Independence, Missouri, has a strange claim to fame.
No, not that it’s the hometown of President Harry Truman. Not that it was a jumping-off point for pioneers heading west. And not that it was a settling point for Joseph Smith and the Mormons.
This is something more current, so to speak.
Independence has some of the most delicious tap water in the world.
It has been named among the top five best-tasting tap waters in the world for seven of the last eight years at the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting Competition, the largest such competition in the world. Its water was found third best overall earlier this year, behind only Clearbrook, British Columbia, and Eldorado Springs, Colorado.
Water tasting may sound a little strange, said Arthur Von Wiesenberger, the “watermaster” for the competition who trains the panel of judges each year. But there is a science to it.
“The nuances are very subtle, but once you become aware of those nuances then you go, ‘Ah! There’s a difference,’” he said.
Von Wiesenberger works as a consultant for bottled water companies and has helped them identify springs suitable for bottled water. He said the discipline of water tasting was developed by William Bruvold, a former public health professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
Bruvold researched water taste on behalf of NASA to determine how much minerals people could tolerate in water before it would no longer be palatable. NASA wanted to know so it could plan water purification in space for astronauts. The methods developed by Bruvold are used by Von Wiesenberger and the Berkeley Springs competition.
The competition is blind, and judges rate the waters based off appearance, aroma, taste, mouthfeel and aftertaste. The judges are typically members of the news media. Von Wiesenberger trains them in the lead-up to the competition to taste differences in water and how to judge it. There are new judges each year, which seems to suggest that consistent winners are objectively superior waters.
Winners such as Independence — a perennial powerhouse at the competition.
“If it’s good enough to finish in the top, that’s pretty amazing because it’s competing against a lot of good water. We have entries that come from all across the world,” said Von Wiesenberg. Around 100 typically enter annually.
The water source
Independence gets its water from 42 wells as deep as 135 feet, said Karen Kelly, operations manager at the city’s water treatment plant. The plant produces as much as 48 million gallons of water per day, serving 250,000 people, and it has enough water to last 500 years or more.
Groundwater is of higher quality than surface water from rivers or reservoirs, she said. It trickles down through the earth over a period of years before collecting in pools, and as a result it’s insulated from rapid chemical changes in a way that surface water is not. This makes the treatment process for well water more consistent, Kelly said, and the end result is better water.
“Independence has always had excellent water. I think the citizens of Independence know that and appreciate it,” Kelly said. “When our forefathers built this plant in the 1950s — the (Missouri) river’s right outside here — they could have gone to the river supply. It would have been less expensive for them at the time, but they chose to drill the wells, and we have 42 wells. We have to maintain those wells, but because we have those wells, we have that consistent water quality and consistent source of water.”
That consistency was helpful earlier this year during the spate of Missouri River flooding. The water in Lee’s Summit and Blue Springs was contaminated, so those cities temporarily got their water from Independence, said Meg Lewis, a spokeswoman for the city.
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
How did The Star find out about this story?
The Star and the Kansas City Public Library held a Java With a Journalist event July 27 at the Trails West branch in Independence. One of the residents mentioned the city’s award-winning water. (Click on the arrow at top right for more.)
What is Java With a Journalist?
The event series is a partnership between The Star and the Kansas City Public Library inviting the public to meet reporters and editors and share story ideas. The events have been held on Saturday mornings at various library branches. Coffee and doughnuts are provided. The Star will publicize future Javas on KansasCity.com and its Facebook page.
The city’s plant is made up of an office building and lab, with dozens of million-gallon tanks outside filled with churning or settling water with different levels of chemicals being incorporated or removed. A steel catwalk snakes above the tanks, and a system of pipes runs between them. The tanks are all full of turquoise water.
The water is piped from wells on an open field a few hundred yards uphill from the facility, and the water stops at four kinds of tanks for different kinds of treatment.
The first tanks are called “splitters.” Rushing waterfalls beat the water to drive out any sulfur. Next is the “contact basin,” where a milky limestone liquid is mixed violently into the water, “softening” it by removing excess minerals. After that it sits in enormous settling tanks, where it’s treated with chlorine and disinfectant.
The last step is the sand filter: a giant tank with sand and rocks at the bottom.
“It sounds kind of strange that sand and gravel make water clear, but people have used it for hundreds of years. It’s a simple process: The water comes in at the top and makes its way down through the sand and gravel,” Kelly said.
A common child’s science project is putting sand and rocks in a water bottle, pouring dirty water in, and then seeing that the sand and rocks attract the solid material from the water, cleaning the rest.
The steel tanks at the treatment center are like an enormous version of that, Kelly said with a laugh.
Kelly said the staff at the water plant follows the Berkeley Springs competition each year from its online video. Independence’s third place certificate is framed at the treatment facility. She said they are hoping to get first place soon because it comes with a trophy instead of just a certificate.
“It’s like a wine tasting. They all dress up and they have these wine glasses and they’re smelling it, and then they’re swirling it,” Kelly said. “It’s really fun because we get excited about getting it sampled, and then we get online and we watch and see how we did.”
The competition will be celebrating its 30th year in 2020.
“When we started out we had no idea what it would become and how important it would be. For people who win, it’s a huge deal,” said Jill Klein Rone, one of the competition’s organizers.
For winners, she said, “it’s bragging rights. They use it in their real estate campaigns. ‘Come live here. We have great water.’ It’s a good gauge for their constituents how they’re doing.”
Some may be skeptical that there could really be a wide disparity in the taste of tap waters, but experts say otherwise.
“I think there are certainly times when you can definitely tell the difference,” Kelly said.” “I’ve certainly been places in the United States or even the world when you can definitely tell the difference.”
Or, put less diplomatically: “I’ve been told that drinking tap water in New Orleans is like jumping into a swimming pool with your mouth open,” Von Wiesenberger said.
But water, he pointed out, is often overlooked.
“It’s such a fascinating subject because we kind of take it for granted. Benjamin Franklin said we only know the worth of water when the well is dry.”