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West Virginia contest plumbs water's 'personality'

| Sunday, Feb. 28, 2010

BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Just ask the folks at Uncle Bub's Restaurant in McKeesport who has the best-tasting water, and they'll tell you it's anyone in the city with a faucet.

The ones who don't agree• Probably haven't ever taken a drink in Pittsburgh or Monroeville.

"There's nothing wrong with our water," said William Holiday, who has owned the Fifth Avenue restaurant for 20 years and stopped selling bottled water because diners prefer the tap. "It doesn't have any bad, ugly odors."

McKeesport was willing to see how its water stacks up to the best of them as it competed against 42 municipal entries from across North America at the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting competition here Saturday evening. Tap water from Saltsburg and Connellsville was judged, though none of the three local communities placed in the top five.

The winner of the municipal competition was Hamilton, Ohio, the 2009 defending champion.

Another 53 entries from across the continent and from cities in Japan, China, New Zealand, Italy and Bosnia competed for best-tasting sparkling and bottled still waters. Dobra Voda Sparkling of Kratovo, Macedonia, was named the best sparking water, and Ecoviva of Roscommon, Mich., won the bottled, non-carbonated contest.

Bling H2O of Los Angeles won the Peoples' Choice Package Design Award for its container shaped like a wine bottle with glittery, gold lettering.

Experts have gathered here each winter for 20 years to attend what is billed as the world's largest water-tasting contest. The event takes place a short walk from the bubbling source of the warm, year-round mineral springs that give Berkeley Springs its name.

"It was one of those magical things where we started doing this just as the water industry started its phenomenal climb," said Jeanne Mozier, an organizer who started the event.

The springs bubble up from five sources to the surface, running at a year-round temperature of 74.3 degrees Fahrenheit. A Roman bathhouse at the Berkeley Springs State Park allows visitors to dip into a private tub holding 750 gallons of water heated to 102 degrees Fahrenheit.

The waters are supposed to have healing qualities, and one woman said she drives 90 minutes from Bethesda, Md., every week to take a bath.

"They say that if you get into the water, it heals arthritis and stuff like that," said Andrew Ruppenthal, 17, of Berkeley Springs, who came to the baths yesterday hoping to heal a sprained knee.

Allyson Jaffe, 31, of Washington, D.C., drove up with three friends to take a bath and check out the water-tasting competition.

"We're not sure what we're getting ourselves into," she said.

At the competition, 12 judges sat on two risers inside a conference room in The Country Inn, sampling water from rows of clear glass goblets. Judges consider the entries' clarity, smell, taste, mouth feel and aftertaste, said Arthur von Wiesenberger, water master for the contest.

"Water has so much more to it than being the essence of life," Wiesenberger said. "It also has a lot of personality."

About 150 people sat on black stack chairs to hear the results last night. Hundreds of clear, blue and green plastic and glass bottles of water sat arranged in a display at the front of the room.

Liu Yan, spokeswoman for Kunlun Mountain's Natural Mineral Water, traveled from Beijing to represent the company, which plans to introduce its line of bottled water across China in April.

"We definitely want to win this competition," she said. "We like this opportunity to share our water and our culture."

Often, people say water just tastes good, but they can't articulate why. Baron Leap, the borough foreman in Hyndman, a town of 1,005 people in Bedford County, struggled to explain why he believes the water there tastes better. The Hyndman Borough Water Department entered the voting here.

"Whenever you go to the big city, you can tell the difference," Leap said. "I don't know how to describe it."

The flavor of the water starts with the source, said John Ashton, operations manager for the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County, which operates the three Pittsburgh-area plants that competed here. Everything from the chemicals that are used to the temperature of the water can alter the taste.

Water for the McKeesport and Connellsville plants comes from the Youghiogheny River. Standing on a concrete deck about a mile south of where the river feeds into the Monongahela River, Dennis Kocak looks two stories below to an intake valve hidden beneath the surface of the green-colored water quickly carrying chunks of ice and snags of tree branches.

After 2 1/2 hours in the McKeesport Water Treatment Plant, where Kocak works as production supervisor, the river water will be cleaned of metals, bacteria and impurities, transforming it into clear drinking water.

"We're at the mouth (of the river) here, so we get everything that comes downriver," Kocak said.

That used to mean lots of heavy industrial waste from factories that gave the water rainbow hues, drainage from underground mines and raw sewage. As the quality of the source water improved in recent years, the plant cut back on the number of chemicals it adds. Last week, black flies hatched along the river.

Kocak, who has worked at the site 25 years -- so long that he predates the plant by a half-decade -- said late winter can be the best time for getting good-tasting water from the river. Summer can mean increased algae growth, and the spring thaw often stirs up sediments along the river bottom.

The busiest times for the plant are Monday mornings, because that remains wash day for many local residents, and operators know when it's halftime at the Super Bowl because of the sudden demand caused by so many customers' flushing toilets.

It might seem, then, that the municipal authority plant in Saltsburg has an unfair advantage: White-tailed deer prance through the 10-inch snowpack around the reservoir, which holds enough water for 220 million bathtubs or 6.8 billion flushes. The G.R. Sweeney Water Treatment Plant there can clean up to 24 million gallons of water a day, drawn into the plant from a 36-inch pipe that extends like a straw a half-mile into the reservoir from the plant.

"Whatever is in the reservoir comes in. You have dirt mixed with small fish that are chopped up with algae," said Joseph Mance, production supervisor there.

That description might not make anyone thirsty, but the plant treats the water with chlorine, aluminum sulfate and other chemicals before straining it through clarifiers that remove particles. Charcoal filters then remove even more impurities.

"I've got a giant Britta water filter, basically," said Chris Light, water quality supervisor at the Sweeney plant.

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