Sacramento water has ‘earthy’ taste due to drought, officials say

Boat docks sit on dry earth at Folsom Lake
Boat docks sit on dry earth May 10 at Folsom Lake. Gov. Gavin Newsom recently declared a drought emergency in 41 of California’s 58 counties.
( Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s June, 21. I’m Justin Ray.

Droughts have the potential to affect our lives in ways we may not have imagined. That became clear recently to some Sacramento residents.

After receiving calls from people about an “earthy” taste and odor to their drinking water, the city responded with a blog post saying that, although this happens every year, the state’s latest drought has caused the change in the water much earlier than usual.

“We typically receive these calls in late summer or early fall but due to the dry conditions, river levels are lower and water temperatures are higher sooner than usual — causing more organic materials — so it’s not too surprising to get these calls now,” City Water Quality Superintendent Mark Severeid wrote in the blog post. “The taste and odor are caused by those organic materials, which are not toxic or harmful.”

Although the water is safe to drink, “if people find the taste unpleasant they can add lemon juice or chill their tap water before drinking,” the blog post recommends. The city is planning upgrades and expansions that will enable water treatment plants to remove the materials that create the taste and odor.

The city identified one of those organic materials as geosmin, a compound that makes the air smell earthy after it rains. “People with sensitive taste and smell can detect the compound in water levels as low as five parts per trillion,” a Metropolitan Water District spokesman once told the Los Angeles Times. “By comparison, one part per trillion is equivalent to just 10 drops of geosmin in enough water to fill the Rose Bowl.”


Gov. Gavin Newsom recently declared a drought emergency in 41 counties, covering 30% of the state’s population. Under the proclamation, state officials are urged to consider ways to conserve water, improve water quality and move water to where it is needed most.

As we have reported, the drought can have effects beyond the supply of drinking water. Among them:

Wildfires: The West has always been dry, but recent years have been some of the worst. Six of the last 10 years have had below average rainfall, according to the Los Angeles Almanac. The combination of intensely high temperatures and prolonged dryness will worsen California’s critical climate condition. Climate experts have been sounding the alarm about how extreme heat and dryness can create bone-dry vegetation that acts as fuel for wildfires.

Beach erosion: California’s iconic beaches are under threat because they are fed by sediment washed down from mountains. Without rain, shorelines begin to recede. The California coastline has jumped about 60 feet inland in some places in the last 10 years, according to USC research scientist Essam Heggy. “The coastline — from San Diego to L.A. — is suffering massively from coastal erosion because of the drought,” he said, adding that expensive beachfront homes also impede sediment from reaching the shore.

Agricultural shortages: The drought is affecting almost every part of the Western U.S., The Times’ Celina Tebor reported. Dry conditions can create ripple effects throughout the country because agriculture and other industries are connected nationwide. This may lead to high prices for certain foods, similar to how meat prices surged across the U.S. in spring 2020, when processing plants closed due to COVID-19.

Electricity woes: The water level at Lake Oroville is shrinking with surprising speed. If it falls below 640 feet, state officials will shut down the major power plant for the second time ever. This would strain the electrical grid during peak demand — summer’s hottest temperatures. As the Sacramento Bee reported, energy experts expect falling hydro supplies to continue to complicate California’s efforts to keep the lights on this year.


Threats to fish: As The Times has reported, droughts thwart fish migration and destroy habitats. In one example, after last summer’s Bobcat fire, state biologists began to worry about rainbow trout at risk of being wiped out by a muddy avalanche of fire debris. There was a plan to relocate the fish to Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco, but that also presented a problem; the city gets about 35% of its water supply from the watershed.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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The life and death of a football star. Staff writer Jeff Miller explains the addiction struggle that left a former quarterback — once famous for swiftly advancing his team great distances — limping and leaning on a cane. Colt Brennan, who finished third in the 2007 Heisman Trophy balloting, died May 11 at age 37. “That person has to want to help themselves, or you’re never going to beat it. Colt struggled with that.” Los Angeles Times

Chef Mark Peel dies. Peel helped pioneer California cuisine and establish Los Angeles as a dining destination. He died Sunday at 67 after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer only nine days earlier, his daughter said. Peel made a name for himself as chef de cuisine at Spago, where he created extravagant pizzas and cuisine that celebrated local produce. Los Angeles Times

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An all-time high. Palm Springs reached 123 degrees Thursday, matching an all-time record it had set three times before: Aug. 1, 1993; July 28, 1995; and July 29, 1995. Los Angeles Times

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California unveils a system to provide digital COVID-19 vaccine records. California has launched a COVID-19 vaccine verification system that provides a digital record of proof of inoculation. Residents aren’t required to obtain the electronic records, officials emphasized, and there are no settings where the state mandates that residents provide proof of vaccination as the sole option for entry. Los Angeles Times


A judge has rejected a petition for a restraining order that would have barred a newly hired Sacramento City Council staff member from City Hall property. The petition was against Councilmember Katie Valenzuela’s new communications aide Skyler Henry. When Henry was hired, his previous comments condoning acts of vandalism by protesters at city leaders’ homes came to light. Henry tweeted a statement in response to the restraining order: “I firmly believe some members of the City have created this entire situation to suppress dissent.” CBS Sacramento


Pelicans harmed in California. Since October, a wildlife hospital in Huntington Beach has received 22 pelicans with severe wing fractures that broke through the skin. None survived. The state has a history of suspected intentional attacks on these seabirds, which are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Los Angeles Times

A brown pelican
A brown pelican injured by a fish net recuperates at Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center in Huntington Beach.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Shooting in Oakland. A shooting Saturday left one person dead and at least six others wounded in Oakland. The incident took place near the city’s Juneteenth celebration. “Tonight a joyous occasion at our Lake Merritt was marred by a senseless act of gun violence,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said in a statement. Mercury News

‘It still feels like a nightmare’: A Fresno mother whose 10-year-old son was killed in a hit-and-run discusses her heartbreak. “Everybody slowed down to watch. I was yelling and screaming for help.” A suspect has been arrested in the incident. Fresno Bee

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A South Bay Japanese American kid ended up becoming a park ranger at the Minidoka Historic Site in Idaho. Minidoka is one of the 10 U.S. concentration camps where Japanese Americans from the West Coast were incarcerated during World War II. “My choice to change careers from a high school English teacher to a park ranger at Minidoka National Historic Site was heavily influenced by my grandfather’s incarceration,” Kurt Ikeda writes. Yo! Magazine

Three men who graduated from Sonoma Academy are joining seven women in discussing inappropriate behavior by a former teacher. They say they witnessed humanities teacher Marco Morrone interacting with female classmates in ways that concerned them. Morrone, 50, has declined multiple requests for an interview with the Santa Rosa Democrat. He has not been accused of sexual assault. Santa Rosa Press Democrat


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Los Angeles: Sunny, 81. San Diego: Slightly overcast, 74. San Francisco: Cloudy, 67. San Jose: Sunny, 81. Fresno: Sunny, 102. Sacramento: Sunny, 91.


This week’s birthday for someone who made a mark in Southern California:

Lana Del Rey celebrates her 36th birthday Monday. The Times caught up with the singer in 2019, shortly after the release of her sixth album, “Norman F— Rockwell.” She has released four tracks from a new album, “Blue Banisters,” due July 4.

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