Kentucky Officials: Drought, Higher Temperatures to Blame for Unpleasant Taste, Odor in Drinking Water

The Kentucky Environmental and Public Protection Cabinet assured the public on Oct. 4 that drinking water from municipal water supplies is safe to consume despite drought-induced changes in taste and smell. The changes are attributable to low water supplies, high temperatures and supplemental water treatment, say state and local water officials.

"We have received several calls from citizens complaining that their tap water smells and tastes bad," said Julie Roney with the Drinking Water Branch of the Division of Water. "The drought, in combination with the extreme heat, has deprived many of Kentucky's rivers and lakes of both oxygen and current. They're like a pond -- if the water isn't moving, then you get a thin film of algae on top. Water treatment plants must then refine their chemicals to treat the new growth."

Chris Riddle, superintendent of the Frankfort water treatment plant, said low-flow water conditions in the Kentucky River generated algae growth last week, prompting plant employees to adjust the chemicals used to treat the additional algae.

"The water continues to be safe to drink, but it takes a few days before the earthy smell of the water improves," Riddle said. "What we really need to solve the problem is rain and cooler weather."

Wayne Kendall, chief operator at the Bardstown water treatment plant agrees. He has been using copper sulfate to battle a proliferation of blue-green algae in the plant's water supply.

"It's a direct result of a lot of sunlight and high temperatures," Kendall said of the algae bloom. "It's extremely hard to eliminate the musty taste and odor of the algae, even after it's treated in the system. We even went out and treated the lake three times to prevent a bloom, and it still hit us. I haven't seen conditions like this in 25 years of working at the plant."

Roney said warm temperatures magnify the changes in taste and smell of water. "Just like with the foods we eat, heat enhances flavor," she said. "So far, however, we've had no health concerns about water systems affected by drought."

Roney made several suggestions for improving the palatability of drinking water. "We recommend drawing water from your tap in a clean container and letting it sit in the refrigerator overnight," she said. "By cooling the water, you should not be able to detect any difference in taste and odor. This also dissipates the chlorine residual and other minor additives used in the treatment process."

Roney said carbon filters may also be used to remove most of the organic compounds that cause taste and odor problems in drinking water. Of the several types, pour-through filters are the most common and least expensive. All filters should be replaced when the taste or odor problem recurs or when the filter turns brown.

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