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Why does Edmonton’s water smell a bit funky?

Have you noticed the tap water in Edmonton has smelled a little off lately? Worry not, it's still safe to drink. . Getty Images

Have you noticed the tap water in Edmonton has smelled a little off lately? Worry not, it’s still safe to drink.

The odor and slightly different taste to Edmonton’s water in recent days is a yearly occurrence, due to spring runoff.

Every spring, as the snow melts and flows into the North Saskatchewan River, it brings with it large amounts of sediments, vegetation and other organic material that is washed off the land.

Read more: Potholes, alley ruts, flooding: Navigating spring driving hazards in Edmonton

This leads to a change in the quality of the water in the river, which gives it a musty and earthy smell.

As the water quality changes, EPCOR crews monitor it and changes the processes it uses to keep the water safe and tasting good. Powdered activated carbon is used during the first stage of water treatment, which helps remove odour-causing compounds. It is then removed by sedimentation, EPCOR explains.

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“Each spring runoff is its own kind of unique story,” said Jeff Charrois, senior manager of analytical operations and process development at EPCOR.

“But we have a few tools in our toolbox that we use to kind of manage. This year we’ve seen temperatures rise rather quickly and so runoff has started pretty strong, but over the past week we’ve started to increase our powdered activated dosing at the treatment plants and that’s used to act like a sponge to kind of mop up those organic compounds that we know can cause taste and odour challenges.”

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During this process to try to neutralize odours, residents may still notice a temporary change to the smell and taste of drinking water. Water quality specialists monitor and treat the water 24/7 as it enters the plant.

“It’s important to remember your water is absolutely safe to drink during spring runoff,” EPCOR states.

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Home sniffers

Did you know Edmonton has a Home Sniffing Program? Every year, more than 300 Edmontonians take part in the program, which is one way EPCOR gets feedback on the taste and smell of the city’s H2O.

During spring runoff, participants smell their tap water twice per day and enter their feedback in an anonymous online survey. The data is compiled each day and used as one metric on how and when EPCOR crews dose carbon during spring runoff.

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In 2021, EPCOR said 96 per cent of its home sniffers found no or limited odour in their water during spring runoff.

How long will it last?

When it comes to how long Edmontonians can expect the odour in their water, Charrois said it largely depends on Mother Nature.

“Depending on what else is coming down the forecast — if there’s more snow or precipitation — that will certainly influence what to expect next,” he explained.

“Typically that lasts a short period of time, maybe a couple of weeks. It depends on the year. But again, the feedback that people provide combined with the extra treatment and testing that we do, usually that’s sort of over with within a few weeks.

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“As the spring carries on, runoff sort of subsides and we get back to more regular operations.”

Ways to neutralize odour at home

While perfectly safe to drink and use, there are a few ways to help reduce the odour in the water.

EPCOR recommends running the cold water tap for at least three minutes in the morning and any other time the water hasn’t been used for six hours or longer.

Adding lemon slices to your water or using store-bought carbon filters can help with the taste.

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