- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 5, 2020

They swirled, they sniffed, they sipped. And in the end they chose the best of the bunch.

But these connoisseurs at the Hyatt Regency Washington on Wednesday weren’t judging wine or beer or other spirits, but a more basic thirst quencher — water.

More than 300 water industry workers from across the country watched intently as three judges — one from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and two from the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture — determined the winner of the Great American Water Taste Test.

Five finalists selected from 37 state entrants on Tuesday participated in Wednesday’s winner-take-all contest, in which the judges graded their communities’ tap water on clarity, bouquet and taste.

The finalists: the California Pines Community Services District, Mapleturn Utilities in Indiana, the Auburn Board of Public Works in Nebraska, the North Marshall Water District in Kentucky and the Jenkinsville Water Co. in South Carolina.

A blond woman in a cheetah-print skirt served the samples in wine glasses to the judges, who inspected each finalist and jotted down scores for each category, eating palate-cleansing crackers in between.

“It’s unbelievable,” Bobby Gifford of Kentucky said of winning first place. “When we won the state, it was mind-blowing. But to win this, obviously there is great water in many places in the United States, but it’s unbelievable.”

Mr. Gifford works for the North Marshall Water District, which services about 20,000 people. He mailed two bottles of water from his hometown in Benton for the competition.

The samples from South Carolina and Indiana tied for second place; and California’s water finished in third.

“Just a short seven, eight years ago, this district was in financial ruins and had lots of problems internally,” Mr. Gifford said. “The new board and myself came in and we made huge adjustments, so our customers are absolutely confident in what we deliver to them now at a very cheap cost and it’s been a pleasure.”

The National Rural Water Association hosts the annual competition during a four-day conference that features discussions about water policy and issues affecting rural systems and the people who manage them, like Mr. Gifford. Afterward they lobby their congressional representatives.

“This competition, it’s not a time consuming part of the conference but it is a big part of why people are here,” said Mike Keegan, a spokesman for the water association, adding that it brings many of the competitors a great deal of pride to win.

Mr. Keegan said economic development is also big part of the mission for the association because there can’t be new development without access to water.

He said on average five people from each state attended the conference, but South Dakota had more than two dozen.

“All that is is a reflection of how important water issues are in that state,” Mr. Keegan said, adding that federal subsidies are an important part of getting water supply across one of the least densely populated states.

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