Taste tester Jacki Ponti-Lazaruk finishes her water sample at the National Rural Water Association's Great American Taste Test. Christophe Haubursin/Medill

Taste tester Jacki Ponti-Lazaruk finishes her sample at the National Rural Water Association’s Great American Water Taste Test. Christophe Haubursin/Medill

WASHINGTON — Like wine connoisseurs judging the best Bordeaux, a panel of judges with more than a century of taste-testing knowledge among them, named Curtis, Neb. Wednesday as having the best drinking water in rural America.

The annual competition — the National Rural Water Association’s Great American Water Taste Test — was a lighthearted start to a three-day meeting that comes at an important time for the rural water industry.

In West Virginia, officials are scrambling to clean up 100,000 gallons of coal slurry from the processing facility Patriot Coal that spilled into an eastern Kanawha County stream Tuesday. The spill comes just more than a month after a storage tank leaked crude 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, into the Elk River in Charleston, contaminating tap water for 300,000 residents in nine counties.

In the Kanawha Valley, evidence regarding the water’s safety remains inconclusive: Citizens are back to using tap water, and environmental consulting firms say the water is not showing any identifiable amounts of the coal-processing chemical. But concerns over remnants of MCHM — which produces a licorice-like smell in trace amounts — remain, and led to the closing of 14 Kanawha County schools last week.

The savior in capital cities like Charleston? According to taste tester Jacki Ponti-Lazaruk, it’s rural water systems.

“When they had to bring water in to help those folks, water was trucked in from a rural water system,” said Ponti-Lazaruk, an assistant administrator with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s water and environmental programs. “Water was clean, good quality, drinkable, helped keep people safe.”

Without investment in rural water, that option would not have been available, she said. Following a declaration of a state of emergency by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on Jan. 9, water distribution points were set up across several counties to provide clean water from outside areas.

But for water experts, the threat of contamination is a familiar one, according to Mike Keegan, an analyst with the rural water association.

“Threats to drinking water are not a surprise to the people who actually take care of it,” he said. “This does identify what we’ve always known, which is that you have to be vigilant, you have to protect your source waters, and you really have to engage the public and the local government officials.”

The public dialogue on water safety is bound to change, Keegan said, due to the scope of the West Virginia crisis. Heightened public awareness will give groups like his a platform to push for tighter policies on water source protection.

“What the public really needs to be aware of is that they control their drinking water,” he said. “It’s not a corporate enterprise, it’s local government. They really have control of it.”

Over water-themed jokes about flocculation — a water purification method — and utility management, Keegan announced the winners in the unofficial competition: Stansbury Park, Utah came in second after Curtis, and Fulton, Mo. was third.

The judges’ panel, made up of four employees from various Capitol Hill offices and water management companies, critiqued water samples based on clarity, taste, and bouquet — the water’s subtle aromas.

Of the five samples, each a winner from a separate state competition, the little town in southwestern Nebraska won the majority vote. Saltine crackers were provided on silver platters to clear judges’ palates.

“Every day National Rural Water is advocating for rural utilities, we’re working to ensure our communities have a clean, reliable source of drinking water,” President Doug Anderton said in his opening remarks. “We’re working to ensure the regulations systems must follow are affordable and based on sound science.”

Anderton also praised the Mississippi Rural Water Association’s strong efforts to continue to provide water services despite ice storms and tornados this year.

Competition is one thing, Ponti-Lazaruk said, but the impact that rural water systems can have is what sticks.

“These folks in this room and the people who work for them are so important for the economic situation in rural America,” she said, “[That] drives everything, how we eat, how we keep ourselves warm.”