BERKELEY SPRINGS, W. Va. — The largest, longest-running water tasting competition in the world is underway just more than two hours from Pittsburgh.
Towns and companies from around the world have submitted their best specimens to the annual, weekend-long Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting for judging under the scrutiny of a panel of journalists — myself included.
While some like to call the weekend the Academy Awards of Water, I’m thinking of it as the Water Olympics. Over the contest’s 29 years, more than 700 waters have been entered from every continent but Antartica. This year, water from the West Indies will make its debut.
We’ll judge nearly 100 waters — municipal water, purified water, and sparkling water, sniffing, swirling, and tasting them for appearance, aroma, taste, mouthfeel, and aftertaste.
Pittsburgh didn’t enter the competition, but don’t worry, dear reader, I’ve brought along a bottle of Pittsburgh tap water straight from my Strip District spigot to compare with the others. None of the waters are from Pennsylvania, though there are some from West Virginia and Maryland. (Stay tuned for updates here and on Twitter and Instagram.)
“The impact of winning this event is extraordinary for a bottler,” Jeanne Mozier, one of the event founders, said in a press release. “Several have experienced exponential growth, others closed major deals, and almost all winners redesign their labels to display their winning medal.”
While this is a fun, albeit wacky weekend, it’s underscored by some serious issues.
The world’s water experts kicked off the weekend with a seminar for about 50 people on Friday titled “Water: Beneath the Surface and Around the Globe.” Their remarks offered guidance for Pittsburgh as it handles a lead water crisis, flooding, and landslides.
As Pittsburgh faces a lead water crisis, Kenneth Guoin, founder of an oxygenated water company, said “we can remove anything from the water as long as we know what it is.”
He suggested “reverse osmosis” in the process of lead removal. While Guoin acknowledges that the systems from his Ophora Water Technologies are expensive, he expects the cost to decrease as the company expands.
The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority is required to replace thousands of lead lines and is also planning to use a new chemical, orthophosphate, to prevent lead from pipes from getting into the water.
When a lead crisis arises, bottled water companies often step in to help, according to Joe Doss, president and CEO of the International Bottled Water Association.
“To this day, some of our bottled water companies are providing bottled water to Flint,” Doss said. “Lead contamination in tap water is being found in schools throughout the U.S.”
An expert in stormwater management, Kate Lehman, president of the Warm Spings Watershed Association, encourages towns to use green practices for its runoff.
Green infrastructure is already being used in Schenley Park, for example, to address flooding in Four Mile Run, a section of Greenfield.
At the top of Lehman’s list: Plant trees.
“Trees reduce and flow stormwater by capturing precipitation in its leaves and branches,” Lehman said. “The roots of trees also absorb excess water in the ground after a precipitation event.”
She also recommends rain barrels, rain gardens, planter boxes, bioswales, green roofs, and permeable pavement — tips homeowners can use, too.
Business owners would be wise to take on the cost up-front to manage stormwater rather than taking on the expense of a flood, she added.
“These are the steps that can be duplicated in other communities,” she said.
Record rainfall in Pittsburgh last year led to an unprecedented onslaught of landslides, and landslides are already back in 2019 with two recorded today alone (in Springdale and Perry North). Repairing landslides in the Pittsburgh region last year cost more than $50 million — well over the $6 million budget.
Lehman said stormwater management practices can help with the problem.
Again, she said, trees are key, as their roots hold soil.
“Perhaps the best thing you can do is to plant trees anywhere you can upstream,” she said. “Anything that slows down, captures and filters the water is going to help with issues of flooding.”
As a retired religious leader who didn’t focus on watersheds until recently, she said anybody can learn green water practices.
“Anybody who is interested can learn and can apply these principles to their municipality,” she said.
Editor’s note: Travel Berkeley Springs, a local tourism group, is providing lodging to media who are serving as judges during the competition but has no control over editorial content.