Zebra mussels blamed for stinky tap water in Austin

Officials with Austin Water say zebra mussels have been found clinging to filtering screens in the city’s water intake pipes on Lake Travis. (Photo courtesy: Austin Water)

Zebra mussels are being blamed for Austin's smelly water. Austin Water says the water is safe to drink, but customers in central and south Austin say it doesn't smell like it.

“It smells a little bit like sewage or maybe just like old lake water,” said Lisa Hickey who lives in Central Austin.

Across Central and South Austin thousands of people turned on their showers this morning and were quickly bathed in an obnoxious odor. Hickey says the water coming from her faucets smelled so bad she skipped her shower.

“I'm wearing this hat today because I didn't get a chance to wash my hair,” said Hickey.

The stinky problem is being blamed on zebra mussels that have infested Lake Austin. The nickel-sized shellfish look harmless but in large numbers they can wreak havoc.

“That's the first pipeline that we've inspected that actually has zebra mussels,” said Rick Coronado, Asst. Director of Operations at Austin Water.

Coronado says the zebra mussels were found in the raw water pipeline that takes water from the lake and gets it to the Ullrich Water Treatment Plant in West Austin.

“This pipeline is about 72-inches in diameter so we saw roughly a two-inch layer of zebra mussels,” said Coronado.

Lake Austin's infestation has created a new norm for Austin Water. The zebra mussels have the utility working with a consultant and reaching out to other cities, like Dallas, to figure out how to stop taste and odor events.

“We definitely understand this is an area of adaptation for us. So, we'll grow from this and learn and be a little more resilient,” said Coronado.

For now, some customers say the stink is off-putting.

“I washed my hands and for a little while the smell was on my hands,” said Hickey.

To help mitigate the odor problem, Austin Water is flushing the line and feeding powdered activated carbon into the water. Austin Water says the water is safe to drink and customers should notice an improvement in the smell within 24 hours. In the meantime, some customers plan to drink bottled water.

“The water smelling like sewage and being told it's safe to drink is concerning,” said Hickey.

Last September, Austin Water said zebra mussels were found clinging to filtering screens in the city’s water intake pipes on Lake Travis.

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