillmore and Ventura--as having the county's worst-tasting water.

And they also gave high marks to samples from cities that use water imported from the state water project.

Taste is subjective. And, as water experts point out, bad taste doesn't mean bad quality. Still, it's the No. 1 reason consumers turn to bottled water, whose popularity is on the rise in Ventura County.

In our test, we set Sparkletts up against samples from all the cities. The samples were gathered randomly. And, of those invited, representatives of five cities were brave enough to show up to drink their water.

All the samples were poured into clean jugs that were marked only with letters. The code was kept a secret from the participants until the testing was completed.

There were two parts to the blind testing. The first was a simple us-against-them approach: a cup of Sparkletts next to a cup from the different cities.

Port Hueneme Mayor Robert Turner, for example, tasted a cup of Sparkletts and a cup of Port Hueneme water. And Santa Paula Mayor John Melton picked between Sparkletts and a cup of his hometown water.

Every politician except Camarillo Councilwoman Charlotte Craven picked the Sparkletts water over their own. Except for Craven, all were dead sure about which was which, even before the answers were revealed.

"I'm holding on to this," Melton said, with a twinkle in his eye and his hand wrapped around his cup of Sparkletts. "It's the bottled water. I'm going to save it to cleanse my palate."

The second test, also blind, was more complicated. We lined up 10 paper cups in front of the politicians. Each was marked with a letter and filled with samples of each city's water. We also included a cup of Sparkletts and asked the tasters to rank the samples from one to 10.

We left out Simi Valley water, but we included samples from Thousand Oaks, which tastes pretty much like Simi's anyway.

Even with 10 cups in front of him, Turner had no problem finding his own water.

"This is definitely Hueneme water," the Port Hueneme mayor said with resignation. "I told you, Hueneme water is the worst. That's why we're getting the new treatment plant."

Port Hueneme was also at or near the bottom for Craven and Ventura Councilwoman Rosa Lee Measures.

Also ranking extremely low was Ventura's water. Craven and Melton picked Ventura's water as the worst, Ojai Mayor Pro-Tem Bob McKinney ranked it ninth and Measures ranked it eighth.

As awful as the Ventura sample was, the councilwoman said it wasn't as bad as it might have been.

"If it had been from east Ventura instead of west Ventura, it would have been even worse," Measures said.

Measures ranked the bottled water as the best of the 10. Turner picked it as second best. Others ranked it in the middle of the pack, except for McKinney, who put it down as eighth.

Most of the tasters found it impossible to distinguish among tap water from the cities that use imported state water sold by the Metropolitan Water District in Los Angeles. But they consistently ranked the imported water high.

Turner ranked Camarillo water third, Moorpark fourth, Thousand Oaks fifth and Oxnard sixth. All use either 100% imported water or blend it with local water.

"It's interesting," Turner said. "With the metro water, I just went boom, boom, boom down the list."

The group was also united in its dislike of Fillmore water.

"It has floaters in it," Craven said, peering into a cup flecked with black particles.

When she found out the sample was from Fillmore, she thought it explained the absence of Fillmore Mayor Roger Campbell, who planned to attend the tasting but canceled at the last minute.

"Now I know why Roger didn't show up," Craven said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Water Flow

Ventura County imports 20% of its water from outside the county. Here is how much of each community's water supply is drawn locally.

CAMARILLO

Ground water: 50%

Imported water: 50%

*

FILLMORE

Ground water: 100%

*

MOORPARK

Imported water: 74%

Ground water: 26%

*

OJAI

Ground water: 87%

Surface water: 13%

*

OXNARD

Imported water: 100%

*

PORT HUENEME

Ground water: 100%

*

SANTA PAULA

Ground water: 89%

Surface water: 11%

*

SIMI VALLEY

Imported water: 96%

Reclaimed water: 4%

*

THOUSAND OAKS

Imported water: 94%

Reclaimed water: 6%

*

VENTURA

Ground water: 57%

Surface water: 32%

Reclaimed water: 11%

*

Getting Water...

- Ventura County

Reclaimed water: 1%

Surface water: 11%

Imported water: 20%

Ground water: 68%

- California

Reclaimed water: 1%

Ground water: 15%

Imported water: 28%

Surface water: 56%

*

...And Using Water

Where water goes in Ventura County:

Commercial, industrial use: 10%

Residential: 22%

Agricultural use: 68%

*

Source: Ventura County Resource Management Agency

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