Must be something in the water

Drought: The tapping of the Susquehanna water has some cutting back on consumption because they can't stand the taste.

August 30, 1999|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's sweet water has long been a source of municipal pride, but since the city started tapping the Susquehanna River, some consumers have been gagging.

"My water tastes like the earth smells when it rains," says Helen Kaltenborn, a retired Towson University librarian.

"I was drinking out of the drinking fountain and it tasted like the bottom of the Susquehanna River," says Anne Draddy, a Govans resident. "And when I draw my kid's bath, it's yellow. It has a putrid color to it."

John Shields, gourmet chef and owner of Gertrude's restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art, sipped a glass not long ago and grimaced. "I said, `What is wrong with this water?' " he recalls. His staff told him the city had just started importing water. "If I were asked in a word what that subtle taste was that I'm picking up, I'd say it's algae," he says.

Experts say Baltimore's water, which flows to 1.8 million customers in the city and three suburban counties, is still safe, if no longer tantalizing. The trouble is, city officials say, the Susquehanna's iron levels are almost double that of the Loch Raven Reservoir, and its sulfur levels four times higher. Because of this, some once-loyal consumers now loathe the stuff they use to fill teapots and tumblers, bathtubs and coffee makers.

Shields calls himself a "water fanatic," and would normally rate Baltimore's among the best in the country. The water here is considered sweet -- neither salty nor sour. The city placed third in the annual Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting competition in 1991. Giant Food Inc. bottles Baltimore water, then sells it in stores from New Jersey to Northern Virginia. Just a few months ago, City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III urged the city to tap a growing market and peddle its water under its own brand name.

Then came the drought. Gov. Parris N. Glendening ordered the city to conserve the water in its reservoirs by tapping the Susquehanna, something it has done only nine times in its history. On Aug. 8, Baltimore officials turned on the pumps at the Susquehanna's Conowingo Dam. Now, the river supplies more than a third of the water consumed daily by customers of the metropolitan system.

Perhaps as a result, bottled water sales are rising at area supermarkets. Bob Goldsmith, manager of the Schumacher & Seiler plumbing supply shop in Timonium, says sales of water filtration systems have recently doubled.

And about 170 people have called the city to denounce the taste of the water, says George G. Balog, Baltimore's public works director and head of the water system. Some residents of northern Anne Arundel County, who drink Baltimore water, have complained of a "musty" flavor, a county spokesman said.

"When we do use the Susquehanna, with its high mineral content, there's a little bit of odor to it. There's a taste," Balog says. "It's not harmful, but it doesn't taste as good."

John J. Boland, professor of environmental engineering at the Johns Hopkins University, says the flavor of city water has "definitely deteriorated," and its color has changed from a faint blue to a pale yellow.

"It's not surprising that the Susquehanna system is worse" than Baltimore's, says Boland, who has started using a water filter in his home. "Most water supplies are worse. This is why the city is reluctant to use it."

Not everyone tastes the difference.

"I have had other people comment that they have noticed it, but personally I haven't," says Hugh Sisson, partner in a city brewery and co-host of a wine connoisseur's show on WJHU-FM. Sisson trusts his highly trained palate. He suspects that the power of suggestion, rather than the Susquehanna, is the source of some dissatisfaction. "If you tell people there's a change in something, they will sense it," he says.

Balog points out that his office has received 19 complaints from people in areas that don't get any water from the Susquehanna. "Some of it's legitimate, and some of it's psychological," he says.

A pipeline connects the river with the Montebello filtration plant, which usually draws its water from Loch Raven Reservoir. Montebello serves eastern neighborhoods in Baltimore city and county, as well as northern Anne Arundel. Residents of western Baltimore city and county, as well as parts of Howard County, get their water from the Ashburton filtration plant, which draws water from Liberty Reservoir.

Central Baltimore and Baltimore County, city officials said, are served by both the Montebello and Ashburton plants.

Giant Foods continues to tap the Baltimore water system, says Walter Auman, the company's director of manufacturing. But he says that the water comes from the Ashburton plant and that the supermarket chain filters the water at least twice before shipping.

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