Pardee Reservoir. Photo: EBMUD
Pardee Reservoir. Photo: EBMUD

The drinking water for 1 million customers of East Bay Municipal Utilities District had an “off” odor and taste over the weekend and, while EBMUD is fixing the issue, customers might have to get used to it.

The culprit? The drought.

EBMUD usually draws the drinking water for the majority of its customers from the bottom of Pardee Reservoir, about 100 miles east of Berkeley, according to Abby Figueroa, a spokeswoman for EBMUD. But on Thursday, the water district started taking water from the top portion of the reservoir. The water there is warmer and contains some algae, so even though it was treated before gushing into pipes in Berkeley, Oakland and elsewhere, there was a peculiar smell.

Read more about the California drought.

It takes about two days for the water to make its way to the Bay Area and when it arrived Saturday there was a flurry of emails and tweets to Berkeleyside about it. Figueroa said EBMUD has gotten about 200 emails, tweets, and phone calls about the taste as well.

Residents described the water as tasting like “raw meat,” or having a “metallic taste.” Others said it was “gross-smelling,” “horrible” or “weird.”

Area residents have been wondering online about the funky water. Image: Twitter

The bad smell and taste should go away by the weekend if not sooner, said Figueroa. Monday, EBMUD changed course and began to draw water from the deeper, colder section the reservoir in response to the complaints, she added.

“We will be able to reverse it this week,” she said. “The taste and odor complaints should go away in a few days.”

But the underlying issue that caused the complaints is drought-related, and customers might find that their water taste degrades in the future if the drought continues, said Figueroa. However, all water delivered to EBMUD’s 1.3 million customers is safe to drink, regardless of how it smells, she said. The water meets all state and federal safety standards.

“It’s very possible with depleting reservoirs that these taste and odor problems will come back if the drought persists,” said Figueroa.

Customers can refrigerate the water or put it through a charcoal filter to remove the off taste, she said.

Because of the drought, now going into its fourth year, there is no snow left above the Pardee Reservoir. Normally there are several feet of snow at this time of year and when it melts it delivers cold water into the system. That is not going to happen, which means the temperature of the water in Pardee will go up. When water is warmer, algae grows and creates a strange taste, she said.

EBMUD is trying to mitigate the situation in several ways. It is asking customers to conserve water. It is also looking to buy more water and is negotiating with the federal government. If EBMUD gets more water, it can dump it into local reservoirs and preserve the water in Pardee, Figueroa said.

Every water agency is worried that the drought may persist for a few more years, she added. If that happens, the water quality delivered will most likely decline.

There are four gates on Pardee Tower and EBMUD usually draws water from the lower two gates because the deeper water is less likely to be affected by sun and heat. The agency switched to the upper gates on March 26 “in order to preserve as much cold water as possible for later in the year,” said a spokeswoman. Photo: EBMUD

EBMUD is required by a 1998 Joint Settlement Agreement with the California Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department to deliver cold water into California’s rivers and streams in the fall to help salmon spawn, she said. The agency was trying to preserve some of that colder water when it withdrew warmer water from the top Thursday. The coldest water in the reservoir is about 50 degrees and the warmest is about 63 degrees.

Pardee Reservoir contains about 177,760 acre feet of water, about 89% of the reservoir’s capacity, she said. EBMUD needs to need to save 28,000 acre feet of cold water for release later this year downriver to meet its environmental obligations.

“As long as there is at least 100,000 acre feet of water in Pardee, we must make these releases to improve spawning conditions for salmon in the fall and winter,” said Figueroa.

Cal, city of Berkeley take steps to curb water use (08.05.14)
New drought rules would see Berkeley reduce its water use (07.14.14)
Op-ed: Steps we can take towards long-term drought solutions (03.04.14)
EBMUD asks East Bay customers to cut water use by 10% (02.12.14)

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...