Yuck! Why does this water taste funny?

Most Texans, at one time or another, have experienced a foul taste in their drinking water. It may have been a musty, earthy, moldy, or woody taste that is fairly common in surface water supplies across the United States.

Your local utility usually issues a notice that the water is experiencing the typical run of taste and odor, but the water is safe to drink. They are correct, assuming all other regulations are met; the water is safe to drink.

What causes this unpleasant taste in the water during different periods of the year? Though some taste and odor issues may be attributed to industrial causes, normally they are derived from a natural base. Many people explained the problem as “the lake turning over” which in some part is correct, but the real culprit was probably due to the presence of algae.

There are many different types of algae. Diatoms, greens, blue-green and actinomycetes flourish in the early part of the year when spring rains cause large amounts of runoff to flow into reservoirs. The runoff carries nutrients, which are the food source for algae. As the days become longer, the sunshine and nutrients allow algae to bloom.

When blue green algae end their lifecycle they emit an oily substance called geosmin. Very small amounts of released geosmin result in the musty earthy taste encountered.

Naturally-based taste and odor problems have plagued water utilities for many years. Utility operators have employed numerous methods to control or minimize the intensity of taste and odor issues. The application of varied treatment techniques throughout the water purification process include the use of potassium permanganate, activated carbon, ozone, chlorine dioxide, copper sulfate, and numerous other compounds.

However, as they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The best way to eliminate taste and odor issues is to prevent the formation of the organisms that cause the problem. One answer is watershed management strategies. These strategies limit the use of nutrients that feed algae in areas surrounding certain lakes, rivers, and streams.

For example, a homeowner with a lake-side address proudly spreads fertilizer on their lawn. The grass and ground absorb a large amount of the fertilizer. However, during heavy rains, the excess chemical is washed directly into the lake. The fertilizer now provides nutrients to the algae growing in the lake. The alga begins to bloom and the taste of the local water changes.

Though sensitivity to taste and odors in water varies remarkably between consumers, every customer expects the water coming into their home to be safe to consume, pleasant in taste, and clear in appearance.

So what can you do if your water has an offensive taste or odor? Point-of-use devices especially made for the home such as water filtering pitchers or filters attached directly to your faucet may assist in filtering out some of the taste and odor experienced. Keeping drinking water cooled also reduces the intensity of the taste. Refrigerators that provide ice and water in the door are now available with replaceable carbon-based filter systems that will also help with taste and odor.