After the Water Crisis
10:49 am
Sun February 23, 2014

What Does the World's Best Water Smell Like? (Hint: It's Not Black Licorice)

Judge Michael Cervin smelling the water at the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting competition
Judge Michael Cervin smelling the water at the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting competition
Credit bottledwaterweb.com

When I signed up to be a judge at the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting, I thought it would just be a bit of fun -- a relaxing weekend in an historic West Virginia mountain spa town.

Then came the water crisis: a massive spill of the coal-cleaning chemical MCHM into our water supply, and more than a week under a “do not use” order.

My seven-year-old son, Max, came down with the stomach flu right in the middle of all this, We couldn’t use tap water, not to wash our hands or even our clothes. I’ll spare you the details but, it was rough.

So you can understand how the spill changed my outlook toward a water-tasting competition. On the day of the competition, I arrived completely unsure how to judge the quality of water. I learned to trust my sense of smell -- in more ways than one.

This is an event some Berkeley Springs leaders dreamed up 24 years ago to showcase their historic springs (home of "George Washington's Bathtub.")

Contestants from five continents entered, as far away as Tanzania, Bosnia, New Zealand, and South Korea. A panel of mostly novices like me were to judge dozens samples of tap water and bottled water (both sparkling and non-carbonated.)

We were trained by watermaster Arthur von Wiesenberger, whose name so perfectly matches his job that I am skeptical whether it is real.

“People will say that water is just like air: it has no taste or smell,” von Wiesenberger told us.

“Well, ask the people in Beijing if the air has no smell -- or the people in Charleston about the water,” he said, and looked sheepishly at me.

Water being distributed in Kanawha County, W.Va.
Water being distributed in Kanawha County, W.Va.

Ah, the smell. That black licorice smell. After the spill, it wasn’t just emanating from the water. It permeated the air of the entire Kanawha Valley. One night, the anise odor so strong, we could smell it inside our house. It was astringent. It hurt to breathe it too deeply.

After state officials finally stopped the MCHM from entering the water supply, after they told us to flush our pipes, you could still smell it in the water for weeks. I would engage in a nervous ritual: run the tap, lean in a little and sniff three times -- and there it would be.

"Well, ask the people in Beijing if the air has no smell -- or the people in Charleston about the water," he said, and looked sheepishly at me.

So at the water tasting, when von Wiesenberger told us to sniff the water three times to judge its odor, I knew exactly what to do. I had trained.

Good water, von Wiesenberger told us, should have no odor. It may have a taste, based on its mix of beneficial minerals. But it should not smell.

Soon, I was judging the first category in the event: municipal tap water. I soon realized my sense of smell was one of the best indicators of whether I’d like the taste. If the sample smelled of chlorine or other chemicals, I was sure to hate it.

My son Max has a strongly-developed sense of smell...and he's a pretty good hiker, too. Both important skills for a West Virginian.
My son Max has a strongly-developed sense of smell...and he's a pretty good hiker, too. Both important skills for a West Virginian.
Credit Scott Finn / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

I’ve never spent much time thinking about smells, but my son does. Max has autism, and he has trouble understanding the world through speech.

Max has this habit of bringing all food and liquids to his nose and smelling it -- sniff, sniff, sniff -- before deciding whether he’ll eat or drink it. My wife and I joke that he acts as if we’re trying to poison him.

After the water crisis, I get it. Smell is what you depend upon when you don’t trust anything else. It is the most primal sense.

The other day at a grocery store in Charleston, I saw they were selling a t-shirt about the water crisis. It featured a man wearing a gas mask and the phrase, “Trust no one.”

That’s the lasting damage of the spill in my community. We were failed by so many institutions: government, private industry, the water company.

I’m the leader of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and I feel some responsibility to help turn that distrust and anger into something positive. How can we facilitate a discussion about moving West Virginia forward, and how can we, as a state, rebuild that trust?

Meanwhile, back at the water tasting, they announced the winners. I learned that Clearbrook, British Columbia has the best tasting tap water in the world, and Santa Ana, California is tops in the U.S.

And then I looked at the list of winners throughout the competition’s 24-year history. And there it was: Charleston, West Virginia, in the top five for best tasting tap water, in three separate years.

My beautiful home, Charleston, West Virginia
My beautiful home, Charleston, West Virginia
Credit Steve Shaluta / West Virginia Division of Tourism

Having the best water in the world is a proxy for many other things -- clean air, clean living, and a well-functioning, competent government. Maybe by following our sense of smell, by making our water tops in the world again, my hometown can convince the world and ourselves that we’re a wonderful little city in the mountains once again.