News Feature | January 13, 2014

Columbus Battles Foul Odor, Flavor In Drinking Water

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome


Columbus, OH, is making a big investment in tap water—for an unfortunate reason.

The city is spending $600,000 on the water system because it needs to "treat its drinking water for a mysterious foul smell and flavor," the Canton Rep reported

The money is going toward carbon treatment for the city's tap water. The foul water is affecting about 500,000 city water customers. 

"The city is treating the water from a large reservoir with five times the carbon it usually uses," the report said. 

The situation does not appear to present health problems, according to the state. "Officials with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency said that their recent tests found no contaminants in the water and that they are becoming 'more engaged' in the problem,” the Columbus Dispatch reported

Still, the problem baffled engineers up until recently. "The city has received more than 1,000 complaints,” the report said

Now the city appears to have honed in on the cause of the unfortunate stench.

"City officials said the issue stems from algae called anabaena, which produces earthy and pondlike flavors and odors," the report said. "Anabaena often secretes an 'oily' substance from cells that creates an odor in the water."

The new treatment approach is an expensive one. 

"The extra carbon is costing the city about $300,000 a month. The treatments are expected to continue into mid-January or until the issue is resolved," the Dispatch said, citing Laura Young Mohr, spokeswoman for the city’s utilities department.

The Columbus Department of Public Utilities explained its approach: "Due to the magnitude of this event and to try and alleviate the issue, Columbus is spending an additional $10,000 a day to add powder activated carbon at a rate of 50 milligrams per liter. This is 5 times the normal amount of carbon used. Typically 10 to 20 milligrams of carbon will eliminate a taste and odor event within a week." 

But this is still not a perfect plan. 

"Due to the type of algae in the reservoir (Anabaena), which is known for creating pond-like taste and odors, only a 60 percent taste and odor removal rate is being achieved, thus the treatment capabilities are not fully eliminating the problem," the department said.  

But more carbon cannot be used.

"This is as much carbon as can be added that will have any effect. Other efforts are being made such as using water from different levels of the reservoir and other treatment adjustments. Everything possible that can be done presently is being done to try to restore the taste to what customers have come to expect," the report said. 

Infrastructure updates may help tackle the problem in the future. 

"Mohr said the city is two years away from filtration improvements to the Hap Cremean Water Plant that will eliminate odor and flavor problems. The plant treats the water from Hoover Reservoir that is delivered to residents north of I-70," the Dispatch said. 

For more on how utilities test tap water, visit Water Online's Clean Water Analysis Solution Center. 

Image credit: “Columbus Ohio Stitched image," © 2011 Howard TJ, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license:

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