FARGO — One starts to feel like a traitor drinking coffee at a water-treatment conference.
All these booths lined up inside the Fargo Holiday Inn to promote the production of safer, purer, better-tasting H2O. Water experts — from treatment-plant operators to water chemists — as far as the eye can see.
Yet here I am, at the yearly North Dakota Water and Pollution Control Conference, brazenly asking for a cup of coffee.
There is a method to my madness. You see, I'm trying to get good and dehydrated for my stint as a judge for the conference's annual water-tasting competition.
As part of the event, cities from all over North Dakota bring samples of their tap water, and conference attendees pick their favorites. The top three vote-getters are then assessed by the judges — including veteran WDAY reporter Kevin Wallevand — who vote via private ballot to pick the very tops in tap water. The winning city gets bragging rights for the year and a trophy.
I already am worried how to discern the subtle differences in one glass of water from another. In fact, I'm pretty sure I'm completely unqualified for this event, with the exception of having written a recent column on our state's predilection for bland food. It's hard to get much blander than water, which is to the human diet what the soundtrack is to a movie: If it doesn't distract and you don't really notice it, it must be doing its job.
Another issue also bothers me: If people cleanse their palates during wine-tasting by drinking water in between glasses, how does one cleanse their palate in a water-tasting contest? Sorbet? Gravy? Tequila?
Fargo, Grand Forks, Garrison, Valley City, Bismarck, Minot, McVille and Mayville were the eight municipalities participating in the competition.
As we wait for the conference samplers to narrow down the contestants to the final three entries, Kevin and I talk fondly of our memories of good, old well water on the farm. I remember that the water on our western North Dakota ranch was so brown that my fancified city friends wouldn't touch it. Dad told us it was because a coal vein ran close by it. All I know is that it tasted great and was even slightly sweet. And I haven't grown a third arm out of my back yet, so it must not have been too unhealthy.
When tasting time comes, we are encouraged to drink room-temperature shot glasses of water from the three top pitchers. We then write down our secret votes and turn them in to contest organizers.
I swish the samples in my mouth, trying to think of witty commentary to give. Maybe something like, "I detect an oaky reverence, followed by an undercurrent of blackberries and whimsy?"
But in reality, the first sample seems completely flavorless. The next is slightly more astringent. The third leaves a very light chlorine aftertaste. I choose the first. Unfortunately, I am the only one, as the other two judges each pick a different sample to win.
After organizers reshuffled the samples in a different order, we sampled again. Once again, we each pick three different winners. Maybe it's the order in which we drink the water that makes the difference. Each time, the first water sample seems the most neutral, but my taste buds seem to perk up on the second and third samples, which is why those taste more like chlorine.
The third judge, Tom Kunetz, former president of the Water Environment Federation, isn't too surprised by our differences in preference. When it comes to agua, he adds, "we like what we like ... and a lot of times it's what we grew up with."
Finally, thanks to the vote of a tie-breaking judge, a winner was chosen. Congrats goes out to McVille for providing its residents with dynamite drinking water. Valley City and Bismarck also made the top three.
I'll drink to that.