Does Your Tap Water Taste Like the Drought?

By Zach Adams-Dominik

Warm, shallow water is a breeding ground for bacteria-producing fungi and algae.
Warm, shallow water is a breeding ground for bacteria-producing fungi and algae. Photo Credit: Zach Adams-Dominik

Is the Water Coming From Your Faucet Funky? Is it Foul? Is it Fetid? Is it Still Safe to Drink?

As California enters its fifth year of severe drought, water conservation continues to dominate public discourse. Most people are well-aware of the potential ecological impact the low level in our reservoirs could have, but some in the community are also noticing an additional adverse effect of the drought: off-tasting water.

“Sometimes the water just doesn’t taste right,” opined a third semester BCC student and long-time Berkeley resident. “And the smell, it can get foul. Like bad eggs.” The complaint of moldy or sulfurous tasting and smelling water is a common one according to a recent BCC Voice poll, but is it necessarily a cause for alarm? According to East Bay Municipal Utility District, or EBMUD (the public water agency that serves Alameda and Contra Costa counties), it’s normal and still perfectly safe to drink.

EBMUD, which provides service to 1.3 million residents, says most unpleasant odors or tastes found in the water can be attributed to bacteria growing in home drains and water heaters. They also report that certain types of algae, fungi, and bacteria growing in the water supply can introduce chemicals that have similar effects. These chemicals, the most common being geosmin and 2-methylisoborneol, have been studied extensively and, according to a 2009 study published in Biocontrol Science, are non-toxic to human cells, though they do impart the unpleasant smells and taste and are detectable at levels as low as 5 parts per trillion. Addressing their customers’ concerns for a pleasant drinking experience, EBMUD treats the water from the Upper San Leandro and San Pablo reservoirs specifically to rid it of these chemicals.

To ensure the quality of public drinking water, the EPA sets strict standards and regulations, guaranteeing that our water is free from, or has safe levels of, over 90 different contaminants. EBMUD goes one step further and checks for more than 100 different contaminants and performs over 20,000 laboratory tests for its annual water report. All of our tap water is treated, checked, and then checked again.

However, if the drought persists, off-tastes and odors could become a more serious problem. EBMUD could be forced to use water at higher depths if the reservoirs aren’t replenished, where more sunlight means warmer temperatures and a more hospitable climate for the problematic algae, fungi, and bacteria to grow. This could potentially lead to a situation similar to the one Berkeley saw last March, when EBMUD took water from higher parts of the reservoir in efforts to preserve the colder, lower water for spawning fish, creating a large public outcry over the taste of the tap water.

So, what to do if you can’t stand the water coming from your faucet? Most home filters should be able to return the flavor of your water to something more palatable. Or, as a cheaper alternative, some have suggested that refrigeration aids in taste. Fortunately for all of us at BCC, the water fountains and water bottle filling stations are equipped with filters and anti-microbial plastic components, providing consistently clean and good-tasting water.

If you have any issues or a pressing concerns that are water-related, EBMUD can be contacted directly at 1-866-403-2683.

East Bay Municipal Utility District. “2014 Annual Water Quality Report.” N.p., Apr. 2015. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Mochida, Kyo. “Evaluation of the Cytotoxicity of Geosmin and 2-Methylisoborneol Using Cultured Human, Monkey, and Dog Cells.” J-Stage. Biocontrol Science, 2009. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

“National Primary Drinking Water Regulations.” United States Environmental Protection Agency. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Sep t. 2015.

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