Taste & Odor on the Missouri River - Interview with Curt Skouby

Mar 28, 2022

Most customer complaints that water utilities receive are related to aesthetic qualities of water, and public perception of water quality is driven by aesthetic characteristics. After a taste and odor (T&O) event on the Missouri River in 2014, a group of WRF utility subscribers partnered on a Tailored Collaboration (TC) project to improve their preparation for and responses to such events. WRF sat down with Curt Skouby, Director of Public Utilities at the City of St. Louis, to hear more about what they learned.

Tell me about yourself – how long have you worked at St. Louis Water and what is your role there?

I have spent my career with the City of St. Louis Water Division. I started off as a Staff Engineer, then moved into the role of Production Manager at one of our two treatment plants before becoming the Director of Public Utilities. I’ve been in that role for 12 or 13 years now.

Tell me a bit more about your utility – how big is your service area and what type(s) of water do you treat/produce?

The City of St. Louis has its own drinking water utility that serves the city and the citizens within its boundaries. We have two sources of water and two treatment plants, one on the Missouri River and the second on the Mississippi River. They are surface water plants. Even though one plant is on the Mississippi, it still treats primarily Missouri River water, because it is just downstream of where the Missouri comes into the Mississippi and the two rivers have not fully mixed.

What were the drivers for your utility to apply to WRF’s Tailored Collaboration Program/why did you think the TC program was the right vehicle?

In 2014, we experienced a taste and odor (T&O) event on the Missouri River. It came down the river and several utilities, when the water arrived, had T&O issues and had a hard time being able to remove whatever was causing it.

In the past, we could tell our customers that T&O events are just an occasional seasonal occurrence with no health consequences. But in this case, we really didn’t know what exactly was causing the issue. Keep in mind, this happened shortly after the algal bloom issues on the Great Lakes with “do not use” orders. We were sure that our T&O event wasn’t being caused by that same organism with the same risks, but our customers wanted a better explanation than what we could give them, and we also wanted a better explanation.

A lot of the T&O studies that have been done focused on reservoirs or lakes and not so much on rivers. Flowing rivers are subject to continuous change, depending on rainfall or precipitation that could come into the river system from any number of locations, any of which could possibly contribute to a T&O event. That was the driving force, and so that’s why we approached WRF and were successful at getting the study done.

How did you identify partners for your research project?

The drinking water utilities on the Missouri River meet about twice per year to go over common issues. These utilities primarily have surface water treatment plants,  but there are a couple that have alluvial groundwater wells along the river. In the aftermath of the 2014 event, four utilities (Saint Louis Water Division, Missouri American Water, Kansas City Water Services Department, and Water District #1 of Johnson County) decided to band together, raise the funds, and approach WRF to do a Tailored Collaboration study. The TC Program was a natural fit. We’ve seen your work and participated in other studies, so it was natural that we approach WRF to support us in this effort.

With these utilities you worked with, are you still having periodic meetings with ongoing collaboration?

We are—the formal organization of utilities still meets. Since we’ve gotten to know individuals in the other utilities, we also have ongoing informal conversations, and it is really beneficial to all the utilities.

The taste and odor event that catalyzed this project happened in 2014. Has there been a significant T&O event since then?

There has not been another event with the same magnitude as the one in 2014. Occasionally we have had minor T&O issues since then, more short-lived.

With the smaller T&O events that have happened, do you think you were able to apply some of the recommendations from the project?

Yes, definitely. One of the biggest applications of this research is it has informed how we do our daily operations as far as taste and odors are concerned. We are far more prepared to address and tackle these events—to capture the samples and know where to send the samples to get them analyzed. A lot of the lab equipment to analyze these samples is going to be research grade—not something that we necessarily have on site.

Since undertaking this project, have you put any additional monitoring in place to stay more on top of
water quality at different points in the river?

Absolutely. One of the things we’ve changed is how we monitor the water every day—the standardized panel that evaluates the water coming into the plant, and then the finished water that we are producing. So, we are building a history on what is typical for our source water and our finished water. If another major T&O event occurred, I think we’d be in a much better position to identify and quantify the problem and respond more effectively. When we have an event, we need to capture the samples and, in as short an order as possible, identify what compound is causing it. I think we are better prepared to do that and have the wherewithal to do that.

With the increased sampling and monitoring, how are you capturing or storing that data?

One recommendation from the project was to build a better database to store this historical and ongoing water quality data that we get through our sampling efforts. I think the utilities that participated in the project each have their own databases to store this data and are doing a good job with that, but so far, we have not pursued a coordinated/joint database. Even without it, this research effort still resulted in better communication between utilities in our region, so we have still benefited in that sense.

Another recommendation from the project for utilities that might face a T&O event was to optimize their powdered activated carbon (PAC) treatment strategies. Is that something St. Louis Water has done since the project ended?

We do still use PAC at our treatment facilities, and how we apply that treatment step has been modified in the past several years. Even so, it is still difficult to select a carbon for taste and odor since so many different compounds can cause T&O events—you can’t always be sure of what compounds you will be dealing with in the future. Today’s T&O event might be caused by one compound, while tomorrow’s T&O event could be caused by another.

Is there anything you’d share with or recommend to a utility planning to apply to the TC Program for the first time?

I would definitely recommend the TC Program to any utility that hasn’t applied before. I thought it was well worthwhile and useful. I liked that we were able to involve other utilities who were in our same situation. The TC Program is a way to address issues that are more focused on your utility’s circumstances. Oftentimes, a study might be focused on somebody else—their situation is different. With the TC Program, you can eliminate that factor by investigating your specific circumstances.