Monday, December 05, 2005

In-depth reporting on Nevada City's fishy water - an experiment in open source journalism

During at least the last 15 years, Nevada City has repeatedly suffered from poor drinking water quality. When our new city manager came onboard several years ago, he seemed to have gotten the problem under control somehow, but in the last year or so the water has reverted to its previous occasional foulness. The yearly water quality reports sent to all city residents typically report excellent water quality, and do not mention or explain the recurrent problem.*

So far, efforts to obtain a satisfactory explanation have not yielded satisfactory results. (partly due to my not following through, partly due to general busy-ness of city staff, partly due to the general entropy of communications...the point isn't to assign blame, it's to get answers.)

Hence - and in a general spirit of inquiry - I offer an open source journalism experiment and invite your participation:

Below I've laid out what I think I know and what I'd like to know. Do you have further questions? Perhaps a local weblog or newspaper or other news outlet could help to flesh out this information?

If you have questions or investigative/reporting skills to contribute, please, get to work...

Occasionally, Nevada City's drinking water develops a problem - a "fishy" smell, an odd/bitter taste, discoloration, and (it seems to me) a strange "greasy" texture.

The problem is worst in the neighborhood around Pioneer Park (served by the water tank nearest the drinking water treatment plant?), and typically worst after a dry spell following the first rains, e.g. around Thanksgiving.

The contamination is said
(by whom? )
(and with what level of confidence? from 0% to 100%)

to be due to "cold water algae", that grow primarily in
our reservoir? the water tanks? Little Deer Creek? somewhere else enroute?
(what is the name of our reservoir?)

Has the alga responsible been identified?
(if so, when and by whom, and what's the species?)

if not -
  • What attempts have been made, when and by whom?
  • What would it cost, roughly, to get an identification?
  • if cost unknown, how could we get a rough estimate of the cost?

Other questions:
  • Are growths of the algae more visible, at the times when the water has this problem?
  • On the phone, I've been told that the water treatment process gets rid of the odor by "oxidizing the compound" that causes it.
    By what means is this done?
  • Is the problem addressed in other ways as well?
  • if not, are there other ways that it could it be addressed? (eg. by increasing the reservoir inflow/outflow?)
  • Is there any documentation on the web that you'd recommend, that covers the "cold water alga" issue?
  • Have other communities encountered the problem, and if so, have they solved it or does it periodically come back to haunt them too?
  • Would it be possible for a citizen journalist or paid reporter (and perhaps Alan Stahler,* if he's in town) to be shown the reservoir, (drinking) water treatment plant, etc?
  • Where is the water intake location in the reservoir - does it vary, in distance from top, in different seasons?
  • Has the raw water (when foul) been measured for microcystins?
  • What other questions should we be asking, if we want to acquire a full understanding of the problem?

If you can help to get answers, we who drink and bathe in the problem will thank you.


questionMan said...

"The problem is worst in the neighborhood around Pioneer Park"

How was this conclusion come to?

Russ Steele said...

Q: Why does my drinking water taste or smell "funny"? Will this smelly water make me sick?

A: The most common reasons for bad tasting or smelling water are:

A funny taste can come from chlorine that is added to the water to kill germs.
A rotten-egg odor in some groundwater is caused by a nontoxic (in small amounts), smelly chemical called hydrogen sulfide dissolved in the water.
As algae and tiny fungi grow in surface water sources, they give off nontoxic, smelly chemicals that can cause unpleasant taste in drinking water.
A defective magnesium anode or "mag rod" in your hot water heater can cause a rotten egg odor.
None of the contaminants that could affect your health can be tasted in drinking water. You should report any sudden change in taste or smell in your drinking water to your water supplier. Call the City of Gillette Water Division at 307-682-5276.

Anna said...

> How was this conclusion come to?

Empirical. We are the ones who complain.

The issue was raised in The Union several years ago (featuring inane commentary from a complainant, plus photo)

From the subsequent report of City Council meeting (Feb 2002) at which it was discussed:
"A cold-water-loving algae and possibly some other organic nutrients may be why Nevada City's water smells bad, the water treatment plant operator said Monday...For some unknown reason, the smell occurs only in some areas, he said..."
(I think at that meeting it was stated that the 'problem' area is served by the first water tank. But when the water was at its absolute worst (Thanksgiving, maybe 2001?) I think it was bad all over town.)

When I called to complain before Thanksgiving this year, City Hall was taking names and phone numbers (and indicating, again, that the problem's in our area)

It can be pretty impressive. One time I had the sprinkler running on the front lawn, and could smell it from about 30 ft away.

Anna said...

> ' Q. Why does my drinking water taste or smell "funny"?
> ...None of the contaminants that could affect your health can be tasted in drinking water.'

Thanks Russ for the excerpt. Keep in mind though who's putting out this information, and whether they have reason to want to present a partial truth.

And try googling for "cold water algae" "drinking water", or permutations thereof - I didn't find much.

Plenty on blue-green algae and their toxins though, including the deaths in Brazil (of dialysis patients, admittedly a special case)

Is it possible that the problem stems from a blue-green algae? I don't know, and the indication from a city email (perhaps misunderstood; am still awaiting clarification) was that I wouldn't be permitted to visit the reservoir to judge.

This is why we need journalists who have institutional backing.

Anna said...

p.s. water treatment plant operator left a message on my home phone (where I wasn't) today, so he's making an effort; but I'd asked (via city manager) that he answer the questions here in the weblog comments, and still hope that will happen.
(or, better yet, that the answers will show up on Yubanet or KVMR or The Union tomorrow)

Anna said...

For visitors - Matt Woolsey's(*) photo of Pioneer Park is here.

Anna said...

and - sorry for monopolizing the comments section, but need to correct -
Above, where I'd said "...indication ...was that I wouldn't be permitted to visit the reservoir..." I had misremembered; the email referred to "the wastewater and water plants" and didn't mention the reservoir. (though I'd asked)

So I don't know about it.

Paul Johnson said...

Fishy- smelling, taste, Nevada City water an annual occurrence since 2001. I have a Four year log sheet from 1-10-2001 to 12-7-2005.
This log shows a pattern. Fall is when the fishy tasting-smelling water starts and clears up on and off till spring.Every Thanksgiving dinner we have fishy -tasting -smelling Water. I call the palnt and City hall every time the water starts to taste fishy so the plant can Resolve the problem before the storage tank is so bad they have to dump it out. I live at the four corners Gracie and gold flat and Nimrod st. The water treatment plant is up Gracie road towards Banner.December 2003 the water treatment plant made some changes. they swiched from a Carbin treatment to a Co2 oxidation treatment. It works pretty good if they monitor the storage tank and incoming water regularly. This thanksgiving two weeks were pretty Bad. Even City Hall tasted the fishy water taste from their own Fountain. But the water took two weeks to taste good. city Hall and the treatment plant say it happens every fall. Thats true. My Question is if the water treatment plant knows this happens, then why can't the incoming water and storage tank be monitored more frequently to prevent the water we drink, bathe, wash, taste and smell so bad. After keeping a daily log since jan.2001 I could show you alot. Paul Johnson , Nevada City

Anonymous said...

Why does Nevada City perform a annual Water Quality Report when the Water is Good? (June) I challenge Nevada City water treatment plant to perform a Water Quality Consumer Confidence Reportin November, or December.
I also live near Nimrod st.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Happy New Year to all. We the people on Nimrod st. at the fourcourners of Nevada City will end 2005 with drinking water that smells, and taste like a old fish pond. Yep, the same old problem is starting up again. I hope 2006 has a better tract record. Paul Johnson on Nimrod st and Gracie .

Anna said...

Hi Paul, yeah, I noticed it too, which is weird since the recent "weather" (delete the 'e' and the 'h' for increased specificity, there's been more fluid than air in the atmosphere lately) is so far from the typical "problem-producing" weather pattern.

Hang in there, we're going to get answers.

(and for visitors, here's a recent photo of Pioneer Park; the caption should read "Canoeist Heads for Washroom")

Anonymous said...

Hello, fellow Nevada City Residence. As of sunday Jan. 8th evening our drinking water started to taste and smell like a old fish pound again. I was hoping our city drinking water would stay good threw the new year of 2006 and more. The rain stopped tuesday Jan 3rd, we had a little friday Jan 6th, now sunday Jan 8th eve., the drinking water taste bad again. I ask please, Chris the Nevada City water Plant head plant operator to have the In coming and storage reservoir water more frequently monitored.The city of Grass Valley has consistent good tasting and smelling Drinking water,if you need to, please Call the Grass valley Plant and ask them how they treat water that taste and smells good all year around. I asked my neighbors near gold flat and nimrod st. About the City drinking water taste and smell They told me they Do Not drink the Water. and some have a water filter system to filter the water before it gets to their house. they should not have to do this. They pay enough water Fee's to have Consistent good drinking water year around to the City of Nevada City. Paul Johnson of the fourcourners of Nevada City.

Anonymous said...

Hello fellow Nevada city residence. Last night(1-9-06) our drinking water had reached the worst smell and taste of the year.
As I was taking a shower last night I did not feel very clean after showering with the old fish pond water smell the Nevada City water treatment plant provided me with. My clothes did not smell so good either, they also smell like an old fish pond from washing the clothes with Nevada city teated drinking water. Please I beg you talk to Grass Valley water treatment operators,ask them how they teat their drinking water. Grass Valley's drinking water taste and smells good 24/7 all year around. Their water is fed by a NID ditch, stored in a reservoir, treated and distributed drinking water that taste and smells great 24/7 all year around.
Paul Johnson of four corners gold flat and nimrod st. Nevada City

Anonymous said...

Thanks nevada City water treatment plant, by tuesday noon you made some changes to the water treatment. The water taste good now. Please monitor the water a little more offten. You know what you did to correct the taste in just a few hours. I hope it last. Thanks Again, Paul Johnson from
gracie rd and Nimrod st.,Nevada City

Anonymous said...

Well the good tasting drinking water did not last long here on nimrod st,Nevada City. thursday the 12th the water got bad again. To bad to drink and to take a shower in it was terrible. It was like a old fish pond. I called City Hall and Mark Miller city manager. i asked Mark to please step in and do something. He Did and the water was great once again very quickly. Sad to say by saturday eve threw sunday the old fish pond smell and taste was back. I guess no one is at the water treatment on the weekends.
The shower this morning was terrible. I'll call Mark Miller again momday morn. Paul Johnson of Nevada City, Gracie rd and Nimrod st

PJ said...

The Fishy-Smelling NC drinking water is back on Nimrod st. 04/30/2012
Paul Johnson