By: Allison Partin
Summary: Scientists, researchers, and even the general public are starting to understand just how disastrous the recent wildfires in California over the past 3 years are becoming not only to our quality of air, but to our water supply as well. According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), approximately 80 percent of the U.S.'s freshwater resource originates on forested land, and more than 3,400 communities rely on public drinking-water systems located in watersheds on forest lands. Because of this, wildfires can cause significant harm to these water systems, with one of the main problems being an influx in volatile organic compounds, or VOCs in both the water itself and the pipes it runs through. One of the main VOCs, benzene, is a harmful carcinogen that has been shown in several water samples after wildfires in California at exceeded limits. The effect on water quality by these wildfires can occur while the fire is actually burning and even after for years to come. While burning, the ash can settle upon the reservoirs and lakes directly contaminating the water supply, increasing the amount of sediment and erosion according to the USGS. After burning, wildfires can cause an influx in VOCs as previously mentioned, as well as pipe erosion, increased turbidity, shortened reservoir lifetime, and increased maintenance costs of these reservoirs and groundwater systems. Because of how apparent these wildfires have become within recent years, some policies and regulations are beginning to be put into place. For example California has implemented guidelines and regulations to tackle wildfire water safety, causing other states like Oregon to begin to implement. However, there is still a long way to go for protection of the public health from these wildfires, as the policies and regulations that have been implemented already are either not clear or do not offer enough protection.
Why we should care? It is important that we not only take into account the damage these wildfires are causing to the air quality of our earth, but to our drinking water as well. These wildfires in California are becoming more and more common.
This article from the New York Times really gives us insight on how the problem of contaminated water from the wildfires has been a known problem since 2017. Specifically, it gives us a good idea on how exactly the contaminated water moves within the network, descriptions on the types of chemicals that become apparent due to the fires, and observations from researchers in the past. I found this particular article interesting because it gives us some insight on how the residents of California are handling the contaminated drinking water, and the inconsistencies that the leadership of California are giving to these residents.
Science in Action.
Dr. Caitlin R. Proctor is a postdoctoral fellow in the Lyles School of Civil Engineering, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, USA.
Dr. Proctor has done research on how wildfires have affected and contaminated drinking water widespread since 2017. Taking into account specifically the first two wildfires where chemical contamination was found after the fires, The Tubbs Fire (2017) and the Camp Fire (2018) in California, Caitlin and her colleagues have researched and outlined several insights that coincide with a rise in contamination due to the wildfires, including higher benzene levels, higher volatile organic compound (VOC) presence, and depressurization of the water distribution network in California. Caitlin and her colleagues work within this research not only gives us a look into several causes of how exactly the wildfires can affect and contaminate drinking water, but it also can give policy makers some insight on how to better protect public health.