News Feature | January 3, 2018

California Wildfires Demonstrate Breadth Of Water Quality Threat

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga

Although California has been able to quell its latest set of wildfires, the state is still dealing with fallout brought to its drinking water sources and systems.

In December, the Los Angeles area dealt with wildfires that forced at least 50,000 people to evacuate, destroyed over 240,000 acres of land, and threatened water services, as Water Online has previously reported. Though the fires are now out, water problems persist.

“Long after the blaze was put out, intense rainstorms periodically washed sediment and other particles downstream, disrupting water treatment and forcing the local water district to stop pulling water,” reported High Country News.

As climate change promises to make these fires only more frequent in the future, it is up to water managers and federal regulators to ensure that water services aren’t disrupted as often. And this past forest fire demonstrates just how devastating to water supplies such events can be in the area.

“In forested watersheds — the source of 65 percent of the West’s water supply — trees, soil and leaf litter soak up precipitation like a sponge, then slowly release it to aquifers, streams and rivers,” according to Mother Jones. “But wildfires can sear the soil, making it water-repellant, and incinerate stabilizing plant roots.”

And that’s not to mention the actual constituents that make their way into water supplies as a result of fires.

“Floods of sediment and debris can also compromise water supplies,” per Mother Jones. “Spikes in nutrients can spark algae blooms, causing taste and odor problems. Small particles can clog filters. When organic matter reacts with treatment chemicals, it can create toxic compounds like chloroform.”

It’s been made clear that a more fundamental and rapid response to the threat of wildfires in California is needed, not just to protect water supplies, but to protect property and lives as well.

For similar stories visit Water Online’s Source Water Contamination Solutions Center.