The judge's table.

Nine waters. Five judges. One prize: the title of Best Tasting Drinking Water in region X of the Florida section of the American Water Works Association.

Those were the stakes last Friday at Venice's T. Mabry Carlton Water Treatment Facility, where representatives from several area utilities gathered to have samples of their water evaluated on four criteria: color, clarity, odor and, of course, taste.

Region X of the Water Works Association covers Sarasota, Manatee, Hardee, DeSoto and Charlotte counties, and participants had come to the event from across the region, with samples that had been drawn from both surface and ground water and treated in all kinds of different ways.

The scene of the contest.

The rules were strict. The judging was done blindly, with the samples identified only by a letter. They had to be collected no more than 24 hours prior to the competition and be stored at temperatures between 50 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit or risk disqualification.

I joined the four other judges—Sarasota County Commissioner Alan Maio, Michele Hopkins of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, Brandon Moody from Charlotte County and Ron Cavaleri of AECOM and the Florida Water Environment Association—and we settled into our seats. Contest officials filled nine clear Solo cups with the samples.

And then we began.

I dipped my nose as far into the cup as possible to sniff (sometimes wetting my beak in the process), held the cups up to the light, sipped and swirled. Saltines consumed between samples helped establish a flavor baseline.

The winning team from the Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority.

Image: Terri Holcomb

Looking at the cups, I was hard-pressed to draw a distinction based on appearance, but as the taste test began, subtleties did emerge. In some samples, the sulfur smell so common to water in southwest Florida was more pronounced than in others. Some also had a slight chlorine-like scent from the treatment process.

But it was difficult to separate the scents of the water from the background odors all around us. We were seated outside, and sometimes, I'd catch a whiff of a blooming flower, or from a cleaner that was used to wipe down the chairs and tables, or from the water treatment plant behind us. I tried to ignore those, go slowly and sniff again until I knew what I was smelling.

All five of us graded each water in the four categories, assigning as many as five points for each, then the results were tabulated. The winner? The Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority, which delivers drinking water to Sarasota, Charlotte and DeSoto counties, as well as the City of North Port. (Those utilities then treat and store the water in a variety of ways, as well, which potentially affects the taste.)

The authority earned a total of 88 points out of a possible 100. Aside from the winner, the rankings of the other waters was kept secret, but I was able to deduce that I had ranked Peace River Manasota slightly higher than the others.

After the taste test, I toured the water treatment plant, devoured a Publix sub and some chips, and learned about everything that has to happen for water to come out of your tap when you turn it on. The winner walked away with plenty of bragging rights, plus a clear trophy shaped like—what else?—a drop of water.