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OWASA temporarily changes disinfection process, alters taste of water for residents

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The Old Well spews a stream of water for students to enjoy on Feb. 23, 2023.

Orange Water and Sewer Authority will temporarily change its water disinfection process on Wednesday, March 1. This shift will last throughout the month in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area and might affect the taste or odor of tap water — though it is still safe to drink. 

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality recommended the change. Monica Dodson, OWASA’s water supply and treatment manager, said this is a standard practice among water providers to help maintain healthy systems. 

Although OWASA released a press release about the change on Feb. 15, UNC students received a campus-wide email with the same notice on Feb. 20. 

“We try by every means possible to let everyone know when we’re doing this,” Todd Taylor, executive director of OWASA, said in a meeting with the Orange County Board of County Commissioners. 

Taylor said in addition to notifying customers via email about the change, OWASA attached a notice to their water bills.

“Normally, OWASA uses a combination of chlorine and ammonia known as chloramines to disinfect our water throughout the year, but each March, OWASA uses just chlorine for our disinfection process,” Dodson said. 

Dodson said some residents might notice the chlorine because of the change. She explained that chlorine has a stronger taste and odor than chloramines. 

If customers want to mitigate the chlorine taste, OWASA recommends numerous practices that will remove any taste or odor. Adding lemon slices to drinking water, leaving water in an open container in the refrigerator and boiling water for about a minute can all neutralize the chlorine. 

“Customers who have lived in our service area for a long period of time are pretty familiar with this process,” Taylor said. “Also, it’s very common. Durham is doing the same thing. We all try to coordinate at the same time of year to do this.”

Taylor added that OWASA typically doesn’t have trouble with customers being unaware. He said people who live in apartment complexes and aren’t direct customers might not receive a notification, though their property managers do.

Some residents who are aware of the change said they were not overly concerned about the taste. 

“I think I would try it first and if it really does taste like chlorine and is bothering me, I probably would start to use the Brita or just try to find another way,” Lily Reckford, a UNC senior and Chapel Hill resident, said. 

Reckford said she drinks tap water on a regular basis and has never noticed any strange tastes or odors.

OWASA must flush the system so the chlorine can reach all 400 miles of pipes, Dodson said.

"Community members might notice that we're releasing water from fire hydrants throughout the service area,” Dodson said. “This flushing can cause discoloration of the water.”

If customers' water appears discolored, likely orange- or rust-colored, Dodson said they shouldn’t drink it. Instead, she recommends letting the tap run for about a minute. If the water doesn’t clear up, residents should notify OWASA and avoid drinking it until the problem is resolved, she said.

Furthermore, Dodson advised against doing laundry with discolored water because it could stain clothes.

Peyton Lindogan, a UNC senior and Chapel Hill resident, said he thinks students in particular are more likely to pay attention to announcements regarding water after lead was found in numerous buildings on campus last semester.

Reckford said she was glad she received the information via email because a change in taste would be alarming. 

“I know if I hadn't read it and known that it was still safe to drink, I would have been very concerned had I just started tasting chlorine and not known,” she said.

Lindogan said he drinks tap water regularly and doesn’t plan to change his water consumption habits unless the taste is particularly strong.

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“I’m sure that the water is not going to taste like a chlorinated pool or anything like that,” he said.

If customers have any questions or concerns about their water, they can contact OWASA at (919) 968-4421.

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