LUTZ — Four people sat Friday morning in a shelter between the canoe launch and the bean bag toss at Lake Park.
They tried to ignore the smell of barbecue in the picnic area. Some cleansed their palates with saltine crackers.
With the earnestness of an NCAA selection committee charged with determining worthy participants for March Madness, these experts gathered for a different kind of selection — judging which tap water in the region is the best.
One by one, they sipped from plastic cups with numbers on them corresponding to the 19 entrants in this year's contest. The event drew representation from Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sumter counties.
After an hour of deliberation, there was a winner:
"A few samples just stood out in the tastelessness category," said Nick Makris, a water conservation analyst with the Southwest Florida Water Management District, who judged for his first time. "As in, they had no taste. Others had a little bit of chlorine residual. It was a little bit more fresh than others."
Paul Stanek, Dunedin's the assistant director of public works and utilities, said the lack of a chlorine taste stems from infrastructure improvements. The city recently replaced a lot of pipes and the water it pulls from its own 27-well system is pumped back to a reverse osmosis plant that has been operating since 1992.
"We don't have to overdose it," Stanek said of the requirement to infuse all public drinking water with chlorine. "We have a very steady chlorine residual distribution system."
The contest, put on by the American Water Works Association, gives winners the bragging rights — and trophies — of having the best tap water around.
Judges for the local contest came from the American Water Works Association, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the University of South Florida and Swiftmud. They judged the samples for color, smell and taste.
The defending local champion from last year was Hillsborough County's treatment plant at Lake Park, which serves the northwest portion of the county.
Dunedin, which also won in 2011, now goes on to compete statewide and, perhaps, nationally. Last year, the national winner was tap water from Oklahoma City, Okla.
Dwight D. Wilson, assistant director of St. Petersburg's water resources department, said the local competition couldn't come at a better time — on the heels of West Virginia's Elk River chemical spill that contaminated Charleston's water on Jan. 9.
In the end, local residents win from this competition, he said.
"It gives confidence to the consumer that public drinking water is high quality," said Wilson.