Writers on the Range 

Water’s acid test: The trippy secret behind L.A.’s great tasting aqua

Los Angeles has done it again—topping the list for the world’s tastiest tap water.

“Good water rises to the top,” said producer Jill Klein Rone of the 18th annual “academy awards” of water held in Berkeley Springs, W. Va. “Our tasting process is vindicated when the same waters are rated by a completely different panel of judges each year and still win.”

Famous foodie judges spent two days savoring 120 waters from 19 states and nine foreign countries. Under blind taste-test guidelines like those used for wine, judges rated water for appearance—it should be clear or slightly opaque for glacial waters; aroma—none; taste—clean; and mouth feel—light, leaving you thirsty for more. Though almost all of its water comes from thousands of miles away, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California that serves Los Angeles shared a gold medal with close-to-the-source Clearbrook, in British Columbia.

This is quite a feat, so how does Los Angeles do it? I have an explanation that goes back decades. Since its completion in 1941, the 242-mile Colorado River Aqueduct has linked sparking blue Lake Havasu in Arizona to Southern California. Serving 16 million people, it delivers more than a billion gallons of water a day. The aqueduct crosses five mountain ranges, passing through 100 miles of 16-foot diameter tunnel, 80 miles of buried pipeline, and 62 miles of open canal.

Back in the 1960s, it was those miles of open canal that caught our attention. It was then that Los Angeles announced plans to supplement its Colorado River supplies by importing waters from northern California. And so we, the patriotic citizens of the Republic of Berkeley, whipped up what we called “Project Go With the Flow.” On the eve of the 1968 presidential election, our idea was to change the hearts and minds of the people of Los Angeles with a massive dose of LSD, the psychedelic drug that put the “electric” into the acid tests made famous by writer Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. My Berkeley roommate had grown up with Kesey in La Junta, Colo., and getting enough LSD—then legal—was no problem. A friend serving in the Army Reserves got us an army-issue 55-gallon drum stamped “Drinking Water.” It had a screw-on top, so we just kept adding LSD until taste tests by our panel of experts told us the mix seemed just about right.

I had a 1960 blue and white Ford station wagon, named the Narwhale, on loan from a friend serving in Vietnam. It ran great, except for a bum water pump, which meant you had to refill the radiator periodically to avoid overheating. Thanks to our brew in its belly, the Narwhale sped south from Berkeley toward our target, one poorly patrolled spot on the open canals of the Colorado River Aqueduct.

We left at dusk to take advantage of cool temperatures. The plan was to drive all night, snip a little barbed wire, and decant the drum at dawn. Did we succeed? Water connoisseurs today, you be the judge.

This memory slammed me recently as I paddled a kayak downstream on Lake Havasu, drawn by the pull of the colossal pumps that labor at the intakes of the Colorado River Aqueduct. There, the river flows uphill through pipes that gleam silver under the desert sun. The air snaps and crackles with electric power delivered to the pumps from nearby Parker Dam, via 230 kilovolt power lines. In these days of Homeland Security (thank goodness!) you can no longer approach municipal water supplies. I found this out when a speedboat roared out to intercept me.

Why was I staring at the pumping plant? “Well,” I told the security guards, “My father was an engineer who worked on this project back in the 1930s.”

To which a guard replied, “We get nervous when people linger longer than they need to.”

But why trust me and this cockamamie story? Now there is a way to conduct community-wide drug tests. By analyzing trace elements in sewage, biologists can run accurate tests on an entire population without ever asking anyone to fill a cup. Did we succeed in bringing mass enlightenment to the people of Los Angeles? Did we improve the drinking water forever? The Narwhale certainly ran better when we filled her radiator from that olive-drab drum.

So, when you read about Los Angeles as the consistent winner of the Academy Awards (of Water), you can say, “I know…the rest of the story.”

Tom Wolf is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He wintered this year at Lake Havasu, Ariz., where he completed his latest book, Arthur Carhart: Wilderness Prophet.
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