Water’s ‘bayou’ smell will clear up; officials say safety isn’t a concern
Reports of smelly tap water have been trickling in around the Houston area, even after the lifting of boil notices. From President’s Day, when the winter storm rolled in, through Feb. 23 the city received 127 calls about water quality, more than double the 60 calls received over the same period before the storm.
Some who turned to social media described the water smelling like chlorine, while others described it on Twitter as tasting “FUNKY. Like dirt” or “the bayou.”
Alanna Reed, a spokesperson for Houston Public Works, acknowledged the smell had noticeably changed but said its safety had not. Houston Water has conducted more than 100 tests on drinking water samples since the boil notice was lifted Sunday, she said, and “Houston drinking water still meets or exceeds all of the federal and state standards.”
At first unsure of the source of the smell, the city called on the community to report water concerns to 311 and engineers mapped the influx of calls
to look for patterns.
Most complaints came from west of Interstate 45, and the resulting picture led the city to believe it had found the likely cause of the odors. The city takes water from multiple sources, and in the area west of downtown, groundwater from the west and surface water from the east — each treated using different chemicals — blend in the system.
When combined, those chemicals — chloramine in the surface water and chlorine in the groundwater — can create a taste, odor and even slight discoloration, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. After the lowered water pressure led to a boil notice, the city increased the disinfectants used to treat the water within regulatory parameters. The increased presence of those chemicals led to the smell many had noticed.
“The combination of these disinfectants leads to the odors that people experience — ‘the stink,’ ” the city said in a statement released late Wednesday afternoon.
“This will not compromise the safety of the water,” the TCEQ said in its rules and regulations for public water systems.
Houston Public Works will continue to monitor the water and plans to adjust disinfectant concentrations to pre-storm levels over the next two to three days, which should eliminate the smell.
Houston Water’s experience was not unique. Other utilities experienced the stink after upping the amount of groundwater in their system.
Clear Lake City Water Authority, which oversees water in Clear Lake City and parts of southeast Houston, said it believed the smell in its water is coming from well water.
Jennifer Morrow, its general manager, explained well water is safe to drink — it gets treated before it entered the system — but tends to have a smell and a taste.
“It’s perfectly safe to drink,” she said. “It’s just not as appealing.”
When water pressure fell, Morrow said, the system, which normally relies on surface water from lakes, supplemented its supply with well water. (The Houston area once used water pumped from the Chicot, Evangeline and Jasper underground aquifers as its primary source of water but shifted away after so much water was withdrawn by 1979 that land in the Houston-Galveston region sank by as much as 10 feet, according to the United States Geological Survey.)
“We turned on some of the wells to get water back in the system for fire suppression purposes,” she said.
The freeze not only burst pipes, which lowered water pressure, but also led to a number of fires as residents looked for ways to stay warm.
Clear Lake City Water Authority stopped using well water when water pressure resumed over the weekend. However, much of the well water is still in the pipes, leading to the continued odor and taste experienced by some in the area.