Austin Water conducts targeted flushing to remove smelly water

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin Water is performing targeted flushings Sunday in areas still affected by the smelly and unusual tasting water in south and central Austin. While some residents told KXAN that their water is starting to smell and taste better, others say they still aren't noticing a difference. 

 Austin Water mapped out the areas which have already experienced this targeted flushing.

KXAN watched one of the crews doing the fifteen-minute flushing at Summerset Trail near Oak Hill and were made aware of another flushing at  Yellowstone Drive in far South Austin at around the same time. The old water gushing out of those pipes had a noticeably strong smell, KXAN reporters on scene confirmed. 

"You could smell it, it smelled a little rusty, almost like pipes," said Harry Bodine, who lives in the West Creek neighborhood. 

He and his wife have been relying on bottled water ever since their tap water started smelling on Thursday. Bodine said the smell doesn't bother him too much, but his wife notices it and her skin became irritated after washing her face with it. 

"I just hope the water gets back to smelling good and being able to drink it," Bodine said. 

Crews were sent to more than seven different routes throughout the day to conduct the process which takes around 15 minutes. Austin's Water Protection Department says that the Austin Water crews flushing the hydrants out use dechlorination tablets on the water prior to releasing it into the drainage system. 

Austin Water says the flushings will be ongoing as they continue to see improvements in the quality of the water.

It was discovered earlier this week that the foul smell and taste in the water was caused by dead Zebra mussels.

Austin Water believes these smells and odors were sparked when the city took offline one of their raw water pipelines at the city's Ullrich Water Treatment plant on Lake Austin for two weeks for a capital improvement project.  During this time, it's believed the zebra mussels infested this pipeline in unprecedented numbers. When the pipeline was put back in service on February 6, Austin Water believes that chemical retardants used to stop zebra mussels killed this newly spreading group of invasive mollusks, leading to the smells Austin Water customers experienced. 

Austin Water maintains that though the water may smell, it is safe to drink because of regular disinfecting processes already in place. 

Zebra mussels first came to Texas in 2009 and were first found in the Austin area on Lake Travis in 2017. Since then, the mussels have spread, infesting all the lakes in Austin, clogging up pipes, and creating extra expenses for businesses and property owners. 

The invasive mollusks were first found at the city's three water treatment plants back in September, and the city has been working since then to try and minimize their impact, knowing that taste and odor issues in the water might occur. 

The smells coming from water produced by the Ullrich plant in the past week are the first time that most Austin residents have felt the impact of the spread of this invasive species. 

To treat this odor, the city's water utility has been pouring powdered activated carbon into the water coming from Austin's Ullrich water treatment plant on Lake Austin, a strategy which Austin Water says is working. 

"No traces of odor are showing in the water currently coming from the plant," explained Ginny Guerrero, a spokesperson with Austin Water.  "The targeted flushing is to help move the water through the distribution system quickly. As the newer water replaces the old, we should see improvements."

She assured KXAN that Austin Water customers are not required to take an action while crews work throughout the weekend to fix the issue. 

Comments from Austin Water to concerned customers on Facebook also said that the targeted flushing will not affect customers' bills. 

Austin Water is urging anyone still experiencing smelly water to contact 3-1-1 and provide them with your location. You can find the full map of flushings here.

In South Austin, Sara Kleinsmith who lives off of South Manchaca Road said that despite the city's efforts, she believes the bad odors in her water are actually getting worse. 

She and her family have relied on bottled water to drink over the past four days. After a load of laundry turned up smelling "like fish," they have been washing their clothes at a friend's home in Cedar Park. Kleinsmith plans to bathe her three-year-old son in bottled water until the smell of the water improves. 

"You wanna trust your elected officials, but if your body is telling you don't do it, like don't do it, that's exactly it, it's a visceral reaction, it's instinctive," she explained.

KXAN confirms that Kleinsmith's tap water did indeed smell unpleasant. 

"The last couple of days it feels like more and more people are getting involved and noticing their water hasn't changed or are getting angry," she added. "[Austin Water] needs to have some sort of compassion or empathy because right now they are not identifying at all with the concerns of the residents."

Kleinsmith has tried contacting city departments and reaching out to them on social media but hasn't been satisfied with the answers she's seen. 

"As a resident, it's really making me reconsider whether I'd like to stay here long term because if we can't trust the water, that's just very basic," she said. 

She and her family have stocked up on bottled water again just as they did during the week-long, citywide boil water notice in the fall of 2018.

"Only this time it's worse because we can't do our laundry without it smelling and we can't take showers without it smelling, so I think this is worse than the water crisis we had in November," Kleinsmith said. 

"But I'm genuinely concerned about homes that can't afford bottled water," she said. 

She wants to see more regular updates from Austin Water, and a plan from city leaders about how smelly situations like this can be avoided in the future. 

Kleinsmith said she's spent well over $100 on bottled water, disposable dishes and trips to do laundry since the water in her house began smelling. 

"I don't think that any Austin residents that are being impacted by this should have to pay their full water bill for the month considering that we don't have usable water," she said. 

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