Odd smelling, tasting water in Bellingham caused by algae

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 17, 2014 

BELLINGHAM - A nontoxic type of golden algae is affecting the smell and taste of tap water for some Bellingham residents, according to city Public Works.

The algae, Uroglena americana, is not dangerous, but it is notorious for smelling very bad, even in small quantities, said Eric Johnston, assistant director of operations for Public Works.

Last year was the first time the algae was detected in Lake Whatcom, the source of Bellingham's drinking water.

The city has received about 30 complaints from residents in various parts of the city related to the odor, Johnston said. They described the water as tasting or smelling "musty, earthy or dirty."

For now, there is no specific plan for how to take care of the problem, but the city is considering mechanical and other options, Johnston said.

"It's hard to tell if things might change on their own, or if we can do anything at the (water treatment) plant," Johnston said. "It's largely an aesthetic issue. We're not recommending users do anything they wouldn't normally do."

The city is in the middle of the planning process for a pre-treatment system that will help prevent Lake Whatcom algae blooms from affecting the quality and quantity of the city's water supply.

The pre-treatment plant is set to be designed in 2015 and construction is planned to start in 2016.

"This is the exact type of issue a pre-treatment system is needed for," Johnston said. "That will largely eliminate, if not completely eliminate, this type of problem."

The plant would remove organic material, like algae, before water makes its way to the treatment plant.

In the past, elevated levels of algae, partly caused by phosphorous-laden runoff from developed areas, have clogged the city's drinking water filtration system and reduced the water supply. In 2009, algae concentrations were so high the city had to impose mandatory watering restrictions to cope with a potential water shortage.

The type of golden algae causing the recent odor is a very different type of problem and is not affecting the quantity of water, Johnston said.

Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at 360-715-2274 or Samantha.Wohlfeil@bellinghamherald.com.

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