California Drought: Sour water — a New Normal in the East Bay?

Posted in: Drinking Water News, Drought, United States Water News, Water Contamination, Water Crisis
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Justin Lagana-Jackson, Oakland resident in the Laurel district, poses for a portrait in the yard at his home on Monday, March 30, 2015 in Oakland, California. Lagana-Jackson noticed a different taste in his water after drinking from a water bottle filled from the garden hose while working in his yard on Sunday. Photo Credit: Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle.

Article courtesy of Rachel Swan | March 30, 2015 | SFGate | Shared as educational material

East Bay residents first noticed a bitter taste in their tap water on Saturday.

“It’s very metallic … almost minerally,” said Justin Lagana-Jackson, a resident of Oakland’s Laurel district, who was caught by surprise when he tried to slake his thirst from a garden hose while doing yard work on Sunday night.

Lagana-Jackson tried some tap water from the sink and thought it tasted equally strange. He tried the bathroom sink — still funny, he said. He took his concerns to a message board on the neighborhood social network Nextdoor, where other residents were making similar complaints.

It turns out the taste, and a foul odor associated with it, comes from algae in the Pardee Reservoir, which supplies most of the drinking water for East Bay Municipal Utility District customers. The good news is that it’s safe to drink, said Abby Figueroa, an EBMUD spokeswoman. The district continually tests for contaminants that derive from toxic algae, and so far it hasn’t found any, said EBMUD Director Andy Katz.

The bad news is that pungent drinking water might be a recurring problem, so long as the state’s drought persists.

EBMUD began using the sour water last week when its operations department decided to draw from higher up in the reservoir, to preserve the colder, downstream water for salmon in the Mokelumne River. The district has a legal obligation to release enough cold water each fall so that the fish can spawn, owing to a 1998 settlement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. EBMUD pumped from other reservoirs to keep the Pardee at 89 percent of capacity, Figueroa said. But with little snowmelt dripping in, EBMUD has to save about 28,000 acre-feet — or 9.1 billion gallons — to meet its part of the agreement.

One way to do that was to send the higher, warmer water to its East Bay customers. Algae tend to bloom in that water, and even after treatment it leaves behind an acrid smell and a mineral flavor.

Shortly after that supply began cycling through treatment plants last week, EBMUD faced a deluge of calls from irritated customers in the affected areas: Oakland, Piedmont, Alameda, Berkeley, Emeryville, El Cerrito, Albany, Kensington, Lafayette, Walnut Creek, Moraga, Alamo, Danville, Diablo, Blackhawk, San Ramon and Orinda. The water district serves many more residents in East Bay cities that were not affected.

Residents posted colorful descriptions of the new tap water on social media, characterizing it as “dirty and soapy” and “hella weird.”

Katz responded to their gripes on Monday with a Facebook post of his own.

“The algae is filtered out in the water treatment process, and the water is continuously tested to meet drinking water quality standards,” he wrote, adding that some residents might still get a residual tang over the next couple of days, even though the district switched back to drawing water from the usual downstream source in the Pardee.

EBMUD may, however, be forced to use the upper-reservoir supply again this season, Katz and Figueroa warned.

“The drought raises questions about whether this is the new normal,” Katz said, adding that EBMUD might pursue other options, like siphoning water from the Sacramento River via an agreement with the Sacramento County Water Agency. It might eventually try a treatment that would improve the water’s odor and taste, though that might take years to install, Katz said.

But if we’re looking at a decades-long period of scarcity, then it might be worth investing in such capital projects, he added.

Lagana-Jackson said he will continue drinking from his tap despite the new flavor. “It’s not like it’s particularly bad,” he said, adding that the crisp, mineral overtones remind him of Aquafina. “I’m from San Diego,” he added, explaining that he’s already well acclimated to sour water.

Others who are more sensitive to the taste change might try refrigerating their water or using a filter. That might have to be a long-term solution, according to Katz and Figueroa, and it will probably be one in a laundry list of inconveniences that Californians will face in the coming years.

“With our dwindling water supply, there are going to be other effects of the drought,” Figueroa said. “This is one of them.”

 

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