For months now my mind has been contemplating whether it is ok for me to drink tap water, i.e., the water that comes out of the faucet at my house. I’ve never liked the taste of the Central Texas tap water. I remember when I first moved to Austin about 10 years ago I complained to the City Of Austin about the taste, thinking that something was wrong with the water. The City dispatched an inspector who took water samples and sent them off to the lab for analysis. As I waited for the results to come back I remember wondering what kind of contaminants could be in the water. I had just graduated from college with an science degree and thought that surely I could figure out what was making the water taste so bad.
According to the City Of Austin Water FAQ website, the primary sources of water contamination in urban areas,
“is rainwater that flows into street catch basins (called urban runoff or storm water runoff). While the rainwater alone is not necessarily harmful, it frequently carries untreated waste products from our streets and yards directly to rivers, lakes, and streams – our drinking water sources.”
If you visit the City Of Austin’s website you can find a breakdown of some things that you might find in your tap water. The first four chemicals or elements that are listed are barium, fluoride, nitrate, simazine. Barium and fluoride are not big surprises; but, nitrate is a fertilizer and simazine is a herbicide (read: herb – “plant” and cide – “to kill”) – two things that I personally would not want in my body. There is a lot more information on their website as well that I’ll let you read for yourself.
So what would a chemist say? Are the chemicals in our water safe to drink? According to an article entitled, “Tap Water: Safe To Drink” by: Andrew Gaug,
“Everything we use every day, from your pharmaceuticals you take to your soap, it all goes down the drain. And most of that will end up in treatment facilities,” said David Alvarez, a research chemist for the U.S. Geological Survey. He is a St. Joseph [Missouri] native with a Ph.D. in environmental and analytical chemistry.
“The problem isn’t that huge doses of pharmaceuticals or soap are slipping past being treated, but that there isn’t a barometer for the miniscule amount that does get by.”
A drinking water sample has many chemicals in it. But they’re all likely to be at very, very low concentration,” he said. “Are they a problem to humans? I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
Final answer: “I don’t know. I don’t think so.” Hmm.. that doesn’t sound all that reassuring to me.
So what does the highest environmental organization in the land say about tap water safety? According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website,
“the taste and quality of drinking water varies from place to place. Over 90 percent of water systems meet EPA’s standards for tap water quality.”
Over 90 percent is safe? So what about the other 10 percent? Is it not safe?
“Tap water is not without its problems. The nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) in 2005 tested municipal water in 42 states and detected some 260 contaminants in public water supplies, 140 of which were unregulated chemicals, that is, chemicals for which public health officials have no safety standards for, much less methods for removing them.”
Again, not very convincing. In fact, I feel even less happy about drinking water out of the tap now. So what about bottled water? Perhaps it is better to drink than tap water.
In many ways bottled water is subject to less screening and testing than tap water. The EPA does not demand the rigorous testing and analytical methods for bottled water that it requires for tap water. And oddly enough, as much as a quarter or more of bottled water actually originates from tap water sources. So if you thought that the cool, glistening bottle of water with images of glaciers and mountains on the bottle label originated from some pristine underground aquifer or from an untouched mountain stream you may be mistaken. Had any Dasani or Aquafina bottled water lately? You’ll never guess where it comes from (hint: water does not come from a spring or glacier)!
Ultimately, I was told by the City Of Austin that my tap water was completely normal and they didn’t have an explanation for the bad taste I experienced. They assured me that the water I was drinking from the faucet was completely safe. And I’m sure it is. However, I only drink filtered or bottled water now. But that’s my choice I suppose.
Martin Whitton is a photographer and writer who lives and works in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Town Lake (aka, “Lady Bird Lake”) is one of Austin’s most precious resources and one of her not-so-hidden gems. And it’s one of my favorite outdoor locations to take brides and grooms for engagement photography sessions!
Downloadable PDF trail map here.
Some of the wonderful features offered by the lake are its convenience (located in the heart of Austin near downtown), beauty, cleanliness (clean water, air, environment, etc.), trails for hiking and walking, open space and so much more. I like it for all those reasons and because it makes my photographed subjects (usually newly engaged couples) feel relaxed and somewhat connected to nature, a feeling which manifests in the photos.
The lake is named after Lady Bird Johnson who was chair of the Town Lake Beautification Project, a community effort to create hike and bike trails and to plant flowering trees along the Colorado River in Austin, Texas. Mrs. Johnson is also the founder of the National Wildflower Research Center, a non-profit environmental organization formed in 1982.
Town Lake (now Lady Bird Lake), downstream and south of the Highland Lakes on the Colorado River, was formed in 1960 by the construction of Longhorn Dam. The surface area covered by the lake is over 400 acres and is owned and operated by the City of Austin in cooperation with the Lower Colorado River Authority. It was created by the City of Austin for the purpose of being a cooling pond for the Holly Street Power Plant.
In the early 1970s the Town Lake Beautification Project was a recommendation made to the Austin City Council in commemoration of the upcoming United States Bicentennial Celebration which would occur in 1976. In 1971 when Roy Butler became Mayor of Austin, he began working with Lady Bird Johnson to form what would later become the Town Lake Beautification Committee. Mrs. Johnson was a primary contributor to the effort of improving the then “Town Lake”, which had become polluted with chemicals from area industry, littered with trash and had been left derelict without major oversight. In 1971, with the assistance of members including Emma Long, Jim Pfluger and Mrs. Roy Butler, the Town Lake Beautification Committee was officially off and running.
With the support of the local community and with new dams in place on the Highland Lakes, the sole purpose and goal of the project was to beautify the banks of Town Lake with trees and trails for Austinites to enjoy. A $2.5 million dollar Capital Improvement Project bond for the years 1975-1977, approved by tax payers provided funding for the undertaking. Town Lake Metropolitan Park resulted as a dividend of the committee’s hard work and foresight – covering an estimated 5 miles of the north and south shores of the lake. The park includes numerous sports parks, outdoor event venues (Auditorium Shores), boat/kayak/canoe rental locations, swimming pools, picnic tables with grills, miles of running trails, pedestrian bridges (one currently under construction), restrooms, Butler Park (on the south side), many varieties of trees, look out points and more.
More History from Wikipedia:
By the 1970s, Town Lake and its shoreline had become neglected, polluted and overgrown with weeds. KTBC referred to the lake as an “eyesore.” During his two terms in office (1971–1975), the Mayor of Austin Roy Butler partnered with former United States First Lady Lady Bird Johnson to establish the Town Lake Beautification Committee with the purpose of transforming the Town Lake area into a useable recreation area. A system of hike and bike trails was built along the shoreline of the lake in the 1970s, establishing (what was then known as) Town Lake as a major recreational attraction for the city of Austin.
One of the most popular features of Metropolitan Park are the miles of hike and bike trails which run along both sides of Town Lake and allow runners and bikers a continuous exercise trail with the best view in town. Living a healthy lifestyle (including regular outdoor exercise) is considered to be in vogue in Austin, as is being seen on the hike and bike trail around Town Lake. Even celebrities like Luke Wilson, Lance Armstrong and our own Texas Governor, Rick Perry are rumored to be runners on Town Lake.
Many people know that the Colorado River is the primary source of water for Town Lake; however, there are also natural artesian springs near Deep Eddy which also act as a source of water for the lake. Today these natural springs are covered by the lake but still flow and can be seen by boat. Only sailing, rowing, kayaking, canoeing and other non-motorized water sports are permitted on Town Lake. Motorized craft of any kind (other than those specially authorized by the City of Austin are not allowed on any part of Town Lake.
Town Lake officially became “Lady Bird Lake” in July 2007 when Austin’s City Council unanimously affirmed the resolution.