Edmonton water sniffers poised to whiff into action with spring runoff

It could happen anytime right about now: spring runoff hitting the North Saskatchewan River. That’s high season for water sniffers at the EPCOR water excellence lab.

The nose knows when it comes to changes in drinking water from the North Saskatchewan River

Lab technician Amber Sears puts our water to the sniff test at the EPCOR Water Excellence Lab. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)

Amber Sears removes a glass stopper from a beaker, gives the contents a swirl and takes a whiff.

The 23-year-old is a water lab technician and sniffing is her job.
We're taking you inside the EPCOR Water Excellence Lab where the noses know when it comes to testing Edmonton drinking water. 2:03

"You're smelling for musty and earthy smells," Sears said. "That's what happens when the spring runoff happens, when the vegetation comes into the water." 

She checks the scent wheel which offers descriptors like fishy, swampy and flowery. The wheel helps testers like Sears circle in on the aromatic analysis of our drinking water.
Visitors to the lab are greeted by a three-storey atrium bathed in natural light. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)

Ten analysts, sporting white lab coats, test samples at the EPCOR water excellence lab, located on the north bank of the North Saskatchewan River next door to the decommissioned Rossdale power plant.

The space, completed in 2015, is clean, bright and modern.

"We built it from bottom up," said Shane Harnish, senior manager of analytical operations at EPCOR. "We were able to design the labs to fit our processes and the movement of samples so they're a lot more efficient."
Shane Harnish, senior manager of analytical operations, checks on the progress made at the lab. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)

The drinking water is tested for more than just bouquet. There are 300 parameters, Harnish said. "We do things like pH, conductivity, colour and turbidity."  

EPCOR supplies drinking water to more than a million people including those in communities as far away as Vermilion, Calmar and Wabamun.

With warm weather in the forecast, Sears and her fellow water sniffers are poised for the river ice to begin melting and spring runoff to begin.
EPCOR staff use this scent wheel to help describe the bouquet of the water samples. (EPCOR)

Sears doesn't believes her nose is anything special, but it does make it impossible to leave her work at the lab.

She admits she finds herself smelling the water from her kitchen tap.

"Absolutely. Yes, I do."

You can see the EPCOR water excellence lab for yourself this week on Our Edmonton. Saturday at 10 a.m. and again Sunday at noon and Monday at 11 a.m. on CBC TV.
The view of the North Saskatchewan River from the rear of the lab. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)