Durham vs. Cary: the tap water taste test | Food Feature | Indy Week
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Durham vs. Cary: the tap water taste test 

Left: Cary water. Right: Durham water. Try them with sheep's cheese and cracked pepper flatbread.

Photo by D.L. Anderson

Left: Cary water. Right: Durham water. Try them with sheep's cheese and cracked pepper flatbread.

The next time you're sitting at the stoplight at Harrison Avenue and Maynard Road in Cary, take a moment to admire the elevated teal-colored water tank.

Looming behind a grove of trees just south of the intersection, the tank swaddles 1 million gallons of Cary's finest elixir. Pumped from Jordan Lake, disinfected, processed, analyzed, tested, sniffed: This is the second-freakin'-best-tasting water in North Carolina.

Fifteen miles west, off Ellis Road in Durham, over the horizon emerges a 2-million-gallon tank brimming with Bull City agua: Two molecules of hydrogen, one of oxygen, diverted from Little River and Lake Michie reservoirs, they bide their time in their steel tomb until you, thirsty Durhamite, release them through your faucet. Toss that Brita filter: This is the third-mutha-effin'-most-delicious water in the state.

Durham vs. Cary.

Grit vs. Ritz.

Which city has better tap water? And what makes it good?

The North Carolina American Water Works Association (NC AWWA) announced the winners of its annual tap water taste test on Nov. 13. As if evaluating wine, judges from the trade organization awarded Charlotte-Mecklenburg first place (perhaps their water tastes like money?), followed by Cary, which, since 2002, has placed six times in the top two.

Durham, which, since 1985, has eight times placed in the top three, took the bronze. The city did have to share the honor with Asheboro, home of the N.C. Zoo. (Other than being held captive, those are some lucky giraffes.)

I used to scoff at city water. I grew up on Indiana well water, so hard it went down like I was swigging rocks. So hard that when I placed goldfish I had won at the fair into a bowl of that water, they would be dead within a day. In fact, the fresher the water, the more labored the gasping, the more arduous the gill flailing. It was hell to watch.

When I moved to the city, I initially missed the iron and manganese and especially the calcium, which had ossified the innards of my mom's coffee maker into a stony crust. City water, by comparison, left no impression, like Muzak.

But now my well-traveled water palate is more refined. So began the quest to verify or debunk the results of the NC AWWA contest.

I filled a clean canning jar with water from a drinking fountain at Cary Town Hall. Mayor Harold Weinbrecht probably drinks from that fountain, and he seems like a mostly sunny guy, so, I figured, I'll have what he's having.

I used the same collection method at a drinking fountain at Durham City Hall—if the water's good enough for Mayor Bill Bell, it's good enough for me. Imagine my shock to approach the fountain only to be visually assaulted by a nearby Aquafina vending machine. C'mon Durham, you have award-winning water, love yourself.

Back at the office, I gulped some of each ice-cold specimen, as if I had just come in from mowing the lawn on a July afternoon. To be fair—some water needs time to breathe—I then allowed the jars to reach room temperature before trying again.

I swirled the water in the jars, trying to detect a nose of chlorine. Thankfully, there was none in either.

The consistency of eau de Cary was plump and medium-bodied with a round mouth feel, and although smooth, it lacked focus. Youthful, the water is perfect for making lemonade or hot cocoa, but it's not particularly assertive on its own.

Time for a cleanse: a splash of Argentinean Malbec, accompanied by cracked pepper flatbread and a Cacao di Roma—cheese made from sheep's milk.

Eau de Durham, on the other hand, brightened the palate with a clean, crisp finish. Although it lacked the body of its Cary counterpart, it sang with mild mineral notes that wisely refrained from earthiness. Try it with bourbon.

The winner? For me, it's Durham. The mineral notes swayed me. But people who prefer a more understated drink will likely choose Cary.

The distinction between the two waters could be attributed not only to treatment practices but also terroir. Cary's water originates in Jordan Lake. That alone is a testament to the town's treatment professionals, who, through chemistry, daily commitment and maybe some prayers, produce delicious water that doesn't taste like abandoned tires and plastic bags.

Steve Brown, director of public works and utilities in Cary, says the water is run through a complex treatment system that includes removing the sediment, infusing it with ozone (which disinfects) and exposing it to chloromine, a variation of chlorine that while it also disinfects, "doesn't have that swimming pool feel," Brown says.

Most central North Carolina water comes from rivers and lakes, Brown explains, which presents different treatment challenges. (Read: eliminating chemicals from runoff from your over-fertilized yard, oil on your driveway and livestock pee—and worse.) Mountain water contains more minerals and sediment, while water from down east comes from deep wells and contains, uh, special qualities.

"I drank groundwater in that part of the state," says Tom Harden, Durham's superintendent of water supply and treatment. "It had volatile sulfur compounds." (Read: It smelled like rotten eggs.) "Now they treat the water and remove that."

In Durham, the terroir is the Little River and Lake Michie reservoirs, whose headwaters are largely untouched by industrial and agricultural pollution, Harden says. While the raw water is high in iron and manganese, by the time it leaves the plant, there is little left.

Harden drinks several glasses of water each day—in fact, as he spoke with me, he had one on his desk. He fills his glass at the water fountain in the Durham treatment facility.

Cary's treatment facility, where the water waits before it's pumped to elevated tanks, is the place to drink the best water in town, Brown says. "It's the freshest water in the system."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Ye olde watering hole."

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