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Wildfires Could Impact Southern California Water Quality

From added ash and soot in the ecosystem to fire retardant chemicals and changes in the behavior of snowpack, California wildfires can — and will — have an increasingly noticeable impact on water quality.

Roughly 70% of all Californians’ water comes from the mountains (the Sierra Nevada), where fires can impact the water supply there as well as downstream, especially as the frequency and intensity of wildfires increases.  For example, if fires burn hot enough and near enough to the mountains, the increased heat can change the rate and intensity of snowmelt, which increases runoff.  Wildfires can also increase the amount of water contaminants, by making it easier for ash and other fire debris to find its way into the water supply when snow runoff is accelerated.

Water Quality After Wildfires

Scientists are studying just how much wildfire impacts the water supply, and the overall hydrological cycle in impacted areas. It’s evident already that wildfires, especially frequent ones, can impact not only snow pack but also water table levels and surface water availability.

This most noticeable effects on California water quality after wildfires are typically changes in the taste, color, appearance, and/or smell of drinking water in areas with impacted watersheds. So if you live in an area near the Russian River delta, for example, which has been drastically transformed by the Santa Rosa fires, it’s likely you’ll have seen a change in the quality of your tap water. These changes can also be seen in areas of Los Angeles and Northern California where large-scale fires have consumed huge quantities of land.

Wildfire’s Short And Long Term Impacts On California’s Water

Understanding how frequent and intense wildfires affect the ecosystem and the water supply in the long term is still a work in progress.  As more data becomes available, scientists expect to learn more about how water quality and availability will be affected when wildfires hit. There are few changes we can expect with confidence however. Most notably, these will include an increase in cost associated with water filtration and treatment — since wildfire debris can lead to a myriad of issues with water quality, and local communities will be left footing the bill to treat water that increasingly has issues like turbidity (cloudiness), chemical contamination from fire retardants, microbial contamination from algae as a result of added water debris, among others.

In addition to water treatment issues, wildfires may cause long term structural challenges for California communities. Imagine large downed, charred trees and forest debris sweeping along waterways toward dams and accumulating in reservoirs. This strains the existing water infrastructure and increases the chances that additional contaminants will enter the system. As a result, it’s likely that communities will need to invest more heavily in their water treatment systems and consider replacing and retrofitting components of the water storage and distribution infrastructure.

Protect Yourself from Fire-Contaminated Water

The reality is that living in California will increasingly include challenges associated with wildfire-affected water quality. Whether you notice strange tastes or unpleasant odors after a fire, or the water becomes cloudy or has a different appearance, chances are your tap water will be impacted at one time or another.

In addition to aesthetic issues with water, fires can increase the likelihood that water could be contaminated with more serious issues that can be difficult to detect – like fire retardant chemicals which can be dangerous for consumption.

One of the best steps you can take is to be proactive about your own water quality at home.  An in-home water filter or drinking water treatment system — like our Aqua-Cleer® series drinking water systems — can protect your water at the source, so you can feel confident that the water you’re drinking is always safe and great tasting.

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