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What's behind the 'off' taste of tap water in Fargo, West Fargo?

The Red River flows over the midtown dam Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018, in Fargo. Organic content in the river has recently produced a bad odor in the city’s drinking water. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor1 / 3
Carbon used to treat drinking water is displayed Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018, in Fargo’s Water Treatment Plant. Organic content in the river has recently produced a bad odor in the city’s drinking water. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor2 / 3
Carbon is mixed with river water Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018, in Fargo’s Water Treatment Plant to reduce odors. Organic content in the river has recently produced a bad odor in the city’s drinking water. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor3 / 3

FARGO — If you've noticed a recent change in tap water in Fargo and West Fargo, it's not your imagination.

Troy Hall, Fargo's water utility director, has received some calls wondering why the water seems "off."

"It's not like it's ringing off the hook. From one, to maybe four or five (calls) a day," Hall said.

The city of West Fargo is in the same boat, as it buys drinking water from Fargo.

The change in taste and odor is not related to a short-term spike in bromate levels that happened in mid-December, causing the city to issue an alert to residents a few weeks later. Instead, Hall said it's due to organic content in the Red River, from which the city is currently drawing its water for drinking. The problem usually rears its head in the springtime as melting snow pulls more organic matter into the river, but it can happen anytime of the year, he said.

Ozone gas, the primary water disinfectant used by Fargo, can remove some tastes and smells, and powdered carbon added at the start of the water treatment process settles some compounds to keep them from going through, but neither method is guaranteed.

"We try our best to make the taste go away, but we can't get all of it out," Hall said.

However, he said the water is safe to drink and remains in compliance with environmental standards.

When Fargo's new water treatment plant is finished, workers will be able to monitor organic compounds in the river. The new plant could also prevent the kind of problem that happened in December, when an equipment malfunction caused false low ozone readings.

At the time, Sheyenne River water was being used in the Fargo Water Treatment Plant.

Bromide concentrations are typically higher in the Sheyenne than the Red, the city said.

Notices went out to customers Jan. 25 stating Fargo's drinking water failed to conform to Environmental Protection Agency standards for bromate concentration over a nine-day period in December.

The standard average is 0.010 milligrams per liter, while Fargo's sample was 0.088 milligrams per liter. Bromate forms when ozone reacts with naturally-occurring bromide found in source water.

At the time, Dr. John Baird, Health Officer for Fargo Cass Public Health, said a bromate limit for drinking water is set over concern that some people exposed to high levels over many years may have an increased risk of cancer, but he saw no cause for concern.

Hall said bromate levels are "completely back to normal."

As for the taste and smell issue, a little patience is required.

"It typically takes days to a couple weeks, then it kind of passes," Hall said.

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