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Why Copenhagen Has Almost Perfect Water (citylab.com)
129 points by xenophon on Dec 25, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 79 comments

> Danes pay the highest water rates in Europe, at 6.33 Euros per 1,000 liters or 264 gallons (compare France at 3.35 Euros and Sweden at 2.73).

According to SFPUC[1] & WolframAlpha[2], the rate in a San Francisco multi-family is around €1.80/kL for the first ~8.5kL/month. This is exclusive of the meter flat rate and any other taxes and fees. Charging 3.5x as much for water makes a lot of things possible.

1: http://www.sfwater.org/index.aspx?page=169

2: http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=5.58%24%2F748+gal+to+eu...

Water around Boston (in the MWRA) is expensive: the sewer bill is included and is paying for the Boston Harbor cleanup / Deer Island treatment plant: 7.58 Euros per 1000 liters.

This is converted from $513.54 for 2629 CU. FT. from my last quarterly bill. Basically one year of water+sewer in a two-family house with all water saving features is higher than the monthly rental rate for a two-bedroom apartment.

One more factoid: the pH of the water is 9.3: http://www.belmont-ma.gov/dpw-water-division/faq/what-is-the... I'm sure this is to protect us from lead, but it makes the water gross.

That's a good point - I also completely excluded sewer prices, which are actually considerably higher than water prices.

Warning: no data, just intuition, in the rest of this comment.

I'm a bit confused by that, actually, since California is in a significant drought and there is a lot of pressure to get people to cut back on washing their cars and watering their lawns. I would imagine that, in a residential setting, roughly 100% of water consumed for purposes besides the external use that we're trying to reduce then goes into the sewer.

So why don't we just increase water prices and cut sewer prices equivalently? You'd expect the average consumer's bill to go up only in proportion with the amount of externally used water that they "waste". One potential complication might be for houses with septic tanks, but those are probably fairly uncommon in the area served by SFPUC. Perhaps, as a utility, they're constrained to charge relative to their actual cost in those areas.

Edit: retric - thanks, that makes sense. I'm a renter here, so I don't pay a water bill (except indirectly via rent).

Sewer is not tracked separately in most (all?) areas. It's just based off of water used.

Seattle tries to estimate sewer use by billing it based on extrapolation from winter water use (when lawn watering isn't happening)

I've seen large homes in Texas that have two separate water hookups, each with their own meter. One goes to the indoor faucets and pays water+sewer, and one goes only to the outdoor faucets and pays only water.

Lynn has its own water supply, and they switched us over to MWRA for a couple months during some maintenance work. The MWRA water has a funky taste, not a fan. http://www.lynnwatersewer.org/Images/LWSC-MWRA%20General%20N...

Huh, where do you live? I think Boston water is the best tasting water I've ever had. I'm in the South End.

Belmont: I think the MWRA water itself is OK, but then the local towns modify it. I remember Brookline water was even worse tasting somehow.

Sweden has decent water even at the lower rates. For example, Salmon fishing is still popular in central Stockholm (salmon is really picky about water quality), and swimming is definitely possible in the central city there too.

What the water costs only limits the water use, it doesn't change how much can be spent on water treatment and other projects, there is also tax money.

Sweden and Denmark have very high taxes, it helps.

As with so many other things, Swedes seem to be happy to persist the myth of superior drinking and bathing water which actually doesn't match the facts, at all. The water in central Stockholm is a slimy cocktail of raw sewage, localized heavy metals from old industries, algae and pesticides.

These articles are unfortunately all in Swedish - swedes prefer to keep their bad news local:

Raw sewage from new apartment buildings connected directly to one of the most popular bathing places in central Stockholm that ran out freely for at least three years: http://www.aftonbladet.se/nyheter/article12848092.ab

Farm organizations warning about swimming in Stockholm's water after rainfall: http://www.lantbruk.com/debatt/varfor-ska-jordbruket-sta-vid...

Raw sewage that has run directly out into bathing water in central Stockholm from an apartment house for the past 85 years: http://www.dn.se/sthlm/sa-mycket-bajsvatten-rinner-ut-i-stoc...

An article stating that the equivalent of 354 Olympic-sized swimming pools of raw sewage and polluted water gushes straight out into the middle of Stockholm's water every year: http://gamla.mitti.se/bajsvattnet-rinner-ratt-ut/

An article about the large scale of health problems following outbreaks of serious bacterial infections from tap water infected by raw sewage systematically entering drinking water without ultraviolet cleaning: http://www.dn.se/nyheter/sverige/manga-annu-sjuka-efter-para...

Heavy metals and other poisons in Stockholm's water: http://www.aftonbladet.se/nyheter/article10358091.ab

Large parts of Stockholm is (as many major cities are) old industrial land. The heavy metals and poisons eill unfortunately keep polluting for s long time still. Worse, the heavy metals don't count in most "water quality" measures, such as when grading water for swimming.

Still, the water in central Stockholm is much better than in many comparable cities. That doesn't mean it isn't bad compared to a non-major-city body of water, but it's very good by those standards. The standard "very good" here means fish and other wildlife is doing alright, and swimming is ok.

I think Swedish drinking water is usually excellent, although it's a lot worse in the major cities (where most people live).

Stockholm is also dumping a large amount of contaminated snow in the water every winter.


That is a huge problem, and it doesn't have any nice solutions. Dumping it in a lake should be banned of course, but keeping it in gigantic on-ground piles of dirty snow is only slightly better as it will quickly ruin a huge part of parkland somewhere in the central city (can't drive it very far). Making a few large dumping grounds with groundwater protection would be great, but nimby+cost likely makes it difficult.

judging by this years' winter weather, global warming might solve this.

It is an El Nino year if I'm not mistaken, so the unusually warm Winter is expected in many areas.

Not to say I think climate change isn't a problem, but I don't think it's responsible for the current weather to the degree others seem to think. Although it would be nice to point to the current weather and say "living proof!", I think it's probably not correct.

On the peninsula (Purissima Hills Water District) we pay about €1.49/kL for the same Hetch Hetchy water. The quality of San Francisco's water is pretty amazing. At home I measure a total dissolved solids of <35 ppm. Compare to San Jose municipal water with a TDS usually above 400 ppm (the value does jump around a lot depending on where SJ is getting its water from).

Not to say your analysis is flawed, but SFPUC rounds everyone's water usage to the nearest 'unit' (748 gallons) meaning that anyone who uses less than 748 gallons/month is paying at least €8.05/kiloliter (based on my consistent $25/one-unit bill.)

As a single guy, I consume nowhere near my allocated 748 gallons/month, meaning my effective rate is even higher.

You don't use 25gal/day to shower and wash and toilet? Shower is 2gal/minute and toilet is 1gal/flush, or more.

You can take showers and use the toilet and spend less than that.

My family's consumption is 105 litres (28 gallons) per person per day. And we don't really think about the water consumption but I think we use it abundantly; we do sports and naturally take daily showers, have sometimes guests who also use toilet, etc.

How do businesses deal with water usage in their premises? (Gyms, offices, etc with showers, etc). Is this something to consider whilst factoring in expenses?

Each facility of course has their own water contract, right? What we were talking about is the domestic use.

I cycle to work, and it means that I take a shower in the morning at the office building, and another one in the evening back home. So one shower per day is included in the domestic consumption (for me, and for others who don't cycle but also take a daily shower at home).

I don't think that's so different between U.S., Copenhagen or my place (Finland). It might be different in less modernist cultures where people don't have bathrooms of their own but go to communal baths -- for example, communities in East Karelia/Russia; there many people just bath twice a week in a public баня and that would surely show up in water consumption per person when measured per apartment. On the other hand, there you probably will see that water is not priced at cost and many many taps will leak a lot...

In most parts of Vancouver, water is still free. We just installed water metres in some parts of the city a few years ago. We're incredibly fortunate to have a massive mountain range and water shed immediately north of the city that provides us with some of the best water I've ever drank.

That just means it is paid for from general property taxes, not that it is free. In other words it is a subsidy from apartment dwellers with no grass to single family home owners.

I'd rather have drinkable water than cheap water and having to buy plastic bottles for significantly higher expense.

Note in particular that you can desalinate water forever at 1.5 euros per kiloliter.

I doubt that a desalination plant can run on plastic currency, or that such plastic could run a plant 'forever'.

I assure you, if you keep throwing in coins in proportion to the water you take, the well will never run dry (modulo some scaling delays).

Am I missing a joke?

Nah, I must have missed yours.

Copenhagen tap water is chalky - your glasses get cloudy when washed with it.

It's also not very good tasting to a lot of people including me.

To me, there is great water throughout scandinavia with the exception of denmark because of the chalky soil.

It's an acquired taste. I grew up in an area with very hard water. Whenever I drink tapwater that isn't hard as rocks, I get disappointed. It's just so...bland.

I would probably consider that water bad. Because in the water in Chicago, New York and Washington is Ok. But in Miami it was just wasn't that great anymore. Having chalk in the water is a sure way to run it's taste. Actually I'm quite curious how it's possible that Singapore had good water. From geography alone I would assume it's water would be bad.

Washington state, or Washington D.C.? Because D.C.'s water is actually so bad it can be dangerous.

You can't even believe the water quality reports because the Federal agencies distort them wildly. There was a massive scandal that resulted in both the CDC and EPA being caught falsifying evidence.

See the WASA lead contamination scandal from 2001-2010, in which the EPA falsely claimed that the water was safe, even as their treatment chemicals were dissolving lead in pipes and joints. The CDC was charged with determining the extent of the problem, and claimed that the high levels of lead were not a public health risk, a claim that later investigators from independent institutions stated were "scientifically indefensible."

Lead levels in the last decade were found to be as high as 83 times the acceptable standard for drinking water.

The water comes from the Potomac, is heavily treated with chloramine (which unlike chlorine dissolves lead), then runs through mains which were laid generally between the Civil War and WWI, and finally into old 5-6 story buildings (which due to height restrictions are often remodeled but seldom rebuilt), almost all of which have lead in the plumbing.

The water is so bad that even the heavily filtered water at my home has a terrible taste.

The government claims that the problem is "almost certainly resolved" after the addition of further treatment chemicals, not including the removal of chloramine, which frankly makes their claims implausible.

The Washington Post estimates that ~15,000 households in the city are still receiving extremely high dosages of lead.

Oh, and the Potomac is essentially sludge downstream from the city. The beautiful waterfront in Georgetown is actually the site of a CSO (Combined Sewer Overflow), so that every time it rains, the city's untreated sewage is dumped at the very location where the river is most used.

To be fair, the people wgo still have high lead in their water is because they have lead pipes on their property.

The lead is in the mains, and with most of the apartments in any decent neighborhood approaching 1 million for a two bedroom, it's not like you can purchase a building and replace the plumbing.

The problem is a government that injected a cheaper treatment chemical into the water supply that dissolves that lead, and then lies about it to the public.

Do you have a link with more details? I was under impression vulnerable lead mains were replaced

Dashing this off from the Christmas table, so as expected most immediate Google results are the government pages. Here's the replacement description. You'll notice that they're still actively replacing mains (at an extraordinarily slow rate, essentially whenever a line needs service.) If memory serves, the main line for half the city was laid during the Lincoln administration.

I believe the average annual replacement rate is around 1%.

Replacement information: https://www.dcwater.com/lead/scheduled_replacements.cfm

Just came back from Singapore. The water is nice indeed. Hasn't a chalky taste. I found the water in New York (Manhattan) too chalky as well.

This is the water purification setup near my home, Rotterdam, the Netherlands: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nbGw8FH3I58. I guess it's a setup like everywhere else. Of course the Dutch have a name in the water industry, so there might be more reason to do it right than in other countries.

Still, there are plenty of things to improve.

- The systems for sewerage and surface water / rain are not separated everywhere for example.

- The "Hoogheemraadschap" responsible for keeping surface water clean is the oldest political system in Holland. At first sight a nice idea, but do we really have to democratically elect these people? What about firefighters, police officers, army generals?

- A friend of mine organizes a yearly swimming event in the Maas (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meuse). It's still not as clean as it could be though. The industry, for example Sitech, dumps chemicals in the water and institutions like the one above don't fine fast and high enough.

If you're Dutch you can watch this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=99WW9ALModY

> Actually I'm quite curious how it's possible that Singapore had good water. From geography alone I would assume it's water would be bad.

It's an interesting subject to read about. Here are some links:

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_supply_and_sanitation_in...

* http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/environment/singapores...

* http://www.dw.com/en/singapores-toilet-to-tap-concept/a-1690...

In my experience, Amsterdam has the best tap water. I haven't found a mineral water that tastes that good.

I think it must be what one is used to. I am in Stockholm but visit Amsterdam often. I prefer Stockholm water.

I hate to spoil perfect record, but in 2011 there was E.coli alert in Copenhagen: http://phys.org/news/2011-08-copenhagen-ecoli.html

Also EU has relaxed limits for nitrates, to the point it could hurt infants and some aquarium fish. When some post-soviet countries were joining EU, our nitrate limits were considered too strict, and we had to lower them.

I know in post soviet countries, due to nitrates, there were few programmes to close traditional wells used in very small towns and drill deep wells instead.

Provably depends on the region but there's no water as good as water from traditional wells in rural areas here.

The warn the residents after a bird dies, while on the other side of the pond, we're dumping the entire 37 million gallons of their reservoir into the sewer after a boy pees in it.[1]

Why can't we have a sane government that acts with logic and science? You know like one that immediately closed factories that were linked to salmonella outbreaks. Instead of punting for TEN YEARS while thousands of Americans get sick.[2]

[1] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-27069611

[2] http://www.oregonlive.com/usda-salmonella/

Copenhagen's tap water is undrinkably foul. Perhaps it is safe to drink, but I still had to buy bottled water simply due to the taste, and I find the idea of praising the strong flavor baffling.

"Undrinkably foul" seems a bit melodramatic. It certainly has that distinctive minerally taste common to groundwater, which is quite noticeable to someone like me (and maybe you?) who lives in a city with chemically treated surface water. But in Europe using untreated or minimally treated groundwater seems to be a common approach and Copenhagen's was amongst the most neutral tasting to me. Iceland for example has much stronger tasting tap water.

This exactly. Just came back from Japan && New Zealand to Lithuania. I always thought we had great water, but now it tasted slightly foul (although very soft). I doubt that it gotten worse as we do a lot improve it.

Also, will never forget water in Switzerland (namely - Chur). Perfect, crisp, cold mountain water. Yumm. The worst water was in American Samoa, smelled like feces.

I don't think it has much to do with chemical treatment or not. A lot of U.S. cities also have hard water; that depends mostly on the source, with groundwater sources having more minerals than reservoir or lake sources. The main differences in U.S. treatment are that it fluoridates and chlorinates the water, it doesn't normally do demineralization. Also the fluoridation isn't even really a difference in this case: Copenhagen's water supply naturally has high levels of fluoride, similar to the levels that the U.S. adds.

But I agree Copenhagen's water is fine for drinking. I even like the taste. What it's a problem for is fixtures and appliances, which chalk up extremely fast, even compared to other areas I've lived with hard water. Showers, faucets, etc. all needs to be "de-kalked" at least every week, ideally every few days. Even simply leaving a glass of water out on the counter for one day will start to produce chalk lines that take effort to remove. Keeping an espresso machine operational is also a challenge, requiring pretty religious usage of the cleaning cycle with a de-chalking tablet.

Have you considered using bottled water with the optimum level of minerals for your espresso machine?

You kid, but it gets really frustrating when consumer goods die after two months because your tap water is pretty much liquid chalk. Pour a glass, leave it for an hour, there'll be a few mm of calcium carbonate precipitated out in the bottom of your glass. Can't use it for ice (just crumbles - too mineralised), coffee and tea end up with a skin, anything that quick-boils water, like an espresso machine, is destined for the trash heap.

I was being dead serious. A good espresso machine is a big investment and I think it's common for people to use bottled water in them when the local tap isn't ideal for taste or machine health.

I can imagine that kind of tap water being extremely frustrating. I've been very satisfied with the tap water everywhere I've lived, but it sounds like I'd be a bottled water guy in Copenhagen.

Optimal measures of bottled/mineral water for a coffee device? Is this reality that is worth getting out of bed for?

I would totally agree about the melodramatic. Try some water in parts of southern England. Would you like some water with your chlorine sir?

Yeah, the waters meant to be a lot harder down south. In the north west, you can taste the difference between filtered water and tap water but I happily drink tap water all day long.

Huh? I really can't taste the difference between tap and bottled.

I even think most of our bottled water here is tap water.

"Public drinking water is now so clean that it’s better than bottled water, says Mayor of Technical and Environmental Affairs Morten Kabell—and that’s without chlorine or other chemical processing (only aeration, pH adjustment, and filtration)."

How is pH adjustment not "chemical processing"?? How do they alkalinize water without adding alkaline electrolytes (Mg,K,Na, etc.) in chemical form?

Treatments based on filtering and evaporation aren't considered chemical processing.

You can play with the ph level of the water by simply filter or let it evaporate.

If you're used to bottled water, tap water is different in taste, of course.

But we don't drink bottled water in Scandinavia because our tap water is of great quality, unlike a lot of other places.

The tap water in Copenhagen varies a lot. Depending on the plant your hooked up too. It can be very chalky and it can be very smooth. Strangly enough this is not throughout the rest of the country. Copenhagen water is probably the worst compared to the rest of the country.

Jumping in the harbor is okay, but it's far from being as clear as going to the beach.

In the '80s and '90s, water in New York City was excellent. It wasn't even chlorinated! But then the city lost the fight against development in upstate watersheds :( So it goes.

new york tap is still amazing, compared to la

Much of the same could be written about Oslo. Just this summer the city opened up a pretty big man made beach/bath in the middle of the harbor: http://www.sorenga.no/beliggenhet/om-sorenga/sjobadet/

How they cleaned it up is actually pretty interesting. Obviously they stopped dumping waste in it in the first place. After that they placed a lot of ropes and concrete structures all over the ocean floor, to give starfish and other ocean creatures habitats. Those creatures did most of the cleaning, humans just facilitated it.

Here's an article in Norwegian about it: http://www.aftenposten.no/viten/Fjernet-kloakklukten-fra-Osl...

This link forces you to see an ad for 15 secs before revealing its content. Shouldn't such links be penalized?

No ad for me ;)

Being a Hong Konger, I'm quite surprised that people have to worry about water quality in Northern Europe.

I mean, Hong Kong is pretty much downstream from the Pearl River. That water runs through some of the most industrialized areas of China. And if you think I trust Chinese authorities for matters in environmental protection, you'd be dead wrong. Yet, Hong Kongers generally don't worry too much about the water quality around here. People eat the seafood caught around here without second thought. People even swim in the Victoria Harbour. In fact, we hold cross-harbour swim races in winter and nobody seems to get sick from the water.

All of this isn't to say that people are paranoid. I'm just surprised that this is an issue.

When I lived in Lyngby, the water was hard and poor for washing shirts. Hardly perfect.

This is not just true in Denmark; the Rhine used to be incredibly polluted back in the 1980s, but now it's pretty clean. The Amsterdam canals are a lot cleaner, though the inner city canals are not used for swimming, but I think that's more an issue of facilities and awareness than of water quality. But in the eastern harbor area, kids love to swim.

The increased water quality is one of the big successes of increased environmental awareness that environmental organizations fought for in the 1980s.

The Rhine does not flow through Denmark.

Absolutely true, but irrelevant. Or maybe relevant because it's my point.

Upon visiting 3 years ago, I think water quality is felt in the food too, which was awesome too, it made me over eat at breakfast and other meals, the air quality made me walk for hours, I walked into the palace's square then flew above it, it was incredible how friendly and nice it was. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PrRnTBsofMk

Rivers used to be considered a form of free garbage/pollution disposal.

Even in relatively modern cities like New York, the rivers are still fairly disgusting. I'd be quite surprised if existing environmental regulations are being enforced there now.

Are the underground aquifers in question renewable? Also, how is it that the aquifers don't require purification?

Sounds like a good system. Just wondering how long if it can last long term, and if other places can adopt it.

They are, but they aren't like canteens -- you can't just empty one indefinitely and refill it arbitrarily later.

Aquifers can collapse into voids that should have water, and being full of fresh water helps prevent intrusion by saltwater near the coasts (this is happening in the Central Coast even now), or by fracking waste in fracked areas.

Where I live (CH) they reinject water into the ground as they pump it, to preserve the aquifer levels.

iirc they have some kind of pressure monitoring.

The water there is already purified and clean (slowly went through rocks). It's actually super impressive to see the well, it is so clear that the water level is not visible, looks like it is totally empty.

More on California's collapsing aquifers:


probably because the aquifer is naturally filtered through rock and is not exposed to surface contaminants

Yes, the ground acts as the filter.

There's a similar setup in Zurich, ground water is directly drinkable (iirc they oxygenate it a bit for test), while the lake water goes through sand filters (it is generally drinkable, but much better to remove particles).

Something weird I learned while visiting is that they put extra chalk on purpose to prevent pipes from deteriorating in old buildings (they experimented with lower amounts and had some troubles with leakage).

Are Copenhagen cancer rates lower that other similar cities?

As a Californian who spent a few months there: It is cold as hell, and I don't have any clue why locals don't sense how cold the weather is.

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