The rows of water-filled plastic cups were not at all daunting to Daniel Yeh. He would pick each one up, sniff the water, look at it, and then quickly take a sip before setting the cup back down and jotting some notes on a score sheet.
“After a while, the samples run together,” said Yeh, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of South Florida. Narrowing it all down to a winner? “I do it scientifically,” he says with a smile before moving on to the next plastic cup.
Yeh was one of four judges tasked with finding the best-tasting tap water in the region last week, a title Hillsborough County was looking to defend, but many others wanted to wrestle away. Nearly 20 municipalities ranging from Sumter to Pinellas counties lugged in gallons of water to Lake Park in Lutz using containers of both the plastic and glass variety.
At stake were bragging rights for the region, and the chance to put their water head-to-head with the best in Florida next month.
“We are blessed with such a good source of clean, high-quality water in Florida — water that exceeds state and federal standards for quality — and this is all just some friendly competition to showcase it,” said Steven King, vice chair of Florida’s Region IV in the American Water Works Association.
In a society that consumes millions of bottles of water, contents like the best-tasting contest are designed to give a positive spin to tap water — something people typically only talk about when something goes wrong, like the recent pollution of the water supply in West Virginia.
“That’s when you think about water, when something like that happens,” King said. “There’s already this preconceived notion that tap water is bad, but really it’s not. It’s regulated probably more than bottled water, and it’s just high quality all around.”
Hillsborough County hosted this year’s regional contest, since it won this level last year. But Pasco County also was there, looking to defend its state title from 2006. And Zephyrhills, Dade City and other area communities were invited as well.
Judges were not told where their water samples came from, but were tasked to check for odor, color and taste.
The competition is highly subjective, King admits, where one person’s like may be someone else’s dislike. But most of the way through the taste-testing, one judge said one sample really stood out.
“It’s nice and smooth, and it’s almost tasteless,” said Nick Makris, a water supply specialist and project manager for the Southwest Florida Water Management District. “It’s hard to tell if some of these would stand out, because a lot of them feel to be the same. But yeah, I think one of them stands out in a good way.”
While Makris didn’t know where his favorite water came from, the day ended with a clear winner. Dunedin, which actually won the regional contest in 2011, was champion once again.
Water officials there will head to the Florida Water Resources Conference in April in Lake Buena Vista to find out how they compete against other regional winners in the state.
But in the end, all of these municipalities are winners, King said.
“No one writes about high-quality drinking water that everyone drinks 365 days a year and no one gets sick from,” King said. “We’re just trying to shed some light on the industry, because for too long, it’s been sort of a hidden industry. Generally, if you ask people on the street where their water comes from, they’ll just say it’s from the tap.
“But there’s a lot that happens to that water before it gets there, and this is our way to honor the hard work of those people who ensure the best water coming from the tap every day.”
Published March 5, 2014