By REBECCA ISENHART
Niskayuna’s drinking water lost a little of its sparkle last week when, in an annual blind taste test, it was rated second-best in Schenectady County. Rotterdam bested the defending champion by just one vote.
The Schenectady County Best Tasting Drinking Water competition took place at the Schenectady farmers market on the corner of Jay and Liberty Streets on July 24. Shoppers at the market met plant operators from each municipality, then sipped water samples and voted for their favorite and second favorite.
Tim Nagell, Niskayuna’s chief water plant operator, has been cleaning and monitoring the town’s water supply for 30 years. He landed the job by chance when he applied to do maintenance work and was offered a trainee position at the water plant instead.
Nagell said in his experience, people don’t usually know much about where their water comes from.
“They only know when it doesn’t come out,” he said.
The contest is a good way to educate people.
“It’s more of an awareness thing,” he said. “It’s a rivalry between the municipalities, but we’re all friends.”
Anyone who stopped by the tasting table was invited to learn more about their daily source of hydration. Visitors learned that every day, Nagell and his coworkers check the chemical levels in the water. As is industry standard, the team adds fluoride for public health and phosphate to control corrosion in the water pipes. The town also filters the water to remove iron deposits.
“We all take pride in what we do,” he said.
Another fact residents might not know: Their water comes from an underground source called the Great Flats Aquifer. The town provides much of its own water, but also purchases some from the city of Schenectady to supplement its supply.
The county contest is often a close call. The competitors, Glenville, Rotterdam, Schenectady, Scotia and Niskayuna, all have pretty tasty water, and it all tastes pretty similar, being from the same aquifer.
In the competition, “the key is temperature, and sometimes chlorine,” said Jason Pelton, groundwater management planner for the city of Schenectady. On a given year, between 75 and 100 votes are cast in the county contest, he added.
Beyond the county, at the regional and state levels, Pelton said the Schenectady County competitors frequently win. Niskayuna won the regional and state competition in 2012 and the regional competition in 2013. The city of Schenectady holds a couple of titles as well.
Pelton attributes the water’s pleasant taste to the consistent, abundant groundwater in the aquifer. The five competitors combined can provide the county with up to 5 million gallons on any given day.
After sipping samples and casting a vote, Kathy Shearer, who manages the Schenectady farmers market, commented on the fun, friendly nature of the water-tasting competition.
“It’s a big hit here,” she said. “These guys, they’re so into it. They have all these techniques, like they make sure it’s chilled just right.”
Shearer struggled to choose a winner for her vote.
“Some of them you can taste a little more chemical; some of them are a little sweeter,” she said. As for her final pick, “It just tasted fresher,” she said.
Rotterdam went on to win the regional competition later in the day at the Capital Region taste test at Alive at Five in Albany. Rotterdam bested county winners from Albany, Rensselaer and Saratoga and now goes on to the State Fair competition Aug. 26.
In the meantime, Rotterdam Town Supervisor Harry Buffardi is exercising his local bragging rights.
“I think [Niskayuna Town Supervisor] Joe Landry owes me a glass of water on this one,” he said.