Would a stream by any other name taste as sweet?
That’s what water purveyors put to the test Friday night in an annual contest for the best-tasting municipal water supply in a five-county region.
“It’s really not about bragging rights between one utility and another. There is the opportunity for that utility to have a good story,” said Laurelin Ward, the chairwoman of the Washington-South Sound Subsection of the American Waterworks Association.
Chris McMeen, deputy water superintendent for Tacoma Water, mingled among the competitors before the taste test at the offices of Parametrix, an engineering, environmental services and architectural firm in Puyallup.
Tacoma Water earned first place in the competition last year, and he hoped it would again win.
“We try not to talk trash because we are going to meet these people on the way down,” he said. “It’s a narrow call (for judges) to differentiate between these high-quality waters.”
The contest is open to dozens of organizations. It typically draws about 10 to 12 agencies. On Friday night, 15 water suppliers had submitted entries for the contest.
The taste of water can vary widely by source, or even with the seasons. A musty or fishy smell can be caused by an algae bloom. Dirt in the water can mean the water was stirred up in the pipes nearby, McMeen said.
The contest, McMeen said, “is very much built on the wine industry tasting. This is kind of for fun.”
Dan McReynolds, a former judge for the contest and a principal at Parametrix, said he would never again judge the water contest. He said it’s a job with high stakes, and the judges usually have no qualifications.
“It’s one friendly group of people — except for the 15 minutes when you’re doing the taste test,” he said.
Indeed, a serious pall fell over the room as the three judges sipped water and marked their preferences on sheets of paper (one man had a beer nearby for a palate cleanser).
The winner of the contest will travel to a three-state regional competition in Eugene, Ore. And after that, nationals in Boston.
Bonney Lake resident Carol Murray, a trainer at Columbia Bank, decided to judge the competition after her son bowed out. As a first-year judge, she said she’s qualified because she drinks a lot of water.
“I’m really picky about my water,” she said. “You can taste certain things in the water.”
In the first five years of the contest, Silverdale’s water system has won twice. Tacoma, Lakewood and Fruitland have all won once.
Friday’s contest had a tiebreaker: Two waters were so alike they earned equal marks from the judges, who score on a 30-point scale that weighs scent, taste and aftertaste.
In third place: Maple Shores Water Association, a tiny purveyor that serves 30 homes on Steamboat Island west of Olympia.
In second place: The city of Puyallup, which serves about 11,000 connections.
First place: Fruitland Mutual Water Co. The crowd, at least in Fruitland’s section of the room, went wild. Fruitland, which won the contest in 2012, serves 3,600 homes in the South Hill and Puyallup area.
Good water is a team effort, said Ted Hardiman, general manager of Fruitland Mutual Water Co. Fruitland took second the last time it competed in regionals. Hardiman said he intends to take this water all the way to nationals in Boston.
“It’s a little nerve-racking,” Hardiman said as he shook hands with others in the water industry. “You take a lot of pride in your water and work hard to come up with good results.”