Water & Drought

Is your Sacramento tap water tasting strange? You’re not imagining it

Slimy algae blooms foul California’s waterways

California waterways were exploding with potentially toxic algae blooms in 2016, another fallout from the prolonged drought.
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California waterways were exploding with potentially toxic algae blooms in 2016, another fallout from the prolonged drought.

You’re not crazy. The water in Sacramento really does taste like dirt right now.

The culprit is a compound called geosmin in the Sacramento and American rivers. It’s produced by blue-green algae blooms somewhere upstream, according to city of Sacramento spokeswoman Ellen Martin. The water system’s treatment process removes the algae, which makes the water safe to drink, but it leaves behind geosmin, which make the water taste strange, she said. And while it is unpleasant to drink, it’s not harmful.

The algae in this case has not been linked to any toxic blooms in the region, according to Greg Gearheart, with the California Water Board.

The last recorded toxic bloom was found in Folsom Lake on July 18, but the toxin levels were so low that they weren’t a threat and didn’t warrant a posting, he said.

Blue-green algae blooms are common across California this time of year. The high temperatures combined with low water levels create the ideal conditions for algae because it thrives in stagnant, shallow water, according to a report by the World Health Organization. Heavy winter rains also eroded nutrient-rich soil into rivers and lakes, which feeds algae.

While the Sacramento and American rivers are running high, the tributaries that flow into them are still low, Martin said. The Natomas Drainage Canal, which flows into the Sacramento River, showed the telltale signs of green flecks on the surface, indicating an algae bloom.

Even though there aren’t any active blue-green algae blooms in the region, the compounds such as geosmin that cause drinking water to taste like soil have a longer life span.

“Taste and odor problems can stick around after a bloom dies,” Gearheart said. “They have a life of their own.”

As a resident of River Park near the American River, Gearheart said he notices changes in the flavor of his drinking water every year. It usually lasts until the fall when the heavy rains come, he said.

The Sacramento 311 line has received more calls lately complaining about the taste of the water, but Martin could not say exactly how many calls.

The city of Sacramento has looked into treatments for removing geosmin from the water, Martin said, but since geosmin is not toxic and the treatments are expensive, officials decided it wasn’t worth the cost.

To offset the bad taste, you can add lemon or chill the water before drinking it.

Editor’s note: This story has been changed to correct the spelling of the chemical compound, geosmin.

Molly Sullivan: 916-321-1176, @SullivanMollyM