California’s Drought Is Changing the Way Bay-Area Water Tastes And Smells

The Bay Area’s water is still safe to use, but drought is causing a noxious algae bloom to affect tap water

Dirty Water
C.J. Burton/Corbis

Steamed onion. Chicken fat. Raw meat. Fish tank water.

This is not a shopping list or a compedium of digusting smells. It is a list of things the Bay Area’s tap water is being compared to. And, as CityLab’s John Metcalfe reports, these nasty tastes and smells of tap water have a pretty clear source—they're connected to California’s worst-ever drought.

Metcalfe reports that falling water levels have caused the water supply to come from shallow parts of the reservoirs that feed Oakland, Berkeley and surrounding cities—areas that breed algae. And while the area’s residents are not amused, officials insist the water is okay to drink.

In a statement, the East Bay Municipal Utility District said that it’s been drawing water from the shallows of Pardee Reservoir since March 26:

The operational change was made in order to meet requirements to preserve cold water deeper in the reservoir. Cold water must be released downstream later this year to improve river conditions for returning salmon.

Though algae is filtered out of the water at our treatment plants, it can leave behind taste and odor compounds that cannot be treated at our two largest treatment plants in Orinda and Walnut Creek.

On Monday, March 30, EBMUD temporarily returned to drawing water from lower elevation valves at Pardee Reservoir while we evaluate options to address the taste and odor concerns.

But Andy Katz, a spokesperson for the EBMUD, told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Rachel Swan that the foul-smelling water could be “the new normal.” He notes that the utility continually tests water to meet quality standards. But though the agency might decide to look into other options— like agreements with neighboring water agencies,—notes Swan, “that might take years to install.”

The Bay Area’s smelly water coincides with other concerns about the fallout from California’s record drought. NPR reports that yesterday, California governor Jerry Brown announced the first-ever mandatory water restrictions for the state, calling on California cities and towns to reduce water consumption by 25 percent and encourage conservation. “This historic drought,” said Brown, “demands unprecedented action.”

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