MOLINE — It’s a tall drink of water to compete against major metropolitan areas and finish in the top 10 for the best tap water in all of North America.
But that’s exactly what happened when Moline took third place for best tasting water at the American Water Works Association (AWWA) national conference. The 13th annual Best of the Best Tap Water Taste Test contest was open to Canada, the United States and Mexico.
Water treatment plant manager Dave Owens and water lab chemist Bob Bohannon attended the conference, held June 13 in Las Vegas this year.
“It’s exciting,” Bohannon said. “To be able to compete against 27 other utilities across North America is an honor and coming in third for best tasting — I feel like we were at the Olympics. We got the bronze. It proves it wasn’t just a fluke, but we are doing a great job.”
Bohannon said it was the second time in the last three years the city competed at the international level. To qualify for the AWWA contest, a water utility must win its division first and then its overall state title. Illinois has six contest districts. In addition to 2018, Moline also won best drinking water in Illinois in 2016.
First place at the AWWA contest went to the Alderwood Water and Wastewater District of Lynnwood, Washington; second place went to the city of Sherbrooke, Quebec.
Public works director J.D. Schulte noted the water source for Lynnwood comes from an artesian well. Sherbrooke’s water source comes from Memphremagog Lake, one of the clearest lakes in Canada.
“And we have the Mississippi River, so when you think about where we placed in comparison to all the others, the Mississippi River continues to give us wonder and amazement,” Schulte said. “To even participate in the taste competition, participants must have an impeccable compliance record with the (Environmental Protection Agency.) We are truthfully the only ones doing surface water treatment.”
Schulte said he and city employees were “all on pins and needles waiting to hear the results.”
There was no worry about sneaking bottles of water through airport security on the way to the competition. Water samples for the contest had to be submitted in one-liter glass bottles — six total — and mailed via FedEx to Las Vegas ahead of time, Bohannon said.
“Glass is the most impervious for water,” Bohannon said. “Dave (Owens) and I taste the water every day to see if we can pick up any differences. I’m really proud of the group we’re in. There was a lot of really great tasting water.”
Owens said he and Bohannon watched the judges conduct the taste tests. Blind samples were given to a panel of three judges, who looked for clarity, smoothness, and overall good taste.
“They’re looking for a clean, crisp taste; something that finishes well” Owens said. “(Judges) would take a saltine cracker between sips and start again. Taste is so subjective. If there is someone who grew up on well water, they tend to like well water. It was special to have three judges who were not from our area to pick our water.”
Owens said things got exciting after the top five cities were announced.
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“I can tell you the adrenaline was running when they announced we were in the top five,” Owens said. “We were very surprised because there are some big players — New York, L.A., Boston. We are little Moline. We thought we had a quality product, I’ve felt that way for a long time. We were extremely happy we made it in the top five. It was a good feeling to find out we were ranked third.”
Owens said he and Bohannon were brought up on the stage and handed a trophy cup as their prize.
City administrator Doug Maxeiner said he was pleased to hear Moline captured third place internationally.
“It’s big business; it’s bragging rights for us,” Maxeiner said. “It reinforces for us that we’re doing something right in our water processes. We take great pride in getting the product to our residents that we do. It confirms our thought that the product we put on the table for people is top notch.”
Owens has been with the water department for 26 years, and its manager for 16 years. Bohannon has been the chemist for 11 years.
Owens said it’s a 24-hour process from the moment the water is pulled from the river until it pours out from a faucet. The water treatment plant, 30 18th St., uses line softening, Owens said.
The purification process begins with coagulation.
“Making smaller particles of dirt into larger particles of dirt so they settle out of the water,” Owens said. “We raise the PH level up to around 11 and that precipitates our magnesium and calcium hardness out of the water. Then we bring the PH back down to a 9 and run it through our filters to capture anything that might be left. Then we disinfect using chloromines; it’s a blend of chlorine and ammonia. We further disinfect using (ultraviolet) light. Then it sits in our finished water basin until we pump it out into the city. It’s an art based in science.
“We’ve settled upon a mineral content that people really seem to like,” Owens said. “Since we’ve done that, that’s when the awards started rolling in.”“The water plant is such a wonderful representation of the investment our city has made in our utilities,” Schulte said.
Schulte said some may wonder how construction of the new Interstate 74 bridge in the river affects water quality, especially with the placement of drill rigs. He said the bridge contractor, Lunda Construction Co., has been great partners with the city.
“They understand how any raw water intake impacts our product,” Schulte said. “If they see anything coming down the river, like a sheen of any kind, they notify us right away. They are using biodegradable fuels when possible. I’m sure folks wonder if all this (construction) has had an impact, but it’s all positive.
“I couldn’t be more proud of team, they work so hard. They’re doing it because they’re committed to producing a high quality product everyday for our customers.”
Owens also gives credit to water department employees.
“I’m very proud of what we do and I’m very proud of our team,” Owens said. “The water operators—we’re making water 24 hours a day 365 days a year. The operators spend the most time with the water; they are a very dedicated group of people. They were very excited.”