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Easthampton water named best in nation by National Rural Water Association taste test



Laste modified: Friday, February 13, 2015
EASTHAMPTON — Easthampton’s public water supply has been named best in the nation, just months after repeated incidents of high levels of total coliform bacteria resulted in state intervention.

The city’s water took the top prize at the “Great American Taste Test” held each year by the National Rural Water Association in Washington. On Wednesday, expert judges sipped five municipal water samples from wine glasses to determine which was the best in the country, according to Easthampton Water Superintendent Tom Newton.

The win comes after the city entered into a consent order with the state Department of Environmental Protection on Dec. 12 after repeated incidents of elevated levels of total coliform bacteria were found in the water supply last year. Multiple tests in August and September revealed bacteria levels beyond the legal limit, though Water Department officials said the bacteria are “generally not harmful.” Newton said the contamination likely occurred after the installation of two water mains.

Now, Newton said, the water supply is free of any elevated levels of bacteria after affected parts of the water system were flushed and decontaminated. The consent order, which is a legally binding agreement between the state and city, includes response actions should additional incidents occur.

Easthampton’s journey to being named the best-tasting water in America began in the fall, when it won the Massachusetts Rural Water Association’s competition. Competitions like the Massachusetts one, held in Northfield, happen in each of the 50 states. Winners of those contests are then sent to the National Rural Water Association rally in the capital.

The water associations are aimed at providing technical assistance to smaller-scale water and wastewater treatment providers — “for people who wear several hats, unlike Boston, Springfield and Worcester who have more people doing more things,” Newton said.

While Newton said he was honored that his city took home the gold, he said the real purpose of the event is to lobby Congress to support funding for municipal water providers.

During his time in the capital, Newton, along with the Massachusetts association director and another staffer, visited all 11 members of the state congressional delegation.

After an initial visit earlier in the week, Newton said, Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, and Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren invited him back if Easthampton were to win.

He said he returned to their offices for a “photo op” after the big win Wednesday.

“They thought it was great,” he recounted. “This is a great thing for Massachusetts, not just Easthampton. They’re as proud as we are.”

Newton noted that the three most recent Bay State winners of the national competition all come from Neal’s district — Three Rivers in Palmer, Southampton and now Easthampton.

“If you think about that, you kind of wonder about the groundwater in this district,” Newton said.

The winning sample came from the Nonotuck Park Well, fed by the Barnes Aquifer. The aquifer is the same one that feeds Southampton, the national winner in 2008.

The sample collected by the Easthampton Water Department was sent via FedEx to the capital earlier this week. Tuesday, the sample was one of five selected by judges to move on to the final competition.

Wednesday afternoon, Newton watched as judges dressed in white coats sipped the samples from “highly polished wine glasses” in a blind taste test. They were looking for three things: clarity, taste and bouquet.

“It was a little bit of fanfare,” Newton said.

Newton said he was in disbelief as the winner was announced. He recalled camera flashes firing as he posed for photos with the bronze and silver winners from Alaska and Utah.

“It was kind of like the three winners of the Olympics,” he said “The gold in the middle.”

Newton, who was born and raised in Easthampton and lives there to this day, said for him, the win was a moment of great pride. “I’m kind of a little bit on cloud nine,” he said.

Newton said word of Easthampton’s high water quality has been a thing of legend since he was young. He remembers people filling up water jugs at troughs located at the end of water mains, like at Wayside Park, until the late 1980s.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest, he said, with the opening of Abandoned Building and Fort Hill breweries, which he believes were attracted to the city in part for its high-quality water.

Newton said the bacterial contamination last year was likely from the installation of two water mains, one of which was behind the Pleasant Street mill buildings.

“It’s not the easiest thing to do without getting the dirt in those pipes,” he said, explaining how soil is often the culprit in bacteria spikes.

Though contractors flushed and disinfected mains after the August tests, Newton believes it was not thorough enough. In September, subsequent tests again revealed elevated bacteria levels. Newton said the bacteria have now been eliminated after the mains were once again flushed and disinfected, using procedures exceeding state mandates.

Chris Lindahl can be reached at clindahl@gazettenet.com.