They brought it in glass carboys, in jars, in 2-liter bottles. It stacked up at the entrance to the auditorium, some of it just slightly murky but most of it crystal clear.
Water. For more than 15 years the members of Region IV Florida Section American Water Works Association have had a friendly competition. Whose drinking water tastes the best? There's a trophy that gets handed from last year's winner to this year's, each winner etched into its front as a lasting legacy. There are speeches and a bit of catcalling.
I stood with the other three judges near the front of the room, our tables equipped with glasses, judging sheets, a white piece of paper against which to carefully examine each specimen and a row of more than 20 water samples, labeled by number.
I practiced what I might say in evaluation. Moist? Very quenching? Tastes like, uh, water? I've judged beer and wines, chili and barbecue, but how was I going to judge something that is supposed to taste like nothing, something we take for granted every day?
Each year public supply water utilities from a seven-county region — Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sumter — show up to go head-to-head with their H2O. This year 100 people assembled, 22 utilities competing. Fellow judges Mandi Rice, assistant executive director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud; Cindy Zang-Torres, who works for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection; and Scott Carnahan, a Citrus County commissioner, all seemed like seasoned pros.
Competitors each brought a gallon of their tap water collected within the last 24 hours and organizers tested each batch for residual chlorine, an effort to make sure nobody tries to sneak in bottled water. And then we got tasting, each sample at room temperature.
Color and clarity first: Yes, there were some that seemed a little yellow, a little less than 100 percent clear. Those got marked down. And then each one, with as professional a swirl as I could muster, got the sniff test, followed by a gulpy swish. Wow, incredible variation.
Calcium carbonate can be picked up from limestone that makes up the aquifer. High alkalinity has a crispness, as does water with more dissolved oxygen. Iron can create a metallic taste, at levels as low as 0.3 parts per million. Hydrogen sulfide can give water a rotten egg smell, detectable at 0.1 parts per million. And chlorine can be tasted at 1 to 2 parts per million.
They almost all had a faint whiff of chlorine (it is required to be added to reduce the risk of illness from microbial contamination), but some had a minerally note, others a slight metallic finish or discernible loamy earthiness, even a subtle wet-dogginess. There were some that were clean and refreshing, others that had an almost oily mouthfeel. Earthiness may be an indication of algal blooms in the source water, bitterness in tap water may suggest the presence of copper in corroded plumbing and a metallic taste may indicate that there are trace amounts of zinc, iron or manganese. Saltiness is likely chloride compounds that occur naturally in water as it moves through the earth.
While they all met safe drinking standards, the waters' origins were frequently responsible for scents and flavors in the water. About 15 percent of households use well water, almost always groundwater; but municipal water in our region is drawn from an array of places, from surface sources such as rivers and lakes, to groundwater sources, and sometimes a combination. The water then journeys from treatment plant through underground pipes to get to your faucet, flavors potentially introduced along its route.
Pam London-Exner, vice chairwoman of the competition, helped explain some of the differences. Surface water would include the desalination plant and water from the Alafia and the Hillsborough rivers as well as the Tampa Bypass Canal. (The TBW Reservoir is filled from the Alafia River and Bypass Canal.) The quality of the surface water may vary due to rainfall and temperature.
Groundwater is going to be easier to treat in most cases, but there are some groundwater sources that have higher total organic carbon than the surface water, and some wells are prone to producing water with sulfur compounds that have a bad smell. She says that much like wine, the water will have color, taste and odor compounds. The goal of water treatment? To remove as much of that as possible while leaving it pleasant, with no sharp, tart or bitter notes.
So, whose water was best? This year's winner, a repeat top dog from years past, was Pasco County Utilities. The winning sample was collected from Pasco County's Lake Jovita Water Treatment Plant. It receives little treatment, just chlorine for disinfection. Pasco will now represent Region IV competing against the remaining 11 regions of the FSAWWA at the Best of the Best state contest this month at the Florida Water Resource Conference in Daytona Beach.
So what if you don't live in Pasco County and your home water doesn't happen to be glorious?
The number one thing anyone can do to improve the taste of their drinking water is to refrigerate it, London-Exner says. An open container will allow the chlorine to slowly dissipate. In most cases, there is no need for any special treatment devices or filtration at home. If your water has a smell or taste you aren't wild about, she says a simple carbon filter-based pitcher is the best choice for most homeowners.
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.