Edible Geography: Wellington Water Tasting

Wellington is blessed with relatively abundant water, and therefore most people take it for granted and spare it little thought. I just returned from the Sonoran Desert, where it is always top of mind that water equals life, and started to wonder about the water sources in my new home. Where does it come from? How does it get to us? What happens in between? I was excited to discover a municipal water tasting as part of the Wellington on a Plate Festival, and that it was moderated by Simon Woolley, whose Antipodes Water was a happy discovery on a reconnaissance trip through New Zealand to decide whether I’d want to live here. Abundantly wonderful water was one of the reasons I did.

Where does it come from?

Wellington draws water from different sources for delivery throughout the region, using waters from the Tararuas and also the Pakuratahi Forest catchment in the Rimutakas via a tunnel through Wainuiomata. The Kapiti Coast is supplied from bores and rivers.

Petone’s untreated artesian water is a source of pride for its residents, and Te Puna Wai Ora (Spring of Life), the Petone municipal public bore, is used night and day by people who lug 20 litre containers to fill for domestic use.

Spring water bore at Moore Wilson on Tory St

Sculpture fountain over spring water bore at Moore Wilson store on Tory Street, Wellington, New Zealand

Tory Street in central Wellington features a 470 feet bore that was once used as the basis for a soft drink factory. A magnificent bronze fish and tree sculpture marks the spot where the bore has been reopened for public use at Moore Wilson’s. (Water carrying vessels may be found upstairs for purchase in the variety store.)

How does it get here?

The Greater Wellington Regional Council collects and treats drinking water and sells it to the city councils that supply water to homes and businesses in each city. Water, wastewater and stormwater services are actively managed by Capacity Infrastructure Services Ltd, a CCTO (Council Controlled Trading Organization) jointly owned by Wellington City Council and Hutt City Council. Homeowners pay a targeted rate annually for water based on property capital value but can choose to install a water meter and pay for actual usage.

How does it taste?

I had heard that Wellington has the best tap water in New Zealand, Petone has the best tap water in Wellington and the Buick St fountain has the best artesian water in Petone. Is all our regional water the same? We blind-tasted 12 waters at room temperature, all gathered within a day in glass tester bottles and served in wine glasses at the lovely Osteria del Toro. We were provided with helpful tasting notes on what to look for:

  1. Clarity. Is it bright and sparkling? Are there any particulates in suspension? When swirled does the clarity change?
  2. Aroma. Are there any obvious chemical odours? Some can be introduced for purification process. Some are innate such as hydrogen Sulphide – which can indicate volcanic activity.
  3. Taste – Mouth feel. Does it coat the mouth evenly or are there sharp notes in the water?
  4. Flavour. We taste sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami. What flavours can you taste? Are there flavours of chemicals or is there a metallic taste?
  5. Natural flavour. Is there any indication of the presence of these flavours – such as what you experience when you drink from a stream in the bush?
  6. Length of the flavour. Can we taste the flavour long after we have swallowed? Does it linger or does it disappear immediately?

Wellington Water Tasting

Though I had hoped to suss out subtle differences in terroir, feeling the variations in pH and mineral components, my palate’s vocabulary consisted mostly of lovely, nasty, burning, soft, heavy, salty and furry. Our wonderful host Simon found a leathery note with many of them, but I didn’t get that either. The unanimous winner was a selection from the untreated private bore at Ruth Pretty‘s home property in Te Horo, Waikanae. This may be the secret to her successful catering and food business — it definitely makes me want to attend one of the Wellington on a Plate events or cooking school at her place.

Nice (the top 3 are the picks from the whole group tasting… My personal order was 1,3,5,4,2):
1. Spring at Ruth Pretty’s home in Te Horo, Waikanae untreated. Notes: mild, alkaline, soft
2. Lower Hutt tap – aquifer, ph adjusted slightly with lime, unfiltered. Notes: heavier water, sweet aftertaste
3. Tory St bore at Moore Wilson’s. Notes: soft, lovely
4. Petone Buick St bore. Notes: no nose, lab-like, distilled water
5. Brooklyn Spring, untreated private spring. Notes: nice, syrupy

Neutral:
6. Pump bottled water, a wild card selection Coca-cola from Blue Springs in Putaruru Notes: not clean, unpleasing
7. Upper Hutt – collected surface water, treated. Notes: crisp chlorine nose, gentle taste, something not so nice at the the end note.

Nasty:
8. Karori, Wellington treated tap water. Notes: salty, heavily treated
9. Otaki, Kapiti Coast treated tap water. Notes: chlorine nose, burns my nose, unanimously disliked
10. Waikanae, Kapiti Coast – highly treated tap water. Notes: chemical sweetness, universally disliked
11. Whakatane – Braemar Springs – another wild card selection of treated tap water from up North. Notes: furry on the palate, chlorine nose
12. Carterton, Wairarapa – treated tap water. Notes: Janola nose but mild on the palate

Why so nasty?

The chemical smell and taste of the treated tap water comes from chlorine, which the Greater Wellington Council typically adds at 0.6 to 0.8 mg/L, acknowledging the aesthetic guideline value for adversely affecting the taste and odour is 0.6 mg/L. Lucky Lower Hutt has chosen to opt out of treatment as the water comes from a secure underground aquifer. While chlorine’s effectiveness in killing bacteria that cause water-borne diseases like typhoid and cholera has saved lives, chlorine also attacks our beneficial internal bacteria, disrupting our digestive and immune systems. When chlorine interacts with organic matter, it creates disinfection byproducts which are associated with bladder and colorectal cancer (the most frequently diagnosed and second most common cause of cancer death in NZ) and linked to artherosclerosis.

Another troubling component that you can’t smell or taste is fluoride, which gets added at the GWRC water treatment facilities Te Marua, Wainuiomata and Waterloo treatment plants. Only Petone and Korokoro, supplied from Hutt City Council’s Rahui reservoir receive unfluoridated water. New Zealand was the second country to begin fluoridating their water to improve dental health, but scientific evidence now points to swallowed fluoride causing harm and providing no benefits. (A rational compliation of research is available at Second Look.) Many dentists who once advocated for fluoridation now oppose it.

Wellington’s mayoral election is coming up in October, 2010, and I have read each candidate’s reassuring positions against water privatization. The folks from Capacity I talked with at the event said privatization of water here was simply a non-starter, there was no mandate for it. I’d love to know if any support ending spending taxpayer money on mass medication with fluoride and exploring healthier alternatives to chlorine treatment (such as ozone or UV).

Until that happens, the best options for health and taste are to collect your water from a private or public bore, live in Petone or Korokoro to receive untreated water, or install a reverse osmosis or distillation system to the water coming into your home. I was surprised to see Kapiti voted to continue fluoridating water in June, and that it’s become such an emotive issue rather than one based on scientific evidence. I’d love to read your comments on Wellington water quality and policies.

    Other interesting droplets from discussion with Simon and the table while tasting:

  • With sparkling water, the amount of bubbles are usually more an indication of how clean the glass is rather than how much carbonation the water has. If the glass is truly clean, you won’t see many bubbles at all.
  • Even more than the total amount of dissolved solids, water flavor is affected by how much salt. Fiji and Evian have about the same amount of solids, but Evian tastes much saltier and heavier.
  • Old pipes and fittings can leach heavy metals into your water. Let it flow for about 60 seconds to flush them or at least enough to fill up a mug before using to drink or in food.
  • Heat is the major factor in delaminating plastic containers, therefore the concern of water bottles sitting in cars. Many pasteurized products are also heat treated in their plastic packaging – what are the effects? And will plastic water pipes turn out to be better or even more problematic than metal over time?
12 Responses to “Edible Geography: Wellington Water Tasting”