New Yorkers are a famously arrogant lot. We love to brag that we have the best skyline, the best restaurants, the best pizza, the best bagels. Those last two are often attributed to another thing New York claims to have the best of -- our water.
That New York City has uncommonly delicious tap water is taken as gospel. It’s literally been called the “Champagne of drinking water.” The city Department of Environmental Protection describes it on its website as “some of the best drinking water in the nation.” But is that actually true?
New York City is definitely “on the better end of drinking water sources,” says David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit that monitors the nation’s water supply and ranks major cities in terms of water quality. “By and large in the testing we've seen and analyzed to date, it does quite well.” Still, it doesn’t crack the top 10. New York City came in 13th place among the 100 metropolitan areas included in the EWG’s most current rankings. (The rankings are calculated based on the amount of chemicals detected in the water and the level of pollutants relative to the legal limit, using data from 2009; the group plans to update its rankings later this year).
To be sure, that is still very good. But New Yorkers may be chagrined to learn that Boston, one of our many self-proclaimed rival cities, ranks higher at No. 5. St. Louis, Missouri; Charleston, South Carolina; Providence, Rhode Island; and a bunch of cities in Texas, including Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Arlington (the best tap-water town in America, according to EWG), also had better water.
But there’s more to the story than typical New York braggadocio. New York’s reputation for pristine drinking water flows through the city’s history.
New York City drinking water springs from 125 miles away in the Catskill Mountains -- 90% of the water comes from the Catskill/Delaware watershed, where waters from tributary rivers collect in 19 reservoirs. The other 10% comes from smaller watersheds in Westchester and Rye -- all of it traveling through vast underground aqueducts to supply the city’s residents.
“The fact that New York gets its water from this rural area that has relatively few people has led to, not a complete myth, but a partial myth,” says David Soll, an environmental historian at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, who wrote the 2013 book Empire of Water: An Environmental and Political History of the New York City Water Supply.
Other cities, particularly out West, also draw their water from far-away sources, which tend to be less polluted than water sources near cities for reasons that should be obvious. Although New York isn’t unique in this respect, the city’s pure headwater has enabled it to avoid extensive chemical processing and filtration, likely contributing to its fresh taste (when it doesn’t taste like chlorine, that is).
According to Soll, the city’s drinking water quality didn’t emerge as a point of pride until around the 1940s and 1950s. At the time, the city needed a new water source and the state legislature was debating whether to build another new upstate watershed or to begin drawing and filtering water from the Hudson River. The thought of drinking from the Hudson is enough to turn anyone’s stomach, but the water would actually come from about 70 miles upstream of the body that immediately surrounds the city (the river, as we know it, is basically salt water).
Drawing and filtering water from the Hudson would probably have been the cheaper option, but the Board of Water Supply, an agency which no longer exists, lobbied hard against it, spreading the message that “our water is pure, we don't want to sully it with water from the Hudson which is this disgusting, foul water body and we don't want anything to do with it,” Soll says. The rhetoric took on a social justice bent, and the idea emerged that “New York City water is this great thing and should be available to all,” as he puts it.
This “fetishization” of the water supply “became part of New York’s self identity, that we had this great supply despite being this massive city."
As for the claim that New York’s water quality is what makes our pizza and bagels better than everyone else’s, that’s been thoroughly debunked --- and in fact, New York’s baked goods may succeed in spite of New York’s water, not because of it.
There are two main aspects of water quality that affect the taste and texture of dough, according to Tom Lehman, formerly the director of bakery assistance at the American Institute of Baking, who has written widely about the chemistry of baking and goes by the moniker “the dough doctor” (though he is not a real doctor).
The first factor is water hardness, a measure of the amount of dissolved minerals, primarily calcium and magnesium, that the water contains. Calcium strengthens the gluten in the dough, making hard water better for baking. New York water is soft, however, which can lead to gooey, “weak” dough.
The second factor is the ph level, or acidity of the water. New York water is about 7.2 on the ph scale, making it slightly alkaline (7 is neutral). According to Lehman, that is enough to slow down the activity of the yeast, which prefers an acidic environment to grow. Good bakers would adapt to these conditions, Lehman says, using more yeast and less water to compensate. “When people are making pizza, bagels, breads they learn to work around it. It’s recognizing what you're up against and coping with it,” he says.
When the Jewish and Italian immigrants who first introduced the bagels and pizza that the city is now famous for moved away from NYC, they may have found that their recipes no longer worked as well and blamed the water, Lehman hypothesizes. They would have been right after a fashion, but it wasn’t so much New York’s superior water quality as the recipes calibrated for that specific water profile.
That hasn’t stopped companies like Brooklyn Water Enterprises from trading on the myth, bottling and selling water that “replicates the make-up and taste of water from Brooklyn, New York,” to restaurants and companies in other states. Although the claim may be bunk (the company has been sued for fraud), it too is part of a great New York tradition, perhaps New York’s greatest of all: its hustle.
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