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City officials working to pinpoint cause of odd odor, taste in drinking water; safety not a concern, they say

posted Jun 15, 2012, 8:35 PM by Ramandeep Dulku

By Chad Lawhorn

June 11, 2012

Officials at the city’s two water treatment plants are running tests today to determine what is causing odd taste and odor issues with the city’s drinking water, but are confident the water remains safe to consume.

“It is an aesthetics issue,” said Jeanette Klamm, a spokeswoman with the city’s Utilities Department. “There aren’t any health issues related to the taste and odor.”

Klamm said the city had received at least 20 calls about the taste and odor issues by early Monday morning. She said plant operators began noticing the issue during the weekend.

City leaders already have a suspicion about what is causing the “earthy and musty” tastes and odors — algae. Now, they just have to figure out what type of algae.

Klamm said plant operators believe they’re dealing with geosmin, which is a by-product of dead algae that accumulate at Clinton Lake and sometimes in the Kansas River. The city’s water plants have experienced high levels of geosmin on an almost annual basis during the last several years. But usually, geosmin outbreaks occur in August when the heat of the summer has killed large amounts of algae at once.

Klamm said the city may receive test results as soon as this afternoon.

As for when the water may begin tasting better, that may be another day or so. Klamm said plant operators currently are reporting the taste and odor issues are on the decline at the two treatment plants.

“But that won’t necessarily help the public today because our systems are full of older water,” Klamm said. “We have to use the existing water before the public will start to notice an improvement.”

City officials don’t believe they are dealing with an algae outbreak of the same nature that caused the Kaw Water Treatment Plant to temporarily close last summer. In August, the Kansas River had high levels of blue-green algae that came from upstream reservoirs, including Milford and Tuttle Creek.

The issues associated with blue-green algae are less understood by water plant professionals than the geosmin outbreaks. Some studies have concluded exposure to water with blue-green algae can cause health problems for humans and especially pets.

Last year, the city’s treatment plant was found to have successfully filtered out the blue-green algae from the drinking water, but as a precaution officials shut the plant down during the height of the outbreak.

Although city officials don’t think blue-green algae is to blame for this week’s taste and odor issues, they are preparing for a similar outbreak in the future. At Tuesday’s city commission meeting, commissioners will consider approving $40,150 for Lawrence to participate in a study of Kansas River water.

The study will be led by the Kansas Water Office and will include the cities of Topeka and Olathe and Water District No. 1 of Johnson County.

Already the Kansas Department of Health and Environment has issued eight advisories related to blue-green algae levels and one warning for Kansas lakes. So far, neither Clinton Lake nor any of the lakes directly upstream from Lawrence’s Kaw Water Treatment Plant has been included in the warnings or advisories.

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