Cities Hold Blind Tasting to Find Out Who Has the Best Water

Five different water systems in Eastern Washington and Western Idaho conducted a scientific blind taste test to see who had the best water. All are up to federal standards, but the drinkers chose one as a clear winner.

by Joel Mills, Lewiston Tribune / May 13, 2019

(TNS) — While the main public water systems in the Lewiston, Idaho, region produce H20 that falls well within government quality standards, just which system pumps out the best-tasting water is, well, a matter of taste.

And with water treatment in the headlines leading up to the May 21 city of Lewiston water and wastewater bond election, the Lewiston Tribune teamed up with Lewis-Clark State College to stage a “tap water challenge” to crown the king of thirst-quenchers.

Environmental engineer and LCSC engineering professor Jenni Light designed a taste test that would pit the systems that supply the most people against each other in a blind sampling. They included the cities of Lewiston, Clarkston, Moscow and Pullman, as well as the Lewiston Orchards Irrigation District.

Light also instructed the Tribune in proper collection of the drinking water samples, as recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Guidelines included collecting water from a cold water faucet that was high enough to place the collection bottle underneath without making contact between the mouth of the bottle and outlet of the faucet to avoid contamination.

A thorough flush of the cold water line was also conducted by allowing each faucet to run for at least three minutes before collection. That method ensures the water entering the sample bottle came from the water main and hadn’t been sitting in a little-used pipe, which can impart off flavors.

Flushing for several minutes is especially important in the case of lead, which can appear if water has been sitting in pipes that were connected with solder that contains lead. (Lead is present in all the water systems sampled, according to the EPA, but at levels far below the legal limit.) Water was collected from buildings that are between 10 and 20 years old to further minimize the flavor variations that could appear with very old or very new pipes.

The 1-liter samples were all collected within a two-hour period and kept in a cooler with an ice pack for transport to the LCSC science building, Meriwether Lewis Hall. They were stored in a refrigerator until the May 3 taste test at the college’s end-of-year student research symposium.

And that’s where the grimaces and smiles began.

In all, 42 people were able to taste samples from all five water systems before the bottles were empty, each identified only as A, B, C, D and E. The tasters each chose a favorite water — without knowing its source — and offered comments about what they liked and what they didn’t.

The winners were clear, with a tie for the top spot. Moscow and LOID each snared 12 votes for favorite sample. Lewiston was next with nine votes, then Clarkston with seven votes and Pullman bringing up the rear with just two votes.

But to be fair, the most common comment was how close all of the samples were to each other. Several people had to request additional tastes before settling on a favorite.

“It’s very hard,” said 24-year-old Washington State University chemistry master’s student Josh Breault of Green Bay, Wis. “They’re all so similar. But if you leave Pullman’s or Lewiston’s water in a bottle for a week, it starts to taste a little weird.”

Like many testers, Breault said he doesn’t drink straight tap water at home, instead choosing to put it through a pitcher-style filter in his kitchen and an in-line filter in his bathroom. He ultimately chose Moscow’s water as his favorite.

Renee Harris, a 31-year-old English professor at LCSC, thought samples from Lewiston and Clarkston had the most neutral flavor.

“I don’t know that I liked anything about it,” she said of Clarkston’s water, which comes from the Asotin County Public Utility District. “There was really nothing to dislike.”

Harris thought LOID water had an aftertaste and Moscow’s water tasted “metallic.” She generally drinks water from a filtered line in her refrigerator at her Lewiston home, not straight from the tap. She opted for Clarkston’s water in the end.

Harris’ opinion was almost immediately contradicted by Jamie Morton, a 35-year-old from Orofino who teaches science at Lewiston High School. Morton picked LOID water as her favorite.

“It didn’t have a noticeable aftertaste,” she said, adding that Clarkston’s water “was also really good. Nothing was gross, but I’m not one of those people that complains about water anyway.”

Her fellow LHS science teacher Amy Chase, 41, of Lewiston, picked Clarkston’s water for its lack of aftertaste. Lewiston dentist Kent Simmons, 45, had a preference for Moscow’s water.

“It kind of had a sweeter taste to it,” Simmons said, adding that Clarkston’s sample “was pretty good too. Honestly, they were all pretty close.”

Simmons did think the Pullman and LOID samples had a bit of an aftertaste, however.

Perhaps the most discerning tastings were done by LCSC professor Leigh Latta, a certified beer taster trained in sensory analysis, and Elizabeth Braker, a compliance officer in the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality’s drinking water program. Latta, 46, carefully sniffed the samples before taking a sip, then aerated each taste by sucking air through the water while it sat in his mouth.

“They all had one very common flavor,” Latta said, describing it as some kind of chemical he couldn’t put his finger on. “They definitely all tasted off to me.”

The flavor was least potent in Moscow’s sample, he said. Braker, 36, took repeated drinks of each sample to verify her thoughts, which were pretty even across the board.

“They’re all great,” she said while noting that samples from Lewiston and Pullman seemed slightly discolored.

And while Pullman’s water got little love from the tasters, Miles Sidener of Clarkston was one of two people to give the Palouse product his approval.

“It was pretty good,” said Sidener, a 43-year-old earth science student at the college. “Everything else kind of tasted like it has something in it.”

His daughter, Sunshine Sidener, tagged along to the research symposium. And she called baloney on her dad’s choice, ranking Pullman just behind Lewiston, her second least-favorite.

“It tasted like it had dirt in it,” the 12-year-old said of the Lewiston sample. “But (Pullman’s) was the worst. It was just gross.”

©2019 the Lewiston Tribune (Lewiston, Idaho). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.