You may have recently noticed a musty, earthy taste to Austin’s tap water, but city water officials say it’s still safe to drink.
Austin Water is blaming the smell and taste on a record-setting algae bloom in Lake Austin, where Austin derives its drinking water, the city’s utility said. While Austin’s water treatment process removes the algae, it can’t always remove all the harmless compounds that the algae releases.
“The water does not taste as well as we’d like it to taste,” said Jane Burazer, who oversees Austin’s water and wastewater treatment. “But it’s an aesthetic issue, not a health issue. When you talk about compounds in the parts per trillion, it’s a tiny amount. … I believe it’s safe even in higher concentrations. It’s just that it tastes terrible.”
Lake Austin had a similar algae bloom in summer 2014 and most recently in March, said Jill Mayfield, Austin Water spokeswoman.
Byproducts from the current bloom began showing up in routine samples from the lake in July. Austin Water then began adding activated carbon into the treatment process to minimize the taste and smell of the compounds, Burazer said. Last month, the utility started getting more complaints from customers about the taste and smell.
On Thursday, Austin Water — which uses workers as odor and taste testers in their lab — increased the carbon used in the treatment process to match the rise in compounds, utility officials said. However, there is still a chance the taste and odor may not be entirely eliminated.
“Everybody’s sensitivity to taste differs,” Burazer said. “Right now, I think we’re at the point where he most sensitive people are tasting it.”
Austin Water officials believe the algae growth is linked to the drought and its effect on the Colorado River. Lake Austin’s water becomes more stagnant as less water is released upstream from lakes Travis and Buchanan during a drought, Burazer said
She said she doesn’t know how long the algae bloom will last.
“I wish I could predict Mother Nature, but I can’t,” she said.
It’s unlikely that the situation would worsen to the point where Austinites cannot drink the water, she said. This algae bloom should not affect plants or animals either.
Austin’s tap water continues to meet all regulatory standards set by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency, the utility’s officials said. Austin Water will continue to monitor taste and odor issues until officials find that the algae bloom has run its course.
NOT AS BAD AS TOLEDO
Algae made headlines the summer of 2014 when a massive bloom in Lake Erie forced the city of Toledo, Ohio, to suspend water service to nearly half a million people. In August of last year, the water was declared unfit to drink or use at home after a test revealed high levels of microcystin, a toxin from the algaelike bacteria microcystis, in the processed water.