Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

How good is your tap water?

You might not be getting what you think you’re getting when you fill your water glass from the tap.

Despite the common perception that we’re all drinking Colorado River water, many Tucsonans get very little of it, and thousands of us get none.

Because our water comes from the Central Arizona Project canal and scores of wells across the metro area, your water and the way it tastes might be very different from your friends’ across town.

Tucson Water’s CAP-groundwater blend is pumped mostly to midtown, but residents in the foothills and outlying areas get mostly – in some cases exclusively – well water.

Midtown resident Kona Morgan thinks city tap water tastes “disgusting.”

“I drink a lot of lemonade, and you can really taste the difference,” the 35-year-old housekeeper said.

The mineral content of city water – the main factor in how water tastes – is expected to rise over the next decade as we introduce more CAP water. Tucson Water wants the City Council to set a mineral content target this year so it can plan for construction and new treatment equipment.

East Side resident Mario Terán, 45, buys bottled water for his wife and kids, but he doesn’t see the point.

“Me, I can’t tell the difference,” he said.

Minerals vary widely

The minerals in your water – known as dissolved solids – determine taste, hardness and the amount of white stuff left behind in sinks, showers and appliances.

CAP water, roughly a fourth of the 90 million gallons we use every day this time of year, had 738 parts per million dissolved solids in a sample taken Feb. 14. January well-water tests in and around Tucson showed dissolved solids ranging from 182 to 627 ppm. The city average, including the CAP-groundwater blend, was 340 ppm among January tests and 297 ppm for 2004.

High mineral content prompted local cook Francisco Bedoya, 50, to give up tap water about four years ago. His brother, a doctor in Mexico, advised the move, he said.

“I live with my mother, who is 86 years old, and he suggested it. It’s better for her,” Bedoya said.

The Environmental Protection Agency has identified no health risks from water with high mineral content, so the EPA has no health standard. The standard for aesthetics – taste, appearance and odor – is 500 ppm.

The No. 1 factor for consumers is taste, said Daniel Quintanar, manager of Tucson Water’s Environmental Monitoring for Public Access and Community Tracking program, which gets water quality information to the public.

“If it tastes good, generally people won’t question it. If it tastes funky, they will,” he said.

The city’s current mineral content target, based on taste tests and surveys, is a maximum 450 ppm. Tucson Water can maintain that level for many years by blending CAP water with groundwater. Eventually, more treatment will be needed to keep dissolved solids down.

Tucson Water has pegged the cost of keeping the 450-ppm dissolved minerals level through 2030 at between $393 million and $541 million, including new equipment and operating costs. Letting the mineral content gradually rise to 500 to 650 ppm – Tucson Water’s recommendation – would cost between $143 million and $229 million for the same period, the plan says.

How rates would be affected would be determined later. Tucson Water plans to hold meetings this year to gather input from the public on how to proceed.

Where do you live?

What you get depends on where you live.

Water from wells along the Santa Cruz River generally has a mineral content above 500 ppm. Water pumped on the city’s North and East sides has generally less than 250 ppm. Water pumped between Interstates 10 and 19 generally has dissolved solids from 250 to 500 ppm. The CAP-groundwater blend, mixed in the aquifer in Avra Valley, showed an average 325 ppm in February tests.

The CAP blend flows into the city near 29th Street and Alvernon Way. But because it’s expensive to pump water uphill, the city keeps most of that water at lower elevations and lets wells handle higher areas, said Ray Wilson, administrator of Tucson Water’s Operations and Maintenance Division.

Well water and Avra Valley water blend in the system, but the exact mix at any given home is impossible to determine without chemical tests.

“The closer you are to 29th and Alvernon, the more your water is going to be influenced by water that is imported into the system,” Wilson said.

Thousands of Tucson Water customers living on the North, Northwest, Southwest and Southeast sides get only well water because their water systems are not connected to the main array of city pipelines, said Tucson Water spokesman Mitch Basefsky.

Homes in the upper reaches of the Santa Catalina Mountains foothills – some of which are 1,500 feet above the valley floor – normally get only well water, Basefsky said.

Generally, the higher you live, the less CAP water you get.

What’s in it

No matter where you live, you are not drinking pure water – even if you buy bottled water. You also might be getting a bit of hexachlorocyclopentadiene, bromodicholoromethane, dibromoacetic acid, uranium or other regulated contaminants found in Tucson’s water in 2004.

The city tested tap water at about 470 sites in 2004, including 56 homes. Results go to the state Department of Environmental Quality, which monitors compliance with government rules.

Among 12,866 individual tests in 2004, only 8 percent of samples had detectable contaminants. All were below the federal maximum contaminant levels.

The “contaminants” don’t scare Bridwell Williams, a 62-year-old retired University of Arizona employee who drinks tap water but buys bottled water to keep scale out of her coffee maker.

“I think there are important ingredients in tap water. One of the best things about Tucson water is the natural fluoride,” she said.

Fluoride, which many cities add to water to guard teeth against cavities, occurs naturally in local groundwater.

Info available

An interactive map on Tucson Water’s Web site allows residents to check test results for samples taken in their neighborhood. The information includes hardness, dissolved solids, pH, temperature and other data Tucson Water customers have said in surveys that they want to see.

Despite all the information assuring her that her tap water is safe, East Side resident Kelly Blodgett, 40, isn’t taking any chances. She doesn’t trust Tucson Water because of the 1990s CAP issues, and natural health guru Dr. Andrew Weil advises drinking bottled water.

She’ll keep buying about 15 gallons a week for herself and her 3-year-old daughter for the better taste and possible health benefits, she said.

Her cat will continue to get tap and bottled water because he has no preference.

“But he might not be a good example, because he drinks from the toilet.”

When CAP water's pH caused corrosion and scale from inside pipes to break loose in the 1990s, thousands of Tucsonans got brown, smelly water from their taps. News reports at the time prompted midtown resident Kona Morgan, 35, to turn to bottled water. She buys about 15 gallons per week at Water Street Station near First Avenue and Roger Road, for herself, her son Anthony Upton, 6, and her two other children.

When CAP water's pH caused corrosion and scale from inside pipes to break loose in the 1990s, thousands of Tucsonans got brown, smelly water from their taps. News reports at the time prompted midtown resident Kona Morgan, 35, to turn to bottled water. She buys about 15 gallons per week at Water Street Station near First Avenue and Roger Road, for herself, her son Anthony Upton, 6, and her two other children.


On the Web
Tucson Water water quality Web site


Citizen Online Archive, 2006-2009

This archive contains all the stories that appeared on the Tucson Citizen's website from mid-2006 to June 1, 2009.

In 2010, a power surge fried a server that contained all of videos linked to dozens of stories in this archive. Also, a server that contained all of the databases for dozens of stories was accidentally erased, so all of those links are broken as well. However, all of the text and photos that accompanied some stories have been preserved.

For all of the stories that were archived by the Tucson Citizen newspaper's library in a digital archive between 1993 and 2009, go to Morgue Part 2

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