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    Sip. Swish. Hmmmmm ...

    In a taste test of bay area drinking water, there is no clear winner.

    By JEAN HELLER, CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD and MIKE SAEWITZ

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2001


    St. Petersburg residents awoke to a stunning disclosure Friday -- that within the year, because of new federal treatment regulations, their drinking water will taste (gasp!) more like Tampa's.

    For decades, St. Petersburg officials have acclaimed their water quality and taste. For years, people have complained about Tampa's. It is part of Tampa lore: If you are going to drink the water, stick a lemon slice in it to mask the unpleasantness.

    St. Petersburg water will taste like Tampa's?

    Heaven forfend.

    Well, hold on a minute. It turns out Tampa's water might not be as bad as reputed, nor St. Petersburg's water as good.

    In a test that made up in enthusiasm what it lacked in scientific purity, a panel of tasters, chosen for their educated palates and senses of humor, helped the Times rate five different waters, four from municipal treatment systems, one from a bottle.

    [Times photo: Fraser Hale]
    Robert Henderson rated St. Petersburg's water the best of the five in the taste test.

    The results were anything but definitive.

    The tasters were given five samples, labeled A through E, so there would be no hint of what came from where. All the samples were served at room temperature. As wine lovers know, myriad sins can be hidden by chilling. No such coverups would be tolerated in this test. Tasters rated several features on a scale of 1 to 5, as well as rated the overall impression.

    Rochelle Smith, owner of A Taste For Wine in St. Petersburg, wasn't able to bring herself to swallow the Tampa sample. She spat it into a metal sink. Smith said the Tampa water sample reminded her of her childhood.

    "Smells like it tastes," she said. "It tastes like it came out of a hose."

    Smith was only slightly more tolerant of the Aquafina purified drinking water, saying it "had a little bit of a mineral taste to it."

    "Water should have no taste at all," Smith said. "I wouldn't call it metallic, but there's definitely something in there."

    photo
    [Times photo: Bill Serne]
    Wine shop owner Rochelle Smith gave none of the water samples she tasted high marks.
    On the other hand, Times food and wine critic Chris Sherman rated Tampa's water as crisp and light and ranked it No. 2 among the five samples, right behind the bottled water.

    Robert Henderson, a wine expert who is about to become a partner in the Wine Warehouse in New Tampa, said he never drinks, nor offers his dog, Duncan, anything but bottled water. Yet he gave very low ratings to three of the samples, including the bottled water.

    Henderson gave the best rating to St. Petersburg's water and the second best to Hillsborough County's. But Jim Barton of Brandon rated bottled water and Pinellas County water equal at the top and deemed the St. Petersburg water the "worst of the five."

    Jarryd Letona, general manager of the City Gym in St. Petersburg, who said he drinks bottled water all the time, said he could tell instantly that Sample C was bottled. Actually, it was Pinellas County water. Letona said the bottled water, Sample A, "tasted flat."

    In other words, it is all subjective.

    "It's one of those things like bread," said Sherman. "It's what you're used to. I often found in cities where I have lived that newcomers can't stand the water. If the taste of St. Petersburg and Pinellas water changes, people will get used to it."

    The city and the county, along with other governments across the country, are under a federal Environmental Protection Agency deadline to reduce the amount of byproduct that develops when chlorine -- the current purifying agent of choice in most drinking water treatment -- mixes with nutrients in the water.

    Studies indicate these byproducts can cause birth defects, miscarriages and cancer.

    Tampa Bay Water, the region's largest water utility, will switch to treatment with a chemical cocktail called monochloramine in May 2002, which means the member governments that buy water from the utility will have to make the switch, too.

    "When Tampa has its new treatment on line next year, it will have the best-tasting water of all of them," said Michelle Robinson, spokeswoman for Tampa Bay Water. "It isn't really fair to compare, though, because Tampa uses surface water (from the Hillsborough River) most of the time, and St. Petersburg is using groundwater, and there are differences."

    In the meantime, Sherman suggests people keep in mind that special water tastings, like this one, can be misleading.

    "If you're tasting water like you taste wine, you're really concentrating on it," he said. "Most of the time you drink water like, well, like it's water. You just swallow it, and you don't think about it unless you get an unpleasant aftertaste."

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