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As American citizens, we’re lucky enough to get free access to public drinking water. But while this water is technically safe to drink, many public water sources have been under scrutiny in recent years.
Drinking water quality varies from state to state. By law, cities must provide public water that is free from certain microbiological contaminants, like bacteria, that could make us sick. The EPA has also set out Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) for certain impurities with health effects, like lead and arsenic.
But even with these rules in place, the majority of drinking water sources contain trace contaminants. The exact contaminants that your city water contains depends on where in the U.S you’re based.
In this guide, I’ll be sharing which states and cities in the US have the best and worst tap water. I’ll also be discussing the factors that affect water quality, and how tap water is currently monitored.
🤔 How Is Drinking Water Quality Determined?
Water quality is more than just a measure of how water tastes. The quality of a water source indicates how clean, fresh and pure it is.
The Safe Drinking Water Act
In the US, the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was passed in 1974. This act sets a standard for tap water quality, which all cities must adhere to.
The SDWA applies to all water sources that are intended for drinking including underground and above-ground sources.
Implemented to protect human health, the Safe Drinking Water Act limits the level of naturally occurring and man-made contaminants that can be present in drinking water.
📝 How Is Tap Water Safety Monitored?
Tap water safety is monitored by two independent organizations: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
Environmental Protection Agency
The EPA uses online tools to monitor water supplies and distribution centers in real-time. The company collects data based on its findings and can characterize water sources, identify emerging problems and trends, and determine whether cities are taking the correct actions to maintain a high-quality drinking water source for the local community.
Cities must adhere to the EPA’s Maximum Contaminant Levels when treating drinking water. Scheduled testing must also be carried out as per the EPA’s requirements, and suppliers are legally obliged to provide an annual water quality report to residents.
The EPA sets standards for a broad range of common waterborne contaminants, including microorganisms, chemicals, heavy metals, disinfectants, and radionuclides.
Environmental Working Group
The Environmental Working Group manages a National Tap Water Quality Database, which provides information about the quality of drinking for more than 50,000 nationwide drinking water sources.
The Database displays contaminant levels in water, and how these compare to EPA guidelines and federal limits for cities in the U.S.
The EWG’s Database isn’t updated in real-time, and it isn’t released annually. The most recent edition of the database, released in 2019, is based on data from 2012 to 2019.
However, referring to the Database is still a handy means of comparing the contaminants in your local water to the contaminants in other cities and states.
💭 What Causes Poor Tap Water Quality?
There are a number of factors that cause poor tap water quality:
Old, Cracked Pipes
The pipes in public water systems are one of the main contributors to the quality of your drinking water. If the pipes are old, cracked or worn, there’s a chance that a leak could spring.
The water pressure in these pipes may suck outside water into the clean supply, contaminating it with whatever pollutants it contains. If this leak isn’t detected, you may drink your city’s water without knowing what it contains.
Metal leaching is another common issue with old pipes. The use of lead water pipes was banned in 1986, but the new law didn’t dictate that existing lead pipes in cities had to be replaced.
That means that many of us still get our water from lead pipes today. When these pipes begin to break down, they can leach harmful quantities of lead into water, greatly affecting its quality.
Surface runoff from industrial and agricultural waste can affect the contaminants in groundwater. Chemicals such as PFOAs and PFOS, fertilizers and pesticides, and heavy metals are common industrial and agricultural pollutants in many cities.
While groundwater is treated before it’s sent to our homes, not all of these contaminants may be filtered out.
Geologically Occurring Contaminants
Some parts of the U.S have a completely different geological makeup to others. Some states and cities have higher concentrations of certain contaminants in the local environment, like sulfur, iron, inorganic ions, and salts.
The naturally occurring contaminants in the environment can leach into groundwater. Again, even when these contaminants are filtered out during water treatment, they can still remain in trace amounts.
✔️ Which States Have the Best Water?
Many states in the U.S simply ensure that their water meets “drinkable” regulations. However, some states go even further, offering some of the cleanest, best-tasting tap water in America.
Take a look at the list below to see which states and cities have the best water right now.
The Minnesota Department of Health has a number of practices in place to ensure clean water, including offering grants to public water suppliers and arranging training for water treatment operators. Minnesota’s water won the “Best in Glass” award in 2013.
Kansas’ public water supplies provide water that meets or exceeds state and federal guidelines for clean water to around 96% of their residents. One of the best cleanest-water regions in Kansas is Emporia, which secured the Best Tap Water award at a tasting competition led by Berkeley Springs.
With plenty of water resources to choose from, Rhode Island boasts tap water that is carefully monitored – and 90% of its groundwater is said to be safe and clean to drink. The state has an Office of Water Resources, which works on preventing groundwater pollution and controlling wastewater discharge.
Offering some of the best, cleanest tap water on the planet, Missouri is another favorite at the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting Competition, having been named one of the top 5 water providers in the world for taste.
South Dakota’s water suppliers have a particularly promising track record, and 95% of its city water customers can benefit from water that meets all EPA health standards. Mid-Dakota is particularly well-known for its great-tasting water, having won a Drinking Water Excellence award for 16 years straight.
Most of Portland, Oregon’s water supply comes from the Bull Run Watershed, which, according to testing, has unnaturally low levels of naturally occurring impurities.
New Hampshire’s drinking water standards, led by the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, are particularly strict. New Hampshire is now of the few states to require rigorous testing for the toxic PFAS chemical.
Another state with very strict water testing standards, Massachusetts has some of the best, highest quality water in the country. The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority protects watersheds in the region. Many forests in Massachusetts, which naturally clean the water on its journey to the treatment center, are also protected.
Connecticut is one of the only two states that currently disallows wastewater treatment discharge into water facilities. This means that Connecticut’s tap water is far less likely to contain harmful contaminants such as pharmaceuticals.
Vermont’s drinking water systems are very closely monitored, and about 70% of residents receive their water from these systems.
❌ Which States Have the Dirtiest Water?
Some of the worst states and cities for water quality include:
While Seattle generally has clean water, beyond the city, there are a number of contamination issues, including arsenic, chromium, uranium, radon, and chloroform.
Many of Georgia’s natural rivers, wells and streams are polluted. As a result, overall water quality is lacking.
Again, while the built-up areas in California have clean water, the rural areas and farming communities struggle. Uranium and arsenic are particularly common natural pollutants in this region.
New Jersey’s water is contaminated with a man-made chemical known as PFAS. This chemical is considered a “forever chemical”, so while it is being phased out of use in industrial processes, it still remains in the city’s tap water today.
Arizona doesn’t have many clean water sources – or many water sources at all, for that matter. Phoenix’s tap water contains a particularly worrying number of chromium-6 particles.
Coal mining in Pennsylvania has led to widespread pollution of the land, including a large number of natural lakes and rivers in the area. A number of Pennsylvania’s water sources don’t meet federal standards for swimming or fishing, let alone drinking. There are also a number of abandoned oil and gas facilities in the state that are leaking pollutants into groundwater.
After the widespread damage caused by Hurricane Irma and Maria in 2017, Puerto Rico’s water has an unhealthily high sediment content.
Florida’s natural water quality has been affected by two factors: the toxic blue-green algae that flowed into the city’s lakes, oceans and rivers; and the red tide microorganisms that contaminated the Gulf of Mexico. Florida also uses particularly high levels of fertilizer, and often experiences flooding and hurricanes that affect the region’s water systems.
Several water supplies in Ohio contain high levels of lead, due to old pipes, and the state’s industrial processes and mining practices.
Again, the rural areas in Texas are the worst affected when it comes to water quality. Water sources are few and far between, and smaller towns tend to have older lead pipes. Heavy metals and radiation have also been issues in Texas’ rural water system.
🙋 What Can I Do If I Live In a State With Bad Drinking Water Quality?
If you live in a city or state that doesn’t offer access to clean city water, you have a number of options.
First, you could pack your bags and move to another city or state. But that’s an expensive option, and not everyone can simply move cities at the drop of a hat.
A more realistic option is to switch to bottled water. There’s no need to drink the water supplied by your city if it contains chemical contaminants or heavy metals. However, while bottled water has a better taste and quality, it’s more expensive than tap water. You’d have to be prepared to spend a few hundred dollars on bottled water per year – and waste a whole lot of single-use plastic while you were at it.
The most effective and money-saving long-term option is to buy an at-home water filter. Water filters come in a variety of builds and designs, and there are options to suit every budget.
Water filters are designed to remove a number of specific contaminants that are commonly found in tap water provided by cities. Whether your city water is high in chemical impurities, heavy metals, fluoride, or microbiological contaminants, there’s a filter to suit your requirements.
The advantage of filtering your water is that you can access clean water at home, without having to spend money on a large number of plastic water bottles per week. You can control exactly which contaminants are removed from your tap water supply, and you’ll have peace of mind from knowing exactly what you’re drinking.