The town of Rotterdam won the 2014 Schenectady County Best Tasting Drinking Water competition on Thursday afternoon, then went on to win the regional competition later in the day.
The regional win means the town water system that was besieged by a series of main breaks nearly a month ago will have its water compete for the best-in-state prize at the State Fair in Syracuse in August.
“How ironic that we had all these water problems this year,” Rotterdam Town Supervisor Harry Buffardi said after the county win Thursday afternoon.
The county win came over two-time defending champion Niskayuna. Rotterdam bested the champ by a single vote.
On June 30, a major water main break on Princetown Road in Rotterdam set off a series of six total breaks. Maintenance crews had to dig up each street to repair the pipes, and the town declared a state of emergency. Even after everything was fixed, Rotterdam still had to wait for the state Health Department to declare the water safe for drinking.
It gets worse. While delivering clean water to residents, four Rotterdam town employees were struck by lightning. Fortunately, they were not badly injured. When the state of emergency was lifted on July 3, Buffardi was relieved. Now, he’s celebrating.
“We have tremendous water in Rotterdam,” he said. “I hope we’ve satisfied the concerns of the public.”
It’s tough to argue with the contest’s results, delivered by blind taste test.
As part of the annual competition, shoppers at the Schenectady farmers market at the corner of Jay and Liberty streets were invited to take a blind taste test that included water from the city of Schenectady, the village of Scotia and towns of Niskayuna, Rotterdam and Glenville. They would sip, then vote for their first and second favorites on a paper ballot.
An operator from each town’s water plant was at the farmers market to mingle and keep an eye on their water samples. They packed coolers full of ice to make sure water was kept as cold as possible. They even transported the water samples in glass jars to maximize flavor.
“The key is temperature, and sometimes chlorine,” said Jason Pelton, groundwater management planner for the city of Schenectady. The taste test is not nearly a science, Pelton said, and the race among municipalities in Schenectady County is often close. On a given year, between 75 and 100 votes are cast, he added.
However, at the regional and state levels, Pelton said the Schenectady County competitors frequently win. The city of Schenectady holds a couple of titles. Niskayuna won the state competition in 2012 and the regional competition in 2013.
He attributes the water’s pleasant taste to the consistent, abundant groundwater that comes from aquifers in the county. The five competitors combined can provide the county with up to 5 million gallons on any given day.
Tim Nagell, Niskayuna chief water plant operator, has been cleaning and monitoring the town’s water supply for 30 years. He said the contest’s fun mood underscored a more important agenda: teaching people about their water supply.
People don’t usually know much about where their water comes from. “They only know when it doesn’t come out,” he said.
The competition gives people a chance to meet the workers who spend each day filtering, testing and maintaining the bacteria-free, fluoride-enriched water that gets pumped to their homes each day.
After sipping samples and casting a vote, Kathy Shearer, who manages the Schenectady farmers market, commented on the fun, friendly nature of the water tasting competition.
“It’s a big hit here,” she said. “These guys, they’re so into it. They have all these techniques, like they make sure it’s chilled just right.”
Shearer struggled to choose a winner for her vote.
“Some of them you can taste a little more chemical; some of them are a little sweeter,” she said. As for her final pick, “It just tasted fresher,” she said.
A second victory
The Capital Region taste test was held later on Thursday at Alive at Five in Albany. Rotterdam bested county winners from Albany, Rensselaer and Saratoga. The Saratoga County winner was Wilton.
Rotterdam now goes on to the State Fair competition Aug. 26.
In the meantime, Buffardi is exercising his local bragging rights.
“I think [Niskayuna Town Supervisor] Joe Landry owes me a glass of water on this one,” he said.