Environmental Protection

War of the Waters

Providers duke it out for honors of best-tasting water

A street sign welcoming visitors to Montpelier, Ohio, identifies the quaint village as the birthplace of polar explorer Paul Siple and home to the world’s best-tasting municipal drinking water. Best-tasting water? Huh? We’re not talking fine wine here, but run-of-the-mill treated municipal water.

Or are we? That’s the real question. Ask those in the water treatment industry what makes water taste good and the answers will vary. Most say it’s a function of the water source, a testament to sophisticated treatment, or both.

“It’s refreshing. When you take a drink of water, you get the sense of ‘ahhh’ … It leaves you thirsty for more,” said Bill Blakely, water treatment superintendent for the Village of Montpelier, which has a population of 4,380.

Blakely contends that the village’s pristine groundwater source, the Michindoh Glacial Outwash Aquifer, plays a large part in Montpelier’s bragging rights to the best-tasting municipal water. The past two years, Montpelier has taken top honors in the municipal category, a gold award, in the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting Awards. Earning the most points, Montpelier’s water beat out more than three dozen other municipal water entries.

But wait. The city of St. Louis, Mo., claims to have the best tasting city water in America, according to a water tasting competition put on by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. And then there’s the Oklahoma City Water and Wastewater Utility, which recently won the “Best of the Best” Water Taste Test at the American Water Works Association’s annual conference.

And the Award Goes to ….
Confused? Just think of water taste competitions as film industry awards. There’s the Academy Awards (Berkeley Springs claims it’s the granddaddy, with a 17-year history of water tasting), the Golden Globes (maybe AWWA) and People’s Choice Awards (U.S. Conference of Mayors, since more than 100 mayors select from five finalists in that tasting competition).

Each competition takes water tasting seriously, even though the judging processes are surprisingly different. Berkeley Springs even has a “watermaster,” Arthur von Wiesenberger, who trains the event’s media judges in the art of determining the perfect-tasting water – a seeming contradiction of sorts given that the average person would describe water as tasteless.

“They’re looking at sweetness, sourness, bitterness or saltiness of the water. As they roll the water over their palate, they’ll perceive those different flavors and also experience the mouth feel. Certain waters feel lighter in the mouth, other waters feel heavier. Then they spit out the water or swallow it and reflect on the aftertaste,” said von Wiesenberger of the judging process.

Judges rate each water entry on a 10-point scale in appearance, aroma, taste, mouth feel, and aftertaste and then up to 14 points for overall impression. The procedure borrows from wine tasting. In the appearance category, judges select one of 14 statements, ranging from “this is very good water I could use as my everyday drinking water” to “I can’t stand this water in my mouth.”

Historically, municipal waters from Canada, desert cities and groundwater sources have performed well in the taste test, von Wiesenberger said.

“Waters that seem to do very well are fairly lightly mineralized, with total dissolved solids of under 100 parts per million, and of minerals present, it seems calcium bicarbonate water does well. A little presence of potassium does well too since it gives sweetness, and also minimal use of chlorine helps,” he added.

Montpelier’s Secret Recipe
Which brings us back to Montpelier and that village’s secret for its great-tasting water. Because of the purity of Montpelier’s groundwater source, the drinking water requires little treatment. And less treatment equates to better-tasting water, according to Blakely and others in the industry.

“We don’t have to worry about any bacterial or microbiological problems. We can actually drink the water from wells without any particular treatment,” Blakely boasts.
But there is treatment, including lime softening. The village uses hydrate lime to make a lime slurry, which is added to the groundwater to reduce hardness and remove magnesium, iron, and calcium bicarbonate. Then carbon dioxide is added for stabilization, Blakely said, along with a minimal amount of mandated chlorine treatment – about 0.2 milligrams per liter.

“We’ve won the last three times we’ve entered” the Berkeley Springs competition, Blakely said. “It’s a pride thing for the village of Montpelier and the entire county because we know we’re sitting on an aquifer with real nice water.”

Another key to success? Blakley recommends flushing a water distribution system at least annually, since aged piping can affect water taste.

A Mayoral Endorsement
A water taste test by the U.S. Conference of Mayors rolls around about once a decade, and this year the conference crowned the city of St. Louis, Mo., as the best-tasting city water in America. The winner earned a cash prize of $15,000 and bragging rights. Of the top five finalists, others were Anaheim, Calif., Colorado Springs, Colo., Long Beach, Calif., and Toledo, Ohio.

“We in St. Louis always knew we had great-tasting water. I am proud of the men and women of our water department for their work and dedication in making St. Louis water clean, safe and delicious,” said Mayor Francis Slay.

The three-step process involved initial judging of 93 drinking water entries by staff at the U.S. Conference of Mayors. The group judged each water sample on aroma, clarity and taste, on a 10-point scale. The top 15 entries then went on to the next round judged by a three-member celebrity panel. The final five entries were judged by mayors attending the conference.

“For the five finalists, we assume aroma and clarity is of high quality, so we’re really only basing the final analysis on taste. That’s why the award is called the best-tasting city water in America,” said Richard Anderson, senior adviser to the Mayors Water Council of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Anderson said the group used the water taste test to bring attention to the money spent nationally on water treatment infrastructure. “Water has a very high value and the public needs to know we’re spending $82 billion a year,” he said.

Wheel of Flavor
The Oklahoma City Water and Wastewater Utility also stakes claim to having the “Best of the Best” in water taste. The utility took the top award at the American Water Works Association’s conference in June, beating out dozens of other state and regional water utility taste test winners. Water District No. 1 of Johnson County, Kan., took second place, while Toronto Water placed third.

A group of celebrity and media judges trained to evaluate water based on the “Drinking Water Taste and Odor Wheel” allotted points to the AWWA entries based on odor, taste, and intensity. The goal is the lowest score in this case.

Each odor or flavor is assigned a number from 0 to 12, ranging from threshold to weak to strong. The taste and odor wheel helps judges select points for entries by providing potential odor and taste descriptions, including such unpleasant ones as cat urine, rancid fish, and decaying vegetables. A lack of such unpleasant tastes or smells means a better, lower, water test score.

“What you are trying to achieve in the water industry is water with minimal taste,” said Djanette Khiari, chair of the AWWA Taste and Odor Committee and a judge in the water-tasting event.

Of the eight odor categories on the wheel, Khiari said the most common associated with drinking water are chlorinous, musty, and medicinal.

Khiari said with water taste, the rub for water treatment plant operators is to pinpoint “the optimum concentration of chlorine or bleach you get to kill the bugs without getting a problem with taste.” In other words, water may taste great with less chlorination, but it could make you ill later. About 4.5 percent of a water utility’s budget is spent on taste and odor control, she added.

“Science has advanced so much now that with water, we don’t have waters now that are really unpleasant [tasting] to customers. The difference is in perception,” Khiari said.
Khiari’s point should not be overlooked, especially if the bottled water industry is included in a taste test. After all, in a blind taste test, could the average water drinker tell the difference between Evian mineral water and Sam’s Club brand purified drinking water? A good question best answered by a taste test perhaps … and if those judges said Evian smelled like cat urine and Sam’s had a fruity, sweet aroma, now wouldn’t that be interesting?

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

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