The climate crisis is rendering parts of California downright dangerous with wildfires and extreme heat. To add insult to injury, it’s also making drinking water in some areas literally taste like dirt.
The city of Sacramento issued a statement this month saying it has received complaints from residents who said their tap water had an “earthy” taste and smell. Officials said blue-green algae blooms are to blame. When bacterial blooms form on the surface of the Sacramento and American Rivers, they excrete geosmin, a natural bacterial product that’s also responsible for beet peels’ musty taste and the smell soil emits after it rains.
The good news is that the geosmin is entirely harmless. But it can certainly make tap water unpleasant to drink—a huge annoyance as residents hydrate to beat the blistering heat.
Water treatment plants remove algae from drinking water before it gets into residents’ pipes, but they can’t get the geosmin out. Humans are super sensitive to the compound—we can detect even smaller amounts of it than lab equipment can. Officials said there’s nothing they can do to improve the taste and smell, but suggest—perhaps helpfully, perhaps insultingly—that folks add lemon to their tap water or stick it in the fridge to help get rid of the nasty taste.
The funkiness tends to show up annually in Sacramento’s water, and sometimes also affects parts of the Bay Area. But usually, geosmin outbreaks don’t occur until late summer or fall. This year, the compound showed up early, and the climate crisis is to blame.
Thanks to the ongoing drought and increased heat in California, waterways are experiencing unusually low levels and high temperatures. It comes after a not-great snow year and a blistering spring that melted out what snowpack there was early and dried everything out. Those are ideal conditions for blue-green algae to form.
“Due to the dry conditions, river levels are lower and water temperatures are higher sooner than usual—causing more organic materials—so it’s not too surprising to get these calls now,” said Mark Severeid, Sacramento’s water quality superintendent, in a press statement.
No one knows how much algae and geosmin will form in the Sacramento and American rivers in the near future, but since they’re continuing to dry up, concentrations are likely to rise. The gnarly water is one symptom of a punishing drought that’s gripped the West and has diminished water supplies for farmers as well as hydropower generators. Another crushing heat wave this weekend will compound the already bad situation, and Sacramento could be among the hottest locations in the state.
Residents will likely have to get used to the foul water. But hey, when life gives you lemons, put them in your water—or something.