By Rachel Swan
8 May 2015
(SF Gate) – The acrid tap water that flowed for several days last month into thousands of East Bay homes, prompting a flurry of complaints about its bad taste and smell, will be making an extended comeback starting next week — perhaps through the year, or longer.
California’s drought combined with legal obligations to protect threatened fish species will require the East Bay Municipal Utility District to switch to its unsavory reservoir of water for most of its 1.4 million customers beginning on Sunday. And the water district expects to rely on this supply until at least next winter, when they hope substantial rain and snow will replenish the reservoir.
EBMUD employees call the sour water “the taste of drought.”
Residents in Oakland, Berkeley, Walnut Creek and other East Bay cities can expect the sour taste to return Tuesday, because it takes time for the new water to travel the 90 miles from its Pardee Reservoir source.
Some EBMUD customers first experienced the pungent water in March, after the utility decided to draw from upper valves in the Pardee Reservoir, taking water closer to the surface where it’s warmer and algae tend to bloom. Although the algae are filtered out during treatment, they leave behind compounds that taste sharp but are nonetheless safe to drink.
Usually, EBMUD draws from lower valves deeper in the reservoir where the water is colder and not affected by sunlight and algae. But that colder water must be released into the Mokelumne River so that salmon can spawn, per a 1998 settlement among EBMUD, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The fish need about 70,000 acre-feet — or 22.8 billion gallons — between now and September, and another 70,000 acre-feet in the next 6 months. (One acre-foot is equivalent to covering a football field in about a foot of water).
With little snowmelt dripping in, EBMUD said humans are stuck with the warmer water that leaves a distinctly bitter aftertaste. The water district is also filling its San Pablo and Upper San Leandro reservoirs with a two-month supply of Sacramento River water, obtained via a federal contract. It’s negotiating with various sellers for an additional two-month reserve from the same river. Because that water comes from a different source and has a different chemistry, it could also have a different taste, EBMUD officials said.
Dissatisfied customers took to social media in March with colorful adjectives to describe the water as “dirty and soapy,” and having the smell of “old/not-quite-rancid bacon grease.”
“Last time we changed the valve on a Thursday, got complaints over the weekend, and reversed the decision Monday morning, wanting to look into other options,” said EBMUD spokeswoman Abby Figueroa. “What I’m saying today is: There are no other options.” [more]