Wildfires Increasingly Threaten Drinking Water

Cameron Falls runs black with soot and charred debris in Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta. Image: Kaleigh Watson

As climate change lengthens wildfire season, government officials are being faced with a growing threat: ash and fire debris contaminating public drinking water supplies. As the Colorado Sun explained, “Forests, grasslands and other areas that supply drinking water to hundreds of millions of people are increasingly vulnerable to fire due in large part to hotter, drier weather that has extended fire seasons, and more people moving into those areas, where they can accidentally set fires.”

But even if you don’t live in an area that’s readily threatened by wildfires, your water may still be at risk: more than 60% of the water supply for the world’s 100 largest cities originates in fire-prone watersheds — and countless smaller communities also rely on surface water in vulnerable areas.

What’s Going On: When rains come after a wildfire, they can help spread pollution. According to the Colorado Sun,

  • When rain does fall, it can be intense, dumping a lot of water in a short period of time, which can quickly erode denuded slopes and wash huge volumes of ash, sediment and debris into crucial waterways and reservoirs.
  • Besides reducing the amount of water available, the runoff also can introduce pollutants, as well as nutrients that create algae blooms.

As YaleE360 noted, the effect of major wildfires on drinking water supplies can be severe: as evidenced by fires that burned upstream of places such as Fort McMurray in Canada in 2016; Denver and Fort Collins, Colorado in 2002 and 2012; and Canberra, Australia in 2003. Water treatment plants in those places were overwhelmed by sedimentation, dissolved organic carbon, and chemicals that were released by fire.

In fact, fires in the Australian city of Canberra in 2003 caused the quality of water to become so poor that the city of Canberra was forced to build a new water treatment plant.

The Science: YaleE360 explained that one of the biggest concerns is the dissolved organic carbon that is released by wildfires. When mixed with the chlorine that is used to treat water, it can produce carcinogens that most treatment plant technicians don’t have the expertise to manage.

Additionally, as NBC News explained, when homes are engulfed by wildfires insulation, roofing and home furnishings release toxins as they go up in flames, creating new sources of water contamination.

  • In addition to releasing toxins into the water supply, fires kill healthy tree roots. Without the roots, contaminating sediment and ash are flushed by rain into the reservoirs, rivers and lakes that supply cities with drinkable water.

Why This Matters: This is yet another side effect of climate change that we’re going to have to grapple with. In Western states especially, where water is already a precious resource, threats to drinking water have officials increasingly worried. We need all lawmakers, but especially those representing states (and nations) that experience wildfires, to acknowledge the threat of climate change and commit to comprehensive adaptation and mitigation efforts. For instance, Colorado Senator Cory Gardner (who has only a 10% lifetime score from the LCV) is up for reelection this year and while he plans to run on his environmental record, he’s rarely voted in favor of stringent measures to limit emissions–seems like some serious cognitive dissonance.

Good News: The Australian wildfires have brought a series of devastating news but firefighters were able to save an ancient grove of trees that predates the dinosaurs.

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