Bingen city officials claim the city's tap water is safe to drink, but it's tough to convince people to swallow that when it smells so bad at times.
Bingen City Council member Tim Hearn, an employee at Big River Diner at the east end of Bingen, said one time recently when the restaurant first turned on its water taps in the morning, the odor was terrible.
"It was so bad we had to open the windows to get the smell out," Hearn said during the July 3 council meeting.
Jan Brending, Bingen's clerk/treasurer, said she is used to water with a hard mineral taste, but added that water she had recently at the diner was "nasty."
"I couldn't drink it," Brending said.
Bingen's leaders say they are definitely aware of the problem.
"We have gotten more than a handful of calls, scattered throughout town. For a while, the eastern end of town was the worst, but since then the problem has spread out," said Mayor Brian Prigel. "People inquire, but they are more inquiries than complaints."
Employees have taken samples to test for bacteria and other contaminants, and nothing harmful has turned up. The testing will continue on a monthly basis from various sites around town, and a sample specifically from Big River Diner was scheduled for July 9.
"We should know the results from that sample by the end of next week," Prigel said.
Prigel pointed out that the city's wells have often produced water that has a sulfur smell to it. It has become more of an issue lately because the city has been relying almost entirely on water from its own wells rather than purchasing water from the city of White Salmon.
"Our wells have a history of this going way back," Prigel said. "We started pumping our own water exclusively in March. That's when we're guessing this started."
According to Prigel, water from the city's Park Well -- located in Daubenspeck Park -- has the most odor to it.
"It's noticeable through much of town, but more obvious in some parts of town," Prigel commented. "I'm not sure why it's like that."
Bingen could get more of its water from White Salmon, but that would put a pinch on the city's budget.
"We're self-sufficient at a cost," commented Bingen City Council member Laura Mann.
"We're concerned about money, but given the status of White Salmon's wells, we're not purchasing water primarily because of that," Prigel explained. "I doubt we'll buy White Salmon water unless we have to. For them, it's a quantity problem. Actually, I'd rather have smelly water than a shortage of water."
White Salmon's wells have not been recharging adequately, and officials there are scrambling to find a fix.
Prigel said that in some cases where the smell is especially bad, perhaps the problem is not as much with the water as with the transmission lines.
"It's possible old pipes get a buildup in them," Prigel explained.
Bingen public works officials have been considering drilling a new well, but Prigel pointed out that the water in a fresh well might not smell any different.
"There is no guarantee we won't get the same kind of water," Prigel said. "There is a high risk of tapping into a water source with high mineral content again."
Prigel said the phenomenon is called "fossilized water" or "ancient water."
"Basically, it's water that has been in the rock for many thousands of years," Prigel explained. "I can smell it but don't really taste it. But everybody's taste is different."
Council member Sandi Dickey said she recalls dealing with the same situation years ago.
"Back then, they had us fill a pitcher up and let it set," Dickey said.
Prigel said that process still works.
"If you take a jug of water and let it sit, it will lose the smell over time," Prigel said.
Council member Betty Barnes stressed that the water is safe to drink and presents no health risks.
"We need to get the word out there," said Barnes. "That water is safe. We've checked into it and there is nothing wrong with it, but unfortunately there is nothing we can do about the smell. The main thing is, it's healthy, drinkable water."