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California’s historic drought is causing drinking water to taste like dirt. Officials say, ‘just add lemon’


By Rachel Ramirez, CNN

Something is off about Sacramento’s water. It smells and tastes a little “earthy,” residents are saying — an effect of compounding climatechange crises: extreme heat, little to no precipitation and a historic drought that has gripped the region for the better part of a decade.

Up and down the state of California, rivers, streams and reservoirs are drying up. In Sacramento, that has led to an increase in the concentration of geosmin in its drinking water, one of two organic compounds that give soil its characteristic smell.

It might not taste great, city officials say, but it’s still safe to drink.

Sacramento utilities officials said they had to put out a statement after receiving calls from residents complaining about the taste.

“We realize that it’s unpleasant,” Carlos Eliason, the city’s utilities spokesperson, told CNN. “The earthy taste that some of our customers are experiencing is harmless and can be neutralized by adding some lemon or putting it in the refrigerator.”

After more than a decade of extreme drought, it’s not unusual for Sacramento’s water to taste a little off. It just doesn’t usually start to taste funky until the late summer or early fall, when water levels are at their lowest.

It’s not clear how high the geosmin concentration will get in the coming months, as lakes and reservoirs continue to dry up. But given the trends, it will likely increase.

Future improvements and expansions to Sacramento’s water treatment plants could eliminate such compounds.

“We’re evaluating different treatment technologies to adapt to some of these (dry) conditions,” Eliason said, adding that the city is expanding research programs at water treatment facilities to monitor the effects of climate change as well as investing in groundwater infrastructure instead of relying on rivers. “Our goal is always to provide high quality, good-tasting drinking water and we want to do that as much as possible.”

Scientists have warned that human-caused climate change is fueling drought and ravaging the water supply in the West. On top of that, warmer temperatures mean less snow in the mountains. Sacramento residents rely in part on snowpack from the Sierra Nevada, which melts into a series of reservoirs, lakes, and dams that feeds the Lower American and Sacramento Rivers.

Already, California officials announced Thursday that because of the fast-depleting water supply at Northern California’s Lake Oroville, they will be forced to shutter the Edward Hyatt Power Plant for the first time since it opened in 1967.

Lake Oroville — the state’s second-largest reservoir — is on the Feather River, which feeds into the Sacramento River and delivers water to Sacramento residents. Meanwhile, Folsom Lake, which feeds the Lower American River and is another one of the city’s primary surface water reservoirs, is also seeing tragically low water levels. The river is also a critical habitat for salmon and steelhead fish.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom in May declared a drought emergency in 41 of 58 counties, about 30 percent of the state, including counties surrounding the Klamath River and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, underscoring that climate change fueled the early warm temperatures and severely dry soil that resulted in low amounts of water flowing to major reservoirs. State officials are increasingly urging residents, farmers and businesses to find ways to conserve water.

The State Water Resources Control Board also sent out a notice last week about the lack of water availability to thousands of water rights holders in the Sacramento-San Joaquin region. The notice urged water users in the agriculture, municipal, recreation and environmental protection sectors to preserve the rapidly declining water supply to meet demands for the current and following year.

“We do not come to this decision easily,” Erik Ekdahl, deputy director of the division of water rights, said in a news release. “We are asking people to reduce their water use, and we recognize this can create hardships. However, it’s imperative that we manage the water we still have carefully as we prepare for months, perhaps even years, of drought conditions.”

As the planet continues to warm, researchers say California will continue to experience drier conditions and an unprecedented loss of water runoff.

“Effects like the change in taste in drinking water serve as an important reminder that the city and our partners have to be good stewards of our resources as these dry conditions continue throughout Sacramento, the region, and the state,” Eliason said.

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