A bit “earthy” is how Lawrence city officials described the taste and smell of the city’s drinking water for a period in June 2012.
I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether that is the adjective of your choice to describe the city’s tap water during last summer’s outbreak of geosmin, an algae byproduct that was in the city’s drinking water.
While “algae byproduct” certainly is a phrase city officials would like to no longer have associated with their water supply, city commissioners have a multimillion dollar question facing them on that subject.
City officials continue to estimate that it will cost about $19 million to equip the city’s two water treatment plants with new equipment to make it less likely that geosmin outbreaks will affect the city’s tap water. If the geosmin posed a health risk to the public, it would be an easy decision. But geosmin isn’t a danger to health; it's just a danger to taste buds.
At their meeting on Tuesday, commissioners will receive a report from the city auditor on the water’s occasional taste and odor issues, but it doesn’t do much to answer the tough question of whether commissioners ought to undertake a major, unbudgeted upgrade to the city’s water treatment plants.
But the audit does include results from a survey city officials took of water customers. Let’s see if you feel the same as respondents to the survey, which was sent out to about 1,700 water customers in early December. Here’s a look at the results:
• 56.8 percent of respondents were either satisfied or very satisfied with the taste of their drinking water.
• 18 percent of respondents were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the taste of their drinking water. The balance of people were either neutral on the subject or didn’t have an opinion.
• 60.7 percent were either satisfied or very satisfied with the smell of their drinking water.
• 16 percent were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the smell of their drinking water.
• 92.2 percent were either satisfied or very satisfied with the reliability of the water service.
• 51.3 percent were satisfied or very satisfied with the overall value they received for their water and sewer rates.
• 21.2 percent were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the value they received for the water and sewer rates. Those last numbers about the value customers think they’re getting for their water and sewer service could end up being particularly important. If the city is going to make $18 million worth of upgrades to its water plants, it is hard to imagine how it will do that without raising rates.
Commissioners have been sensing that customers may have a bit of rate fatigue, and this survey, which has a margin of error of about 5 percent, may raise some new flags on that subject.
City officials still haven’t settled on a new rate plan for 2013 for the water and sewer service. The city has been using 2012 rates thus far in the new year. Commissioners are scheduled to have a study session on Feb. 12 to discuss those issues.
Shortly after last summer’s issues with taste and odor, city commissioners were talking pretty strongly about the need for improvements at the water plant. But since then, staff members have been highlighting the improvements they already have made; they’ve bought specialized equipment to better test for geosmin, for example.
The new report from the city auditor on the taste and odor issue was the type of report that could have provided more fuel to the fire for improvements at the water plants. But it didn’t. The report really didn’t get into the issue of how other communities deal with this and what type of improvements would be appropriate.
So, it will be interesting to see where this issue goes. It may boil down to a simple question: What leaves a worse taste in your mouth, a little bit of algae byproduct or an increase in water rates?