With 14 clear plastic cups before them, a panel of judges got to work Friday morning.
Some lifted their glasses to the light, swirling the liquid contents inside. Others brought them to their noses, taking a whiff. Two clinked their cups together — Cheers! — before tasting.
Palate-cleansing saltines helped refresh taste buds between rounds.
The four judges had a mission: to find the best-tasting drinking water in Tampa Bay.
This year's honors went to Hillsborough County's Lake Park water-treatment plant, which serves the northwest portion of the county, including Carrollwood.
"I'm honored and shocked at the same time," said plant manager Paul Kavanagh, who had collected the sample from his kitchen sink a few hours earlier.
The winning glass of water is a blend of several different water sources, Kavanagh said, giving it its unique taste.
Held once a year by the American Water Works Association, the event highlights the work of water utilities across the region. It also serves as an opportunity for those in the industry to gather for some fun. The award, a large traveling trophy, is more about bragging rights than anything else.
Water utilities from Sumter, Citrus, Polk, Hernando, Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties participated. First place winner Hillsborough County will compete at the state level in April. The winner of that competition heads to nationals.
Hosted by last year's winner, the event Friday took place in the gym of the Temple Terrace Family Recreation Complex.
The rules are simple: The water has to be from the tap. Organizers make sure of this by checking the samples for chlorine, which bottled water does not have. It has to be served at room temperature, which a thermometer verifies.
"Because cold water tastes better," said Steve King, AWWA treasurer for region IV. "This levels the playing field."
And participants can't have any violations during the past 12 months. That one is on the honor system.
Missing from the competition: the city of Tampa.
"They were invited," King said.
There was speculation that last month's squirrel-induced boil-water debacle may have had something to do with their absence. "You remember what happened a few weeks ago," said Emilie Moore, the vice chair of AWWA region IV.
But, when reached Friday afternoon, Tampa officials said that was not the case.
"We haven't participated in a long time," said Tampa Water Department director Brad Baird.
The city's water source is surface water from the Hillsborough River, while almost all of the other utilities use groundwater, he said.
"If the judges are used to drinking groundwater, surface water is different," Baird said. "It would be like entering an orange into an apple-tasting contest. So for us, it's not worthwhile."
Departments were allowed to choose their container of choice, with some going for glamor using decorative glass dispensers and others sticking with unpretentious plastic water jugs.
A representative from Plant City walked in carrying a simple glass jug with the word "WINNER" written across its surface.
That's when the competition got a little dirty. Someone soon defaced it — adding an "e" after the "i" in permanent black marker.
Served at their table, the judges didn't seem to notice. Their job was to score for taste, color and odor.
And it wasn't easy.
"Most of them are very good," said judge Jeff Cunningham, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of South Florida. "There was one that I didn't like the smell or taste of, but all of the other 13 were of very high quality that I would be happy to drink from my kitchen sink."
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.