Take the Test: Is DC Tap Water Better Than Bottled Water?

DC water has a bad reputation, and the city is challenging us to a taste test.

DC Water says the city's tap water is safe to drink and there are no worries of lead contamination. To prove it, officials are challenging Washingtonians with taste tests of bottled water and tap water in each ward until October. Photograph courtesy of Shutterstock.

After years of lead contamination in DC tap water, officials are out to prove that it’s just as safe to drink as bottled water—and a lot cheaper.

Until October 10, DC Water, formerly known as DC Water and Sewer Authority, is traveling to each ward to not only tell you great things about its water, but to encourage you to taste it. The department is hoping to spark up an “interactive conversation” about DC’s water by putting residents to an official taste test.

“There was a finite period of time when lead was an issue, and that was about 12 years ago,” says Alan Heymann, chief of external affairs at DC Water. “We want to reassure customers that lead from the past decade doesn’t have an effect on today’s water. Lead levels have gotten lower and lower over time, and they may be at their lowest point now.”

The idea, officials argue, is that tap water is both an economic and eco-friendly alternative to its bottled counterpart. According to DC Water, it costs about a penny per gallon for tap water, while a gallon of bottled costs upward of a dollar per gallon.

During the tests, which spawned from less official versions that DC Water has been leading since 2010, residents are offered two samples of chilled water. One of the samples is from the tap at DC Water headquarters, while the other is taken from a jug of Deer Park.

We at Well+Being prefer our water filtered, so we were pretty sure we’d be able to tell the difference between the tap and filtered water. So we ventured out to Whole Foods in Tenleytown last Wednesday to participate in Ward 2’s official taste test.

Officials poured two samples of chilled water into tasting cups and sat them on top of a laminated sheet with the labels “sample A” and “sample B.” After slurping down Deer Park and DC Water’s finest, we were stumped. We knew there was a difference between the water, but we really couldn’t say what it was. One left a bit of an aftertaste, so we scribbled down our guess and turned it in.

Turns out we were wrong—but maybe not for the reason we thought. Before taking the test, we spoke with DC Water’s Heymann and Sarah Neiderer, who let us know that the water would be served chilled. Both samples had been frozen the night before and were left to melt throughout the tests. Could it be that chilled water, be it tap or bottled, pretty much tastes the same?

Other visitors mostly faced our same issue: We all thought we knew which was which, but most of us had guessed the wrong sample was tap.

One exception was Scott Parker, a longtime resident of Bethesda, who stopped by to take the test. He knew from the first sip which was pure DC tap water, which he preferred over the other.

“I know there’s nothing wrong with the water, and I think it’s nice that they’re trying to convince other people that there’s nothing wrong with it,” says Parker, who drinks tap water at home. “But if someone told me I had to drink either of those samples for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t be mad.”

Think you can tell the difference between tap and bottled water? DC Water will be holding taste tests every Wednesday from 11 AM to 1 PM until October 10 at the following locations:

Ward 4—September 5
(Petworth Metro (3700 Georgia Ave., NW)

Ward 5—September 12
Home Depot (901 Rhode Island Ave., NE)

Ward 6—September 19
Southwest Waterfront (1100 4th St., SW)

Ward 7—September 26
Penn-Branch Shopping Center (3220 Pennsylvania Ave., SE)

Ward 8—October 3
Ward 8 Constituent Building (2100 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave., SE)