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Which Source of Drinking Water is Most Likely to Be Safe to Drink?

February 15, 2021

Which Source of Drinking Water is Most Likely to Be Safe to Drink?

Roughly 71% of the world is covered in water. Unfortunately, most of it is saltwater, which means we can’t drink it outright. That said, there are numerous freshwater resources to consider—lakes, rivers, ponds, streams and even precipitation, to name a few. But just because we can drink from these freshwater sources doesn’t always mean we should—at least, not without filtering it first. 

If you’re in a situation where you don’t have access to purified drinking water, you might be wondering if a nearby freshwater source is safe to drink. While it’s difficult to know without a quality test, there are ways to tell if it is safe to drink in an emergency. 

What are the Available Water Sources?

To get an idea of how safe a certain water source is to drink, it’s best to understand exactly what types of available sources there are. We’ll focus on freshwater and brackish sources, since saltwater isn’t a viable drinking option. 

Municipal water

If your home’s supply comes from the city, it’s part of a municipal water supply. Whether it comes out of your kitchen tap or outdoor spigot, any supplied to your home is treated at a municipal treatment plant. That generally means it’s safe to drink… but doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy. 

Municipal water varies in quality depending on the place. There are extreme outliers like the contamination in Flint, MI or the lead-heavy water in Washington D.C. There are also areas with exceptional municipal quality, like Hamilton, OH or Desert Springs, CA—which have both won the title of “world’s best tasting water” from Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting.



Water Table


Surface water

Surface-water is any water that’s free-flowing on the surface of the earth. Think lakes, rivers, streams, ponds, waterfalls, etc. While surface-water has a higher chance of being contaminated than other sources due to exposure, it’s nonetheless an accessible source of hydration in a pinch. 

The quality of surface-water varies greatly depending on location. Climb into the mountains and you can drink from a crystal-clear glacial stream with few worries. Hike a few miles out of town to a river near a factory and you’re likely to find contaminated surface fluid that needs heavy filtering before it’s safe to drink. 

Ground water

Groundwater is a prevalent source of potable water, but it’s often “out of sight, out of mind” for most people. It’s because groundwater is contained in aquifers, springs and hyporheic zones that require wells or digging to tap into them. For example, if you live in Southern Idaho, there’s a good chance your home’s well draws from the Snake River Aquifer, which is recharged every year by melting snow and runoff from large area streams and rivers.  

Groundwater is cleaner the further you go from agricultural areas. Unfortunately, pesticides and soil nitrate injections are some of the biggest contaminators of these sources, so your best bet is to draw from aquifers and other sources far away from agricultural runoff zones. 


The water that falls from the sky—whether in the form of rain, snow, hail, etc.—is about as clean as you could ask for in naturally occurring, non-filtered. It’s why many homesteaders and environmentalists construct rain capture systems to collect and contain rainwater. 

While rainwater and other precipitation are subject to the effects of pollution, you can generally drink rainwater without many side effects—unless, of course, you live in an area with heavy pollution and acid rain. If you’re ever in a situation without access to clean drinking water and no way to filter freshwater, a rain capture system is the next best thing. 

Which is Most Likely to be Safe to Drink From?

Of the above sources, water is most likely to be safe to drink from a municipal system or a rainwater capture system. Again, there are caveats based on location. Given the choice between municipal in Flint, MI and rainwater, the choice is obvious!

This isn’t to say that surface-water and groundwater are unsafe! It really depends on where you are and what possible contamination factors exist. For example, you might not be able to see microscopic parasites living in surface-water, just like you can’t see, taste or smell pesticides in groundwater contamination. 

What Can You do to Safely Drink From These Sources?

With so much uncertainty looming around different drinking sources, the best thing you can do is make filtration a priority at all times. 

At home, countertop filtration systems and under-sink filtration systems will both address the suspect quality of municipal supplies. Out in the wild, the best thing you can carry is a filtered water bottle, like the Aquaspace® Survivor™ filtered water bottle. Even filtering collected rainwater through an Aquaspace® Carafe® Pitcher can give you peace of mind that nothing unknown or dangerous is lurking. 

The world may be covered in water, but that doesn’t mean it’s always safe to drink. Thankfully, filtration goes a long way in turning suspect freshwater into safe, clean, healthy potable water.

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