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Nose Knows if Something Is Wrong in Water

MWD's flavor analysis panel sniffs samples for unwanted tastes and odors.

August 16, 2004|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

In a room specially pressurized to keep stray odors out, the panelists sniffed, swizzled, gulped, drew sharpened pencils from a laboratory flask and carefully jotted down their findings.

"Grassy," opined Suzanne Teague. "Grassy and chalky."

"Chalky," agreed Eric Crofts.

"Cardboard," intoned Salvador Pastor.

But these were the merest of undertones, the panelists agreed, ranking each odd flavor near the bottom on a zero-to-three scale of offensiveness.

No remedial action would be required: It was just another vigilant yet uneventful afternoon for the folks who try to ensure that the 1.5 billion gallons of water put out daily by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California taste more of natural spring than mattress spring.

The flavor profile analysis panel is the first line of defense in MWD's ongoing fight against taste and odor, where there should be none, flowing from faucets.

The problem is especially severe in the summer. That's when blue-green algae can bloom in the reservoirs, lending a distinctive, musty taste to even the most thoroughly treated water. Water officials are quick to describe the condition as "an aesthetic problem" rather than a health concern.

While harmless, such events are setbacks for utilities such as MWD, where officials describe the ideal water much as political consultants describe the ideal candidate: odorless, colorless, bland, yet somehow refreshing.

"It shouldn't really taste of anything," said Bart Koch, the head of MWD's water lab. "But it should be aesthetically pleasing."

For more than two decades, MWD has subjected water from various sources in its 5,200-square-mile domain to the scrutiny of highly trained employees at the utility's main laboratory in LaVerne. For half an hour or so a few times a week, they sniff and sip, sampling MWD, vintage 2004.

Between rounds, they cleanse their palates with unsalted crackers and swigs of mineral water. But most of all, they render judgments, from blessed neutrality to a rarely detected taste they liken to anchovies.

"A lot of times there are off-flavors and odors that our equipment can't detect," Koch said. "No matter how complex our instrumentation, the nose is better."

And what noses!

Serving since the panel was established in 1981, Peggy Moylan has the current group's most-seasoned schnoz.

"I can't even walk down the detergent aisle at the supermarket," she said, noting that a nose so acutely trained can't simply turn itself off after work.

Flowing from the Colorado River or the State Water Project in Northern California, water to be tested is regularly driven and even flown in.

On occasion, Moylan has been driven to the water source, sniffing for particular varieties of algae from a boat in the middle of a reservoir. She and her colleagues have detected smokiness that was traced to ash from brush fires and fishiness that was traced to freshwater clams dying in a filtration plant.

At any time, there are a dozen or more employees -- chemists, engineers, managers, secretaries -- who have been accepted for volunteer duty on the panel. Over the years, many have been turned down. Some can't discern tastes and aromas very well and others can't describe what they taste and smell.

"Just saying, 'This smells icky,' doesn't do it,' " observed Teague, who said she and her fellow panelists sometimes go to lunch and lapse into distracting discussions about the nuances of the water. When they do, they use 32 terms accepted in the industry to describe the ways good water can go bad, including medicinal, metallic, moldy, musty, rubbery, septic, soapy, stagnant and sulfurous.

"You almost get too picky to go to a restaurant," Teague said.

One recent afternoon, Teague and three other chemists gauged samples from the MWD's Jensen Filtration Plant in Granada Hills. Water from the plant took first place in 1998 and second last year at the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting and Competition, a prestigious contest held annually in West Virginia.

The panelists each had a small plastic cup. Over the years, panelists have come to favor a certain brand of plastic that has no effect on water's flavor. Clean glasses, they concluded, reek of dishwasher.

They swirled their cups to release whatever subtle smells the water harbored. Then, with their hands by their sides to keep extraneous aromas down, they took the quick, short inhalations that Moylan calls "bunny sniffs."

None of them had eaten, drunk or smoked for at least half an hour. None ever wears perfume or aftershave because they never know when they might be tapped for duty.

Each taster receives a year of intensive training, following a regimen designed by consultants to the food and beverage industry. With newly aware taste buds, they study the nuances and rate the intensities of juices, cereals, apples and quinine water. And with their newly developed critical skills, they came to sad realizations.

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