Dealing with Wildfire Damage to Water Supplies

Wildfires have a longer-lasting and more direct effect on communities than most people realize. Across the nation, countless cities and states receive their drinking water from nearby reservoirs, and when wildfires contaminate the main source of water for thousands in nearby cities, the watersheds take decades and cost millions to restore. Moreover, water polluted by remnants from fires creates an additional problem when it travels downstream to other locations. While cities around America have begun to implement better plans and partnerships to combat rehabilitation efforts and expenses, in most cases, these plans have just begun and aren’t being applied nationwide. Wildfires create a costly, long-term problem to all people’s water supply, and while completely preventing all fires will never happen, realistic solutions exist when it comes to restoring our national forests and trying to change how these potential fires burn.

Over time, communities have seen the dangerous and problematic cause-effect relationship of wildfires and water supply. Coloradoans, for instance, receive the majority of their water supply from reservoirs located in national forests which have either become recently ravaged by fires or contain high fire danger risks. When a wildfire burns in a national forest, ash and debris go directly into that forest’s reservoir. These reservoirs, now unclean and soiled, most likely play a key role in the lives of all individuals in a close proximity. For instance, according to National Geographic, the Waldo Canyon fire of 2012 burned forests around two reservoirs that store 60 percent of the city’s drinking water. The affected city of Colorado Springs was, therefore, left with reservoirs needing costly water treatment.

Situations like this create water shortages for a large number of residents, which becomes more difficult when added to the reality that many people in counties throughout the country currently live with water restrictions due to a drought from record-high temperatures and low amounts of rainfall. Another problem adding to the misery revolves around runoff from one reservoir to another. Reservoirs often connect to each other by creeks or streams, so a wildfire in one national forest could ultimately send ash and debris filled water downstream into other reservoirs, even if that area does not have any burning trees of its own.

When watersheds encounter damage, they create the huge problem of taking a great deal of time and money to restore. Cities can plant new trees after the dead ones get removed, but trees take time to grow and to efficiently route water from rain and snowmelt in the right direction. As far as costs, one close-to-home example becomes clearly illustrated with the 2002 Hayman Fires in Denver. The Denver Water company spent more than $26 million on restoring the Strontia Springs Reservoir, treating the water, and reseeding the national forest in that watershed. Denver still feels the effects of that overwhelming rehabilitation need. The water supply in these damaged, burnt reservoirs becomes soiled and undrinkable, and the fires leave behind nothing but ashes, debris, and a high list of expenses for the city.

No direct solution exists for stopping all possible fires in the forest, but working together to combat the aftermath and, therefore, trying to change how these fires burn and the havoc they cause could make all the difference. The high costs and work efforts needed seem obvious after a fire has gone through a national forest, and one way to better combat these concerns lies in the idea of the city partnering with the forest service. The two could split the costs of rehabilitation after the damage because, after all, both parties become directly affected by the burnt trees in the forest or the dirty water supply of the reservoirs. The city of Santa Fe, New Mexico, for one, has used this partnership solution after a fire. The city contributed money to the forest service to have crews go into the forest and clear out any congestion, and also light prescribed fires to remove some of the underbrush. This effort leads to more controlled fires, which also gets closer to the goal of limiting the destruction a fire causes. Since the runoff remains another big issue when it carries ash and debris downstream to important reservoirs, some cities have implemented the use of straw bale dams. These dams serve the purpose of controlling sediment by slowing the runoff to the reservoirs, which helps because runoff can travel to more than one major water supply area.

Another water-related solution cities everywhere should implement is the use of the Forests to Faucets project. This project uses an imaging system map to highlight land areas most important to drinking water by making them a darker color on the map. It also shows the importance the forest plays in guarding these areas and, most importantly, displays how threatened these forests remain to risk factors including wildfires. With the availability and consistent use of this project, cities and forest services would know which reservoirs and national forests need the most focus and risk management. While no single solution exists, implementing these few, different ideas together would begin to make a change.

Wildfires create problems that live on for years past the last flame, but hope still exists for the forests and the water supply. One entity on its own, such as solely the government or the Forest Service, cannot handle the entire responsibility of rehabilitation. Expenses become overwhelming, and the best techniques often go unused, which is why a higher level of accomplishment would prevail by the two partnering together. Imagine if every national forest with a major watershed became prepared to take on a wildfire and not let it destroy the entire forest or the reservoirs. Together, using all available ideas and technologies, our watersheds could become protected from future wildfire harm.

santa fe

Sante Fe 400, Watershed, 2007