The Washington Post

Sometimes a glass of water is worth a gold medal — ask the folks in Curtis, Neb.

Water is a hot commodity. It moves by the caseload at supermarkets and convenience stores nationwide. Its sales soon could overtake those of soda.

A colorfully designed, recyclable plastic bottle with water from some mountain spring or a purified version of what comes out of the tap has become essential equipment for getting through the day.

But what about good, old-fashioned but out-of-fashion water from the public supply?

The National Rural Water Association held its annual Great American Water Taste Test on Wednesday, and it turned out that the best-tasting drink in the house came from Curtis, Neb., which has a population of 935.

“There’s no treatment whatsoever,” Mike Stanzel of the Nebraska Rural Water Association said of his gold medal-winning water. “It’s right out of the ground, right into the tower and right out of the sink.”

The silver medal went to Stansbury Park, Utah, and the bronze to Fulton, Mo.

What makes a good-tasting rural water? As with wine, clarity, bouquet and taste.

“When they say bouquet, it should have no bouquet,” said one of the judges, Jacki Ponti-Lazaruk, an administrator who’s responsible for water and environmental programs in the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Rural Development office.

Other judges came from the USDA, as well, and from the White House Office of Management and Budget.

The contenders had all won state competitions. After a day of sampling and more sampling, five finalists emerged.

The event was the climax of the water association’s annual Rural Water Rally, which began Monday, drawing members from 49 states. They advocate for small, rural towns, whose sizes belie the responsibility they share for large portions of America’s food and energy production capacity. Water is their lifeblood.

“Water and wastewater infrastructure is critical to promoting public health and economic growth,” Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) said in a statement after meeting with members of the Mississippi chapter of the water association. “The rural development provisions in the farm bill acknowledge this problem and offer tools to help overcome these challenges.”

Indeed, the group cheered passage of the farm legislation last week, which included $150 million in mandatory funds to address a crucial service backlog, as well as extensions of grant programs for water facilities and services.

Among them is the circuit rider program, which aids towns that are short of resources in running water systems. Circuit riders travel their states, providing managerial and technical assistance, and they prove vital in emergencies and natural disasters, when water service is crucial.

As for how water should taste, Ponti-Lazaruk put it this way: “You want it to be as clean and crisp as possible. You know good water when you taste it.”

©2014 McClatchy Washington Bureau

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