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Town of Solon Tastes Victory Again in 'Olympics of Water'

December 15, 2009 - FREEPORT They swirled. They sniffed. They sipped. Then they sipped again.

"This is tough," said Ronald Lambert, a Bangor-based water expert with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In the end, Lambert and the two other judges of Maine's 23rd annual Drinking Water Taste Test awarded the grand prize to the Solon Water District for the second year in a row.

"It's crisper," said Freeport Fire Chief Darrel Fournier, a veteran judge.

"Smooth," added Carlton Gardner, who monitors drinking water for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

The taste test has become a highlight of the Maine Rural Water Association's annual conference, which was held Tuesday and Wednesday at the Hilton Garden Inn in Freeport. The grand prize has become a sought-after honor for small water districts around the state, 20 to 30 of which enter each year.

Water samples are judged in two categories: those that are disinfected with chlorine and those that aren't disinfected raw ground water.

The samples arrive in sealed Mason jars but are judged like fine wines, winning points for clarity, aroma and taste.

The Alfred Water District's entry won top honors in the disinfected-water class this year and was the runner-up for the grand prize.

Solon's water, which won both the non-disinfected category and the grand prize, will be entered into the Great American Taste Test in Washington, D.C., in April.

Steve Levy, executive director of the Maine Rural Water Association, created the Maine and national contests.

"Our motto is, 'If you think that you've got the best, put it to the test,' which my mother made up," he said.

As the judges concentrated on the finalists, Levy broke the tension by goading the tasters and telling one-liners.

"This is the Olympics of water," he said. "Next to paint drying, this is the most fun to watch."

Several dozen water district representatives who stuck out the snowstorm to watch the tasting pitched in with their own water district humor: "That was the wastewater effluent," one said.

Mike Foster, operator of the Solon Water District and chairman of its board of trustees, accepted the winner's plaque wearing red suspenders. He said the back-to-back wins will be especially sweet to residents of his Somerset County town, north of Skowhegan.

"They seem to be very proud of it," Foster said.

Foster was at a loss to explain why the water is so good.

The district, which has two part-time employees and serves about 160 homes, draws water from an artesian well drilled just 70 feet deep into packed gravel. "It's pumped to a tank and it goes to a faucet. It's very simple," he said.

It was the first win for the Alfred Water District. Its excited superintendent, Kerry Smart, said he hopes his customers will be equally proud of their water. The district took over a nearly 100-year-old private water system in 2000 and has since built a new treatment plant and installed new pipes.

"We're asking for a rate increase, so it's good publicity for us, so customers know all these improvements mean something," he said. "We used to have a lot of complaints" about dirty or rusty water.

The complaints are rare now, although a few customers may not agree with the judges, he said: "They liked it better before."

The Alfred Water District draws water from two drilled wells and has about 300 customers, mostly homeowners. Its award-winning water also is served at the York County Jail.

By JOHN RICHARDSON, Staff Writer, Portland Press Herald, December 10, 2009


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