WASHINGTON — Cheryl Cook squinted toward the wine glass in her outstretched hand to scrutinize the liquid inside.  She swished the contents, took a sniff and brought the glass to her lips.

“This tastes better than my tap water,” she said Wednesday after taking a sip of what was in fact tap water.

Cook, a deputy undersecretary in the Department of Agriculture, was one of five judges for what was called the “Great American Water Taste Test” sponsored by the National Rural Water Association.

For the past three days, the association has lobbied lawmakers for continued water safety funding in the rural communities of America.

“Rural water serves 25 percent of the nation and we need clean, safe, affordable drinking water for everyone,” said Michael Harris, the association’s marketing director.

Harris is concerned that the proposed federal budget to be announced later this month will cut water safety funds.

For the past 13 years, the water association has put on a taste competition to bring more attention to the 28,000 rural water systems that it represents.  This year, 37 states submitted samples but only five made it to the finals at the Hyatt Regency Hotel on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

Arriving in packages because of liquid air travel restrictions, water from Virginia, West Virginia, Washington, Louisiana and Missouri chilled in ice buckets backstage before the competition.

Harris explained that water is not the same; the source is vital to its taste.  Groundwater is cleaner because it is filtered by nature while still water – like in lakes and rivers — usually gets contaminated because it is above ground, he said.

Mike McNulty, representing Putnam, Va., was extremely surprised his water made it in the top five because it comes from a still water source.

“When you have a lot of groundwater systems to compete with you don’t expect to come this far,” he said.  “Our water has absolutely no odor and it’s refreshing.  It’s just nice.”

In the end, the judges sided with the tried and true groundwater, tipping their glasses towards Edgewood, Wash., as having the best-tasting water in the country.

“Nature filters our water,” said Marc Marcantonio, general manager of the Mt. View-Edgewood Water Co. that provided the winning sample.  “There are absolutely no chemicals in our water.  The gravel does a better job filtering than humans can do.”

While he was happy his water was recognized as America’s best, Marcantonio emphasized water’s importance on a national scale.

“Those people that are providing water are first responders and a part of our critical infrastructure,” he said.  “Water is life. Without water nothing else is possible so it’s good that we pay close attention to what’s going on in the water industry.”