Residents ask: What's with the water?

Some Palo Altans think water tastes and smells funny

If you've noticed a change in Palo Alto's tap water lately, you're not alone. Since last Sunday, residents have been complaining of a funny taste and smell to the water flowing out of their faucets, alternately describing it as stale or chlorinated.

The reason, in part, is the drought.

To save water, Palo Alto city staff have been less frequently flushing out hydrants and the city's main water distribution system. Residents have likewise been using less.

But with a smaller volume of water flowing through local pipes, the city's water supplier, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), has increased the amount of chlorine it's using to disinfect the water, according to Catherine Elvert, communications manager for Palo Alto's Utilities Department.

In addition, Palo Alto and other cities right now are receiving water from a local reservoir, the Sunol Valley Water Treatment Plant and Reservoir, rather than Hetch Hetchy, Elvert said.

"This can create some changes in taste, appearance and odor. Typically, any cloudiness is simply oxygen bubbles. Any discoloration or sediment will dissipate if someone runs the tap for a couple of minutes," Elvert wrote in an email.

Ironically, to make sure the city's water quality doesn't degrade, Palo Alto staff is currently flushing the water system, mainly in south Palo Alto. But that's causing changes in the water coming out of the tap as well. The flushing is expected to continue for one to two months, the city's website states.

A combination of the three factors – the increased chlorination, the reservoir water and flushing of the distribution system – are likely contributing to the funny tastes and smells people are experiencing.

However, Elvert said, residents should not worry about consuming tap water.

"We and our water supplier are required by law to adhere to strict health and safety standards for potable drinking water. Even with the activities I describe in this message, our water supply is absolutely safe to drink," she wrote.

Residents or others with significant concerns about water quality can contact the city's Water Transmission division at 650-496-6967.

Updates on water quality are posted on the city's Utilities Department website.

— Palo Alto Weekly staff

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Like this comment
Posted by Hulkamania
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 17, 2015 at 10:19 am

Hulkamania is a registered user.

Hetch Hetchy water is so pure that it won't conduct electricity.

3 people like this
Posted by Retired Teacher
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 17, 2015 at 5:10 pm

This article raises more questions than it answers.

First of all, why are we getting water from Sunol? Be nice to have some background! Cutbacks from SF? Cost? System upgrades that cut off supplies?

Second, doesn't the SFPUC use chloramine rather than chlorine to disinfect the water? Chloramine doesn't degrade anywhere near as quickly as chorine. Why use more? And no mention of chlorine taste in the water, if that's part of people's concerns. Anyone who has drunk LA water can't miss the heavy duty chlorine taste; is that going on here?

Third, Elvert's comments, however well-intentioned, sound like standard bureaucratic speak. We aren't flushing, hence the bad taste. We are flushing. Hence the bad taste. Run the tap for a while, all will be well. Oh, yes, no matter what, the water is always safe to drink.

I don't like to join in with the people suspicious of Palo Alto's current lack of openness. But this may be another example of some worrisome trends in our fair city.

4 people like this
Posted by ZebrA
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 18, 2015 at 12:28 am

This story could do with a bit more substantiation. I'm not sure flushing/low volumes has anything to do with the primary driver, which is the sourcing switch from Hetch Hetchy to Sunol Valley Reservoir.

Per Michael @ PA Utilities, Palo Alto was indeed forced to accept a switch to the water supply --- per an email 1/13 to the Utilities people, SFPUC [San Francisco Public Utilities Commission] informed [water buying] agencies [like Palo Alto] that beginning January 5th 2015 the Hetch Hetchy supply would be completely off line and the City, along with other agencies would be fed from Sunol Valley Water Treatment Plant and Reservoir at 100% with no timeline or completion date included. The most recent water quality data from SFPUC shows total chlorine levels out of Sunol Valley Treatment plant at 3.1ppm (3.0 min – 3.3max), up from their usual levels of 2.5-2.7ppm avg.

So, no -- "Retired Teacher" it looks to me from this communication that Sunol uses chlorine and not chloramine.

If people have concerns, questions, or want to put the screws on regarding when Hetch Hetchy will be back online, I suggest putting a call into:

John Reinert
Utilities Supervisor
Water Gas Wastewater Operations
City Palo Alto
(650) 496-6967 office

to find out if he can chase down a Hetch-Hetchy-back-on-line completion date.

1 person likes this
Posted by Long Time Resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 18, 2015 at 12:48 am

I am grateful to have clean running water, but I have noticed a smell of chlorine when I shower. Also my last load of dark clothing really lightened up a shade.
I use a laundry detergent which is supposed to help neutralize chlorine, but it didn't work. I can definitely see and smell the difference.

I am still happy there is enough water to go around, considering the increased population in the area.

6 people like this
Posted by Mike
a resident of University South
on Jan 18, 2015 at 7:30 am

"Any discoloration or sediment will dissipate if someone runs the tap for a couple of minutes" ????

Are you seriously telling people to waste water during this drought?

5 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 18, 2015 at 8:45 am

There has been a lot of water wasted lately due to flushing. They have been doing it in Mountain View too and that got on tv news.

I haven't noticed a difference with our water, but I have noticed the flushing. Can't they flush into some type of water truck and then use the water to, I don't know, water the grass or fill the lake at Foothills Park.

Like this comment
Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 18, 2015 at 2:32 pm

@Zebra - Sunol uses chloramine, pretty every source except wells has switched.

5 people like this
Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 18, 2015 at 9:57 pm

There is nothing like the city "saving" water by instructing residents to run water a few minutes before drinking it.

Seriously: The water is nasty right now. It tastes like drinking out of a water hose in the summer. It sometimes comes out looking like tea.

I agree with "Resident:" Surely the city can flush the water into another set of trucks and then use that water for some good purposes in which it would already plan on using water.

It would be nice to be able to drink our water.

Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 19, 2015 at 1:58 pm

What's the beef here? Sunol is part of the Hetch-Hetchy system.

Like this comment
Posted by Chris Zaharias
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 19, 2015 at 2:16 pm

Chris Zaharias is a registered user.

I've been trying to get traction with RainDance, a home exterior watering service that uses reclaimed water from PA's H2O treatment facility to water residential yards. So far only 10-15 subscribers.

Palo Altans use as much water on yard maintenance as they do indoors. This practice is clearly not sustainable, especially with rationing likely coming. We can maintain your lawn and yard using safe, fully-treated reclaimed water. The premise is pretty simple: we fill our 2000-gallon water truck at PA's Embarcadero Rd treatment plant, drive to your house and use double-wide hoses and sprayers to deep-soak your yard once every two weeks. For most yards, two soaks per month will keep your grass green and healthy. If you have a larger lawn, we can bump it up to three or four soaks. The cost is $100 per visit, and you can expect your water bill to be cut in half.

Like this comment
Posted by Jay Park
a resident of Mountain View
on Jan 20, 2015 at 10:29 am


Stick a bucket under the tap. Run for a couple of minutes or until clear. Shut off tap. Remove bucket and use water for plants, refilling your toilet tanks, etc.

4 people like this
Posted by Holding my Nose
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 20, 2015 at 3:45 pm

The water is clogging up the filters in my washer and fridge, and comes out of the faucet tinged with yellow--in spite of under-sink water filters. No way am I drinking this stuff, I'm buying bottled water.

I can't imagine what this is doing to my water heater!

2 people like this
Posted by Mike Alexander
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Jan 20, 2015 at 5:31 pm

Re: flushing. Sediment in water systems is due to a) imperfect filtering at the source and b)corrosion in pipes. Over time sediment accumulates and, if not flushed, can reduce flow/pressure in the system, and intrude into end-user fixtures.
System flushing gets rid of most of the accumulation before it can cause problems, but in the process, some sediment mixes in the water that people use, maybe coloring it, and accumulating in water heaters and input filters on appliances.
If the colored water were actually dangerous, the City wouldn't flush. People are squeamish though, and flushing your house pipes after the City flushes its pipes is the only way to clear them. Use it to water your trees.
Appliances have filters to keep sediment out of pumps and ice makers, out of your clothes, etc., and sometimes they need to be cleaned out. It isn't difficult to do, and it's a small price to pay for the convenience of indoor plumbing.

2 people like this
Posted by Mike Alexander
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Jan 20, 2015 at 6:27 pm

Re: water coming from Sunol. The tunnel that normally carries Hetch Hetchy water across the Coast Range mountains to the Bay Area is in a scheduled shutdown that began 1/5/15 and will continue until mid- to late-February. During the shutdown, our water comes from storage in Alameda County.

The shutdown is "to perform maintenance and inspections on the tunnel and construct crucial pipeline connections to the tunnel in the Sunol Valley while it has been drained of water." This is one of hundreds of Water System Improvement Projects (WSIP) undertaken since 2007 to update SFPUC water delivery infrastructure, including a new dam at Calaveras Reservoir, a new tunnel under the south bay, hundreds of miles of new pipeline, etc. See Web Link

3 people like this
Posted by John
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 29, 2015 at 6:44 pm

I've noticed a yellowish color in the water, I hope that's just rust.

Like this comment
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 30, 2015 at 1:54 am

There seems to be something odd with my water. My laundry is not rinsing clean, resulting in skin irritations. I've checked with several other PA residents who all advise rinsing twice or running 2 complete cycles with the last without any detergent.

Just what we need in a drought.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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