The Taste of Water: Sensory Perception and the Making of an Industrialised Beverage 
by Christy Spackman.
California, 289 pp., £25, December 2023, 978 0 520 39355 4
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Among​ all the things that people take into their bodies, water is special, its necessity matched by its neutrality. There’s no doubt about the necessity. Human bodies are mostly water: about 60 per cent in adult men; a little less in adult women. Without water, death comes within days. A sedentary man of roughly normal weight, living in a temperate climate, requires about three litres per day; women need less; athletes and people living in tropical environments more. Thirst is generally a reliable indicator that your body needs more water. It has become fashionable to pay close attention to maintaining due ‘hydration’, but for the most part a normal response to thirst takes care of that. The sensory neutrality of water is more problematic. The French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said that water had ‘no taste, no colour, no odour’. But that judgment has to be qualified.

In ancient Greek thought, water was one of the four elements; in modern science, water is H2O, a compound of two elements, but the water in rivers, lakes, seas and wells, let alone the stuff that flows from household taps, is never pure. Water dissolves and contains bits of all the things it has passed through over millions of years: inorganic minerals like the salts (chlorides, sulphates, carbonates) of calcium, potassium, magnesium and sodium. Even rainwater, reckoned especially pristine, contains dissolved atmospheric gases, so its purity is of the not-quite variety. These dissolved minerals are one signature of the water’s provenance – its terroir, as they say in the wine world.

‘Taste and Odour Wheel’ for the drinking water industry.

Even if naturally occurring water is never pure, the idea of water contains the idea of purity. In secular mode, water washes off dirt; in sacred mode, it washes away sins. Purity is always threatened by pollution. You do not want your drinking water to look cloudy (‘turbid’) or coloured, though rust-coloured, iron-containing spa waters were once very fashionable; milk-white glacial meltwater may or may not be potable; and naturally bubbly spring waters command a fancy price. You do not want to see rotting organic matter floating in your water and, even if you cannot see it, smell often betrays its putrefying presence. Traditionally, such water was said to be ‘foul’ or ‘fetid’, and, prior to the development of reliable municipal water systems, people encountered stinking water all the time and learned to avoid it if they could.

Water that smelled bad wasn’t just disgusting; it was thought to be dangerous. In the mid-19th century, the great English sanitary reformer Edwin Chadwick pronounced that ‘all smell is disease.’ He was pointing to the role of stinking vapours – ‘miasmas’ – rising up from putrefying matter. These miasmas – the word was derived from the Greek for ‘pollution’ or ‘stain’ – caused morbid conditions (cholera, malaria, typhoid fever, dysentery) in people who drank the putrid water or breathed the infected air rising up from it. Smell was accounted a reliable index of risk. In London, the Thames had long been used as a common dump for human and animal excrement. In 1855, the chemist Michael Faraday was horrified by the river’s appearance and stink: ‘The whole of the river was an opaque pale brown fluid’; ‘The smell was very bad’; ‘The feculence rolled up in clouds so dense that they were visible at the surface.’ The coincidence of unbearable stench and epidemic disease seemed to confirm Chadwick’s dictum and eventually spurred one of the great feats of Victorian engineering – Joseph Bazalgette’s vast metropolitan sewer system.

The germ theory of disease that gained currency in the last decades of the 19th century provided a new vocabulary for talking about the risks of foul water, but new concepts reinforced old sensibilities. In the 1780s, Thomas Henry, an English medic, wrote that ‘the drinking of putrid water is not only highly disagreeable and disgusting, but extremely noxious to the constitution.’ From the early 19th century, both private and governmental action was taken to make municipal drinking water palatable and safe. You could use quicklime (calcium oxide) or alum (aluminium sulphate) to precipitate obnoxious matter from a relatively small quantity of water, or you might use charcoal filtration to clarify it. Slow filtration through sand was carried out in Scotland from the early years of the 19th century; in 1829, the Chelsea Waterworks employed sand filtration for water drawn from the Thames; the Metropolis Water Act of 1852 prohibited taking household water from the tidal reaches of the Thames and mandated effective filtration. The idea that chlorine might ‘cleanse’ water was current from at least the mid-19th century, but from the 1890s microbiological discoveries inspired municipal suppliers in England, Germany and the US to chlorinate water to make it ‘germ-free’.

This is where Christy Spackman takes up the story. An American sensory scientist now working in parched Arizona as an academic commentator on water policy, Spackman thinks we shouldn’t take the modern water supply for granted. She wonders whether the water delivered to our taps really is neutral and tastes of nothing at all. How has the widespread assumption of water’s neutrality come about? Who gets to say what water does taste like, how it ought to taste, whether its sensory aspects do or do not testify to its quality? How do you know if the water is good?

By the early 20th century, in most European and North American settings, the urban water supply had been made safe, or at least far safer than it had been in the past. Waterborne infectious disease had been substantially eliminated – a signal achievement of city life made healthful. Outbreaks of cholera almost always happened elsewhere in the world, and when they did happen in a ‘civilised’ society, it was a sign that modern infrastructure had broken down and needed urgent repair. (In 2010, the UN acknowledged a supply of clean water as a universal human right.) The control of water supplies was shifting – from free-for-all private enterprise to government regulation and then to government control, with medical and scientific expertise informing its effective management. In England and Wales, water was in the charge of a patchwork of local governments before it was passed in the 1970s to ten regional water authorities. In the 1880s, Joseph Chamberlain had argued that the control of water and sewerage could never be subject to the profit motive, but a hundred years later Thatcher made England and Wales the first countries in the world to have a wholly privatised water system. (Water remains in public hands in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the US has a sprawling mishmash of over a hundred thousand independent systems, mostly publicly controlled, and regulated by the US Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA.) There were now political institutions you could complain to if you thought the water tasted odd or if there were reasons to think it unsafe. Government authorities would, ideally, respond to public discontent; private bodies might respond – if profits and shareholder value were thought to be at risk or if governments required them to do so.

Before the introduction of filtration and chlorination in the early 20th century, both medical experts and ordinary people accepted that the unhealthiness of water manifested itself to the senses. If water seemed foul in appearance, taste or smell, then it was probably dangerous. The discovery that such things as ‘bacteria’ and ‘viruses’ caused disease indicated that there might be dangerous things in water that didn’t necessarily signal their presence by offending the senses. Water that seemed all right might actually be bad. The link between sensory appearance and risk had become more problematic. And new things were getting into the water.

Almost everything made by modern industry can end up in the water supply. Mining and industrial processes produce heavy metals – mercury, manganese, cadmium, arsenic – which find their way into aquifers, rivers and lakes, and chromium from coal-fired power plants adds to the brew. Lead gets into the water from industry, adding to the lead from the many yet-to-be-replaced pipes supplying houses. Fracking technologies in onshore oil and gas production use hundreds of organic chemicals that reach ground and surface water. Modern agriculture deploys vast quantities of herbicides – atrazine, glyphosate – and runoff pours into rivers and streams. The industrial solvent 1,4-dioxane, residues of which appear in cosmetics, bubble-bath and shampoo, is now found in public water supplies. Perfluorinated and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of thousands of ‘forever chemicals’, so named because they take hundreds of years to break down, if they ever do. Since about the 1940s, they have been used for a vast range of applications – non-stick cookware, stain-resistant carpets, pizza boxes, toilet paper, and the fire-fighting foams heavily employed on military bases and airfields. It’s reported that the sources of almost all of England’s water companies and the tap water of as many as 200 million Americans contain PFAS. In the US, the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 and its various amendments mandated the EPA to maintain a register of toxic pollutants; there are now about a hundred chemicals on the list and environmental groups agitate to include many more.

For a lot of these things, there is suspicion, if not yet solid evidence, of the risks they pose to human health: cancer; damage to the nervous system, liver and kidneys; interference with fertility and development. It isn’t always easy to tell what harms are actually caused, since many possible bad outcomes occur only after long and repeated exposure. In the US, the EPA, along with some states and local authorities, has been worried for decades about the health effects of PFAS. Two years ago, the city authority that delivers water to my house in Cambridge, Massachusetts decided to switch to another supply because the concentration of PFAS in its water sources had far exceeded the EPA’s ‘non-enforceable health advisory’. Then, last year, the EPA decided to do more, and in April 2024 it finally set limits for just six types of PFAS – out of nearly fifteen thousand different varieties: four parts per trillion for two compounds, ten parts per trillion for four others. (There was the possibility of ordering a zero tolerance, but the limits decreed are the best that instruments can now detect or that water purification technologies can deliver.) It is thought that the monetary scale of American lawsuits against companies responsible for PFAS water pollution may eventually dwarf those involving asbestos and tobacco, considering that people are in a position to decide whether or not to smoke cigarettes but everybody has to drink water. Water companies in England and Wales are required to monitor 47 types of PFAS, but their concentration in drinking water is still allowed up to a hundred parts per trillion for each one, a level that the Royal Society of Chemistry is campaigning to radically reduce.

For as long as authorities have sought to clean up the water supplied to consumers, there has been an arms race between the technologies that put bad things in the water supply and the technologies used to remove them before they get to household taps. Sand sedimentation, chemical precipitation and chlorination came first. They were remarkably effective in dealing with bacteria and viruses, and were eventually joined by more elaborate filtration techniques. Water could be treated with ozone, advanced oxidation processes, ion exchange, photocatalysis, nanoparticle adsorption and ultraviolet light. Chemical contamination from industry and agriculture has generally been countered by ever more effective purifying technologies, but developing new techniques and putting them in place in water systems can be energy-intensive and expensive, with consequences for both taxpayers’ rates and corporate profits.

Some of the bad things in water do offend the senses. In the late 1920s, the water coming from Chicago taps began to have a bitter taste and a medicinal smell – think TCP. People complained and the local water authority eventually found that the problem arose from organic compounds called phenols in Lake Michigan. Phenolic water can result from naturally occurring processes – the degradation of organic matter – but in this case the phenols were produced by the industries feeding Chicago’s industrial growth, notably the burgeoning coke-fuelled steel plants ringing the southern shore of the lake. Phenols taste bad in themselves, but they can also combine with chlorine to produce haloacetic acids, which are even nastier tasting, and possibly carcinogenic. The citizens were drinking a novel modern cocktail – an unintended chemical consequence of a technology meant to make the water germ-free. Haloacetic acids continue to be a problem that present-day water authorities are obliged continually to monitor and manage.

In July 1988, the residents of Camelford in Cornwall noticed that their water had an odd colour, a sticky texture and a bad taste, and that their hair turned blue or green when they washed it. The authorities initially insisted that the water was safe, but it was eventually discovered that a delivery driver had dumped twenty tonnes of aluminium sulphate solution into the wrong tank of the local treatment plant, immediately polluting the supply to twenty thousand homes. In 2014, people in Charleston, West Virginia complained about an odd, liquorice-like smell coming from their water. The cause was quickly discovered: a local company had storage tanks of a chemical used in the coal industry, 4-methylcyclohexylmethanol, ten thousand US gallons of which had been negligently discharged into a river feeding the city’s water supplies. The stuff smelled nasty; people complained; and the state’s governor swiftly issued a ban on using locally supplied water.

But sometimes there are potentially dangerous things in the water that don’t taste or smell or look odd. Microplastics are mostly invisible; PFAS – in concentrations suspected to be harmful – have no sensory presence; and the same obtains for many other modern chemical contaminants. The majority of complaints made to present-day authorities concern visual appearance, often rust-coloured water from older iron pipes or problems in the home water tank – water which, the authorities declare, is actually safe. Official trust in the people’s senses as an index of goodness is subject to qualifications. For several days, the response of the Camelford authorities to residents’ complaints was to assure them that everything was fine. In Charleston, the authorities didn’t accept reports that household water still reeked of liquorice even after the prescribed flushing was done. And when, notoriously, in 2014 the cost-cutting Flint, Michigan water authorities changed their supply to a cheaper source and delivered water with a shockingly high lead content to the (largely Black and poor) residents, the people’s protests that the water looked and tasted horrible met with repeated assurances that it was safe.

How to respond to people’s taste? One temptation – common to bureaucracies – is to ignore their objections. After all, ordinary people have only a limited vocabulary for saying what they think is wrong and they know no chemistry. People typically disagree among themselves about smell and taste: some think the water’s off, while others don’t notice anything out of the ordinary. Some tastes and smells are obvious – everyone notices them – but most are liminal. And sometimes the authorities seem to suspect that public complaints come from a kind of mass delusion – people tasting off-flavours when they hear that there has been a sewage release or a contaminant leak, even though the water from their taps tests pure. Many complaints are about a bleachy smell, but chlorination makes the water germ-free and people should understand that the smell is a price to be paid for safety. If it bugs you, the official advice is to let the water stand for a bit while the chlorine smell dissipates. Or you can move further away from your local water treatment plant, since the smell is more pronounced the closer you are.

Another bureaucratic response has been to relegate complaints about colour, taste and smell to the status of what the EPA in the US calls ‘secondary standards’ – guidelines on managing drinking water ‘for aesthetic considerations, such as taste, colour and odour’. In general, these unenforceable guidelines amount to managing the volume of public complaints, keeping them at reasonable levels. Spackman presumes the government position is something like: ‘Good-tasting water is a luxury while safe water is a right.’ But sorting complaints on that basis isn’t unproblematic. For one thing, public complaints can translate into political action, putting authorities’ budgets, contracts and independence at risk, and encouraging a switch to bottled water. Even where water is privatised, it’s bad for business to put out ‘funny tasting’ water. In these circumstances, Spackman optimistically suggests that public distaste for corporate water has real consequences: ‘Funny tasting or smelling water can undermine business relationships and undo contracts, all to the detriment of business growth.’

Taste is indeed subjective, yet one of the major modes of water management over the past century has been to process it into objectivities – to give taste a stable reference, to standardise ways of talking about it, to measure it and, ultimately, to use these techniques to satisfy public taste. Efforts at domesticating taste, and objectifying talk about taste, were major concerns of water workers from at least the 1920s. They sought out people with especially sensitive noses (French perfumers were much in demand); tried to determine how acute their senses really were; established and quantified detection levels; and, finally, devised protocols for communicating sensory experiences across time and space. Here, the work of water authorities connected at one end to academic psychophysics, and at the other to the business practices of the increasing number of commercial enterprises – notably food and drink manufacturers – that sought to understand, supply and profit from public taste. Another task was a continuing process of rendering taste and smell molecular – to discover the specific molecules responsible for specific sensory experiences. For chemicals present in water in very small amounts, a powerful new technology emerged from the mid 20th century. Gas chromatography is a technique that can separate volatile chemicals in very small amounts and, in combination with mass spectrometry, enables those chemicals to be identified. These scientific idioms, Spackman writes, made ‘sense of sensing’. Taste and smell could now be expressed in molecular language: the discrete subjective experiences of sense were causally linked to discrete objectively existing chemicals.

It was now possible to establish a standard vocabulary to enable people in different settings and in different parts of the world to talk reliably about tastes and smells. From the 1980s, experts developed a ‘taste and odour wheel’ intended to discipline descriptive language. If, for example, you said that a sample of water had a ‘musty’ or ‘earthy’ odour, you would know that the causal agent was the chemical geosmin or something structurally like it. The molecular way of identifying odours was, indeed, objective, but it wasn’t in all cases as sensitive as the subjective human nose. People are sometimes right in reporting persisting off-odours when expert instruments can find nothing amiss. TCA – 2,4,6-trichloroanisole – is the molecule responsible for the revolting ‘wet cardboard’ smell of ‘corked’ wine, and it is also occasionally found in municipal water supplies, produced by a reaction between chlorine and certain organic substances. The nose can pick it up at levels that are scarcely credible – five parts per trillion, or the equivalent of a few drops in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. It’s said that we can detect as many as a trillion distinct odours, even if we haven’t got the language to describe them. Olfaction is one of the many domains in which knowing is not defined by saying.

The new forms of scientific expertise allowed water authorities to make an objective assessment of public complaints that the water had a ‘funny’ taste or smell, and to develop technologies and practices to avert discontent. The aim was not to produce delicious water; it was to ensure that consumers took what came out of their taps for granted – to make water, as Spackman puts it, that was ‘unremarkable’, to make it ‘taste like nothing’. The best bits of The Taste of Water are the ones describing how much work was needed to achieve this sensory nothingness. So much natural science, human science, technology, economics and politics – so much to do about nothing.

Spackman’s account of modern water has a tinge of nostalgic wistfulness. Tap water that tastes of nothing is ‘a highly industrialised product’; its neutrality is ‘a modernist ideal’. What’s been stripped out of the water supply is its individuality, its sensory testimony to place and history. The terroir of the wine world attaches taste and smell to specific places and conditions, while what Spackman calls the ‘industrial terroir’ of modernised water, like the homogenised tastes of modern fast food, flattens and delocalises. The water authorities hope to bring about a state of affairs in which people don’t notice their water’s characteristics and, what’s more, that they don’t even notice they aren’t noticing. There’s an intimation of conspiracy in this account of industrial terroir. The authorities are supplying us with a water of forgetfulness: ‘The work of erasing tastes and smells … has altered awareness of the ways that the environment has been polluted,’ so diluting environmentalist opposition. There are, however, less malign interpretations. The people in charge of our water want to reduce complaints, to satisfy the majority, to save people from the bother and expense of turning to commercial alternatives. Neutral water is a democratic beverage: if it doesn’t delight the many, at least it offends only a few. After all, one version of what might be meant by an industrial terroir would be a phenolic, musty, sulphurous swill. You wouldn’t want that.

The story of eau bears two tellings. The first story is historical, leading from Adam’s Ale to the domestic deliverances of Thames Water, from purity to industrial neutrality, from sensory attentiveness to engineered not-noticing. The second story is the opposite: it’s about exquisite attention to taste, smell and provenance, about public attitudes to drinking water that power a global bottled water industry with current sales of more than $300 billion a year and a revenue forecast of $600 billion by 2032. It’s an industry heavily populated by huge corporations: Nestlé, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Danone, and (in China) Tingyi/Master Kong.

Why pay for something you can have for nothing? There might be health concerns. If you are worried about residual contaminants escaping the controls of municipal authorities, you can buy home filtration systems – itself a global market worth billions. Branded bottled water offers further assurance. Some of the leading brands contain water taken from the same sources as tap; some are just tap water subject to further treatment – filtered, pH and mineral content adjusted, even flavoured if you like. Labels on bottled waters drawn from springs and aquifers tell stories about pristine purity, freedom from the nastiness of the industrial age. Fiji Natural Artesian Water comes from springs in the island’s ‘rainforest, 1600 miles from the nearest continent’, where ‘rain slowly filters through ancient volcanic rock.’ In Maine, Poland Spring offers ‘a prehistoric history lesson … Cold spring water flows from glacial deposits formed during the Ice Age(!)’. You can buy Inland Ice water from Greenland, made from ice which ‘has been encapsulated for more than 100,000 years – completely isolated from any contact with layers of soil, and was formed long before the first human being set foot within the Arctic Circle. This process of preservation is what has kept this product of nature in a uniquely pristine state – free of any pollutants or contamination … the purest unprocessed drinking water on earth.’ Tŷ Nant is ‘a completely natural product’, drawn from ‘a deeply buried aquifer … underneath the unspoilt countryside of West Wales’. San Martino bubbles up from an underground volcano in Sardinia, used in the ‘water cult’ of the most ancient human populations. You might buy these bottles because you don’t like the modern world or because you don’t trust the modern institutions that deliver free water. You might choose bottled water because you think tap is bad for your health. These are all possible reasons there was such upset when it was revealed recently that some French ‘natural’ mineral waters were subject to legally prohibited UV treatment and activated carbon filtration.

In the EU – though not in other countries – the labels on bottles of natural mineral water are legally required to specify their inorganic mineral composition: so much calcium, magnesium, bicarbonates and so on. In France, more than in Anglophone cultures, these things have enduring medical significance, a survival of the great past ages of ‘taking the waters’ – internally as well as externally. Fonte Essenziale from Italy, for instance, ‘naturally supports your liver and stimulates bowel movement’; other mineral waters deliver sodium bicarbonate (good for digestion), magnesium (for the muscles and nervous system), silicon (to reduce inflammation), etc. Here too there has been some bad news for bottled-water buyers: there are microplastics in bottled as well as tap water; there are worries about phthalates leaching from the bottle; some bottled waters have tested positive for PFAS; and, if planetary health is an issue for you, there is the massive problem of plastic water bottles overflowing landfills and floating in great ocean rafts, ultimately breaking down into the microplastic particles that then infiltrate ‘pure’ water sources.

When​ it comes to taste, there are any number of studies – most not very rigorous – showing that, in blind tastings, people can’t tell the difference between tap water and expensive bottled spring water, and some studies find that consumers prefer the municipal supply. Water is just water, it’s said, and provided it doesn’t contain microbes or toxins (or excessive chlorine), it will do. But fine-tuned taste preferences have much to do with the burgeoning bottled-water industry. Taste differences between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ water have been recognised since antiquity. Lots of people can now talk of sensory differences between waters high and low in mineral content, supported by evidence of tea that won’t brew properly, scale in the kettle, or non-lathering soap. Bottled mineral water trades on such perceptions, lecturing consumers about calcium and magnesium content, and about ‘Total Dissolved Solids’. But the scope of taste-talk goes beyond that. Sceptics about wine connoisseurship will have further occasion for amused annoyance. There are now certified ‘water sommeliers’ and, since 2008, there’s been a Fine Water Society: ‘Water is not just water but a natural unprocessed product, with terroir and unique characteristics’; ‘a wide variety of taste sensations can be matched with food.’ You want glacial meltwater with your oysters; Vichy Catalan or Pedras is good with a perfectly grilled ribeye steak; spring lamb is nicely complemented by an alkaline water like Vellamo from Finland; asparagus with an egg sauce shines when paired with a still Beloka from the Snowy Mountains in Australia. Several months ago, a start-up company recently shipped twenty tonnes of ancient Greenlandic glacial ice to the United Arab Emirates, where it is much appreciated for its purity, not changing ‘the taste of drinks when it melts’.

The world is running low on potable water: climate change, population growth, massively leaking Victorian pipes, profligate water use in factory farming, and coolant for the vast computer farms that bring us the blessings of bitcoin and artificial intelligence. Reservoirs are low; aquifers depleted; surface waters too contaminated to use. But there is hope, and anyone wanting a glimpse of a brighter and wetter future should visit Big Spring, Texas. The eponymous spring ran dry long ago, and the 27,000 citizens of this dusty oil-country town began worrying about supplies. The solution was Direct Potable Reuse (DPR) – colloquially known as ‘toilet to tap’. Indirect potable reuse is already with us: treatment plants purify waste-water and then send it to an ‘environmental buffer’ – an aquifer, a lake – where it mixes with untreated sources and eventually goes through normal purification. In fact, under some description, we get almost all our drinking water from some such blend. There’s an old joke that London tap water has been through seven kidneys before it reaches your lips – but the real number of historical kidneys is probably orders of magnitude larger. We’re all connected by the air we breathe and the water we drink. In the grand scheme of things, and over many years, the water supply links everybody’s kidneys to everybody’s lips.

DPR cuts out the environmental buffer, feeding purified waste-water directly back into the municipal supply – and Big Spring is the first town in the US whose drinking water is solely ‘toilet to tap’. (There are systems in Singapore, South Africa and Namibia, and many others are planned throughout the world.) The technological problems of directly reusing waste-water aren’t massive: effluent just goes through bumped-up versions of the usual treatment regimes. First ‘all the big chunky stuff’ is removed from the waste-water, then it undergoes micro-filtration, reverse osmosis, UV-oxidation and the addition of a small stream of hydrogen peroxide, after which the water tests as pure as ‘normal’. Politically, DPR requires permissive guidelines or legislation, and many governments around the world and in American states have already put these in place. A big remaining problem is cultural and aesthetic – the so-called ‘yuck factor’ involved in knowing where your drinking water has most recently been. Authorities bring in social scientists, who note that the ‘environmental buffers’ of indirect reuse have a psychological role and discover that citizens show a pronounced linguistic preference for hearing that their water has been ‘purified’ as opposed to ‘treated’. And do not encourage people to say ‘toilet to tap’: if you need to be colloquial, ‘showers to flowers’ is nicer.

Finally, once more, there’s taste. Blind tests are run, in which it is sometimes found that people prefer DPR water to either ‘normal’ tap or bottled. (DPR water is so pure after it’s gone through treatment that the authorities add minerals to correct the ‘flatness’ familiar from the taste of distilled water.) But, in democratic and market societies, the proof is in the drinking. Many of the good people of Big Spring remain mistrustful of DPR safety and taste, instead buying bottled water or installing reverse osmosis systems in their homes and restaurants for additional peace of mind. Several are convinced that the reused stuff ‘tastes really awful ’cause it already smells bad’. One of the local wags allows that it’s OK because now ‘he’d be able to drink his beer twice.’ But the dominant opinion is elicited by the operations manager of the Big Spring treatment plant. He offers a glass of DPR water to a local: ‘You wanna taste some?’ he asks. The citizen accepts and takes a drink: ‘It tastes,’ he says, ‘like nothing.’

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