City of Austin: Zebra mussels to blame for downtown’s smelly water

Austin
Zebra mussel file photo

AUSTIN (KXAN) — If you live in downtown or south Austin and your water smells funny, Zebra mussels are the reason why, according to Austin Water.

Thursday afternoon, Austin Water responded to complaints from several residents reporting water containing an unusual odor. According to the release, routine test results indicate that the odor issues were likely caused by the presence of Zebra mussels in a raw water pipeline at the Ullrich Water Treatment Plant.

The Ullrich Water Treatment Plant is one of the city’s three water treatment plants, it is located on Lake Austin. It was also the plant that had the most difficulty treating water during the Central Texas flooding in October and the subsequent boil-water notice in Austin. 

Austin Water assured customers that the water is safe to drink and there is no boil water notice. 

But the zebra mussels are likely here to stay in Austin’s waterways. 

“This is a new norm for us,” said Rick Coronado, Assistant Director over Operations for Austin Water.

The city of Austin has hired a consultant to help them deal with the zebra mussels, and the pipes and valves at the water intake plants will require more work to keep them zebra mussel-free. 

Crews have started feeding powdered, activated carbon into the water which is often used to help with taste and smell issues. Additionally, water lines in the area are being flushed. Austin Water hopes the problem will be resolved in 24 hours. 

This isn’t easing the fears of some Austinites who say they have doubts about the water utility following the city’s week-long boil water notice in October. 

Residents tell KXAN that their water in downtown Austin “smells like septic or toilet water.”

“The water smells like rotten trash when I attempted to shower and brush my teeth,” another downtown resident told KXAN. 

“I probably wouldn’t have thought that much of it except for when [the boil water notice] happened it kind of stopped to make you think, ok, is this safe? and I was like I don’t want to boil water this morning,” explained Madison Bowen, whose water was impacted by the smell in her downtown Austin apartment. 

Bowen said she’s scrapping her plans to cook Thursday evening, she doesn’t want to wash vegetables in the water, let alone drink it. She worries that tinge of the smell is still in her hair from showering in the water. 

“I worked out this morning, so I can either smell like sweat or I can smell septic-y so which do you want?” she laughed.

“I was at my hotel today and I went to take a shower and I thought the shower smelled like fish,” explained Laura Compton who traveled to Austin for a conference. KXAN put some of the smelly water in a bottle and asked her if she recognized the smell.

“Oh yeah that’s it, oh God, it smells like fish, that’s it!” she said.

What are Zebra mussels?

These tiny mollusks can be transferred by even small amounts of water, which has prompted calls from state agencies and environmental groups to have the public clean boats and any possessions that encounter the water after each use. 

Zebra mussels were first found in the state in 2009. They were first confirmed in Lake Travis in July of 2017, then quickly spread across the Colorado Basin.

Robert Weiss who owns Lake Traivs Scuba said, “About two years ago, we spotted one or two Zebra mussels. Months later, they’re everywhere. A year later, you can’t dive without seeing them.”

He explained, when he took his boat in for maintenance recently, there was a 2 ft. x 2 ft. pile of zebra mussels. Theycan latch on to any surface under water.

“Any lake around here is getting the Zebra mussels,” Weiss said.

Pictured: A view of the Ullrich Water Treatment Plant when the intake system was first installed. Waters were lower at the time.

Currently, Lake Travis, Lake Austin, and Lady Bird Lake are listed by Texas Parks and Wildlife as fully infested with zebra mussels. 

In September, a dive team for the city of Austin found zebra mussels in a city water treatment plant intake valve for the first time. The city was expecting this to happen eventually but now has to prepare to deal with the impacts of these small mussels. 

PICTURED: A view of the Ullrich Water Treatment Plant with higer waters, its screens below the water level.

These mussels reproduce quickly, harm water quality, clog up pipes, hurt native wildlife, and have caused concern in many Texas waterways in recent years.

The mussels are also expensive and time consuming for boat and property owners to clean up 

Texas public agencies recommend cleaning your boat, trailer and gear by removing all plants, animals or debris. It also means draining all the water from your boat and possessions before leaving the lake. Finally, public agencies recommend drying the boat or trailer for a week or more before entering another body of water (or if that isn’t possible, wash the boat with a high-pressure washer with hot, soapy water). 

In Texas, possession or transportation of Zebra mussels is a Class C misdemeanor for first-time offenders with a fine of up to $500. For people who’ve done it more than once, the offense can be elevated to a Class B misdemeanor. Repeat offenders can wind up with fine of as much as $2,000, up to 180 days jail time or both.

KXAN tests the water

We fielded several messages Thursday morning from people who live in south and central Austin. Although the city didn’t issue a boil water notice and told the public the water was safe to drink, we decided to take a sample for testing.

We collected a sample from a homeowner on Arthur Lane. We collected a residential water supply testing kit from the Lower Colorado River Authority’s Environmental Laboratory Services division on Montopolis Drive. The testing we had the lab perform included every test parameter LCRA is certified to perform.

The kit includes detailed instructions on how to collect the water samples, which includes guidelines on how to prevent contamination of the results. We returned the kit to LCRA’s lab within 30 minutes of collecting the samples.

The lab accepted the samples and said the results could take between seven and ten days. KXAN will update the findings as soon as the results are ready. 

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