News Feature | February 3, 2014

The Rim Fire: Assessing The Effects On Water Resources

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome


Researchers are examining how one of the largest wildfires in California history affected the environment and water resources. 

"The Rim Fire burned 400 square miles mostly in Tuolumne County from the middle of August to the end of September," Capital Public Radio explained. "The natural disaster involved Yosemite National Park, Stanislaus National Forest and Tuolumne County directly," the Merced Sun-Star reported

Researchers are only beginning to understand the damages that resulted from this disaster.

One study, by University of California, Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center (TERC), examined the "impacts from the Sierra’s largest recorded wildfire to Lake Tahoe and surrounding water bodies," according to the Northern Nevada Business Weekly

The researchers said the effects could be considerable. “The whole ecology of the lake might shift,” said Geoffrey Schladow, TERC director, in the news report. “I’m not saying it will happen, but it could happen and that’s what we’re trying to understand — the likelihood." 

Algae is a key concern. “The smoke essentially created a greenhouse-like condition favoring algae growth short-term,” said Brant Allen, field lab director for UC Davis, in the news report. 

The Weekly explained the timeline for this testing: "An initial assessment of the lakes’ water quality and zooplankton community was completed in late October 2013, according to TERC. Scientists will collect additional data later this year; a final assessment will be ready late this summer, Schladow said."

Some researchers have offered positive news. 

"Repeated tests of water collected from the reservoir and farther downstream detected no change in quality," according to the San Francisco Examiner. This study was recently delivered to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC).

"The biggest risk to water quality was soil, rock, and other sediment loosened by burned vegetation sliding into the reservoir during winter rains," the news report said. 

The SFPUC says water quality historically has been impacted mostly by “major storm events,” according to the report.

During the fire, "there was no damage to the water delivery system, but distribution lines were damaged in four areas. Some loss of communications occurred, and multiple non-critical structures (such as storage sheds) were destroyed," the Merced Sun-Star reported.

Image credit: "Rim Fire," © 2013 A Silly Person, used under a Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license:

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