DUNEDIN — Contest organizers gathered around Mike Darrow on Friday for a toast to his success.
The beverage of choice? Tap water from Temple Terrace.
The occasion? Defeating 13 other Tampa Bay area water utilities competing in the annual "Best Tasting Drinking Water" contest for this region.
The prize? A large silver and blue "Stanley Cup" trophy bearing the names of winners past, a spot in the May 1 statewide competition in Orlando and — most important — bragging rights that Temple Terrace produces some of the finest wet stuff around.
"Thank you for this honor, and the customers and residents of our city — thank you very much," a surprised Darrow, Temple Terrace's deputy public works director, said as he accepted the award on his city's behalf. "It's the culmination of the hard work we do every day."
It was a tough decision, according to the five judges who evaluated the water Friday for best taste, appearance and odor.
The water utilities competing Friday were the cities of Belleair, Lakeland, New Port Richey, St. Petersburg, Tarpon Springs, Temple Terrace and Zephyrhills; Citrus, Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas and Polk counties; the Florida Governmental Utility Authority; and Veolia Water, the company that operates Tampa Bay Water's regional water treatment plant in Brandon.
Last year's winner, the city of Dunedin, didn't submit an entry. But the city hosted the event at J.C. Weaver Park and Mayor Dave Eggers helped judge.
Competitors bring a gallon of their tap water collected within the last 24 hours. Organizers test each batch for residual chlorine, an effort to make sure nobody tries to sneak in bottled water.
The samples are presented to the blind taste-testers at room temperature because refrigeration makes all water taste better.
Representatives from the competing authorities mingled and munched on sandwiches, bottled water, soda and ice cream while judges scrutinized the entries as if they were fine wines.
The officiants squinted as they raised the cups toward the clear blue sky, occasionally comparing two against the sunlight in a search for signs of cloudiness. Judges sniffed and sipped the samples, eliciting the occasional sour face. To cleanse their palates, the taste testers snacked on crackers between samples.
Detecting the subtle differences "was a little harder than I expected," said first-time judge Chip Fletcher, an attorney for water utilities.
But he and Roy Mazur, a bureau chief with the Southwest Florida Water Management District, said there were several clear early contenders. Two of the samples made Mazur think, "Wow, I really like how this water tastes."
Darrow attributed Temple Terrace's win to the use of groundwater tapped from the upper Floridian aquifer and quality control, which includes treatment with softeners and disinfectants. Temple Terrace's operation serves about 38,000 residents.
"Minerals that come out of the ground just impart natural taste and flavors," Darrow said. He expects the trophy to spend time in the city's water treatment plant before settling into a spot at City Hall for the next year.
In addition to a pat on the back for the winner, organizers say the contest is part public-awareness campaign. The message is that water authorities across Florida have invested billions of dollars in underground pipes and other infrastructure to produce a product that's safe, reliable and available around the clock.
"There's high-quality water available right from your tap," said Gwen Shofner, a contest judge and manager of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's drinking water program.
Keyonna Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153. To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters.