How Wildfires Harm Drinking Water Sources
Wildfires can have a devastating and long-lasting impact on water quality. In California, where 1,893,913 million acres of land were burned in 2018 alone, the effects of wildfires are pronounced. Burned watersheds are vulnerable to flooding, erosion, and sedimentation, which can wreak havoc on reservoirs and drinking-water treatment processes.
Intense fires can change runoff chemistry enough to alter a watershed’s ability to support an aquatic ecosystem. Heavy rain or snowfall following a fire increases sediment in creeks and rivers, smothering spawning beds and blocking life-giving sunlight from aquatic plants. Ash from burning vegetation absorbs pollutants in the air, leading to higher toxins like pesticides, lead, mercury, and arsenic in reservoirs or other bodies of water.
Cloudy water requires more treatment. Processing plants can’t operate as efficiently and may be forced to shut down. This strains a system that may already be overburdened, leading to water shortages during or after a fire.
The long-term consequences of wildfires on water quality can last for decades. Fire-related erosion increases turbidity and decreases dissolved oxygen levels. Toxins from runoff or ash can linger in groundwater aquifers, remain in sediment deposits, and compromise drinking water sources for years.
Water Recharge Rates, Erosion & Contamination
Wildfires strip the landscape of vegetation, leaving the soil exposed and reducing infiltration rates (the rate at which precipitation is absorbed into the ground) and accelerating surface runoff during storms.
Ash from the fire creates a semi-impermeable layer on the soil’s surface, slowing down the natural processes that replenish aquifers. The ash also contains toxins like nitrogen, phosphorus, and heavy metals, which can contaminate water sources.
Contamination also arrives through the smoke that settles on lakes and rivers. Smoke particles contain heavy metals, toxic compounds, and other contaminants, which can wash directly into a waterway or settle on vegetation to be released into the watershed during rainstorms.
Wildfire-related toxins are especially troublesome for areas where people depend on surface waters for their drinking supply, raising operational costs for treatment and placing additional pressure on local governments to provide safe drinking water.
Urban Fire Contamination vs. Forest
Urban fires are typically more damaging to water quality than wildfires for several reasons.
- Urban areas often have a higher density of buildings and infrastructure, which can release a wide range of pollutants when they burn. These pollutants can include heavy metals, chemicals, and plastics.
- Urban areas typically have more extensive surface area coverage of manufactured materials like roads, buildings, and parking lots. These surfaces are not as porous as natural surfaces, so they generate more runoff and pollutants that can quickly reach the water sources when they burn.
- Urban areas often have more complex and interconnected water systems, making it more difficult to identify and isolate the source of contamination.
Wildfires & Algal Blooms
Algal blooms are a growing problem in California. Wildfires make them even worse.
High temperature and sediment runoff from burned areas increase nutrient concentrations in water and feed unwanted algae. Algae can block sunlight from reaching aquatic plants, eliminating oxygen production and creating dead zones that suffocate fish and other animals.
Algal blooms complicate the water treatment, requiring costly additional procedures or causing plant shutdowns during peak months when demand is highest.
Wildfires have far-reaching consequences on the quality of drinking water sources in California, with urban fires posing especially severe risks to human health.
What Does All This Mean for Orange County Residents?
In Southern California, wildfires and water quality are very close to home.
According to the Orange County Water District, “The Orange County Groundwater Basin provides 77% of the drinking water supply to 2.5 million people in north and central Orange County. South Orange County receives imported water from the Colorado River and northern California via the State Water Project.”
This means that a wildfire in Orange County, northern California, Colorado, or Arizona can affect the water quality from your tap!
Check Water Quality Reports
The State of California offers regional water quality reports. Check your district periodically for updated information about what’s in your water supply.
The state requires public water systems to test for contaminants, including bacteria and fire toxins.
How to Test Your Water Quality DIY
Water testing kits are available online and at most hardware stores. They can give you a clear picture of what’s in your drinking water.
- Test Strips are the most basic and easiest-to-use water testing kits. They come with single-use strips to dip into your water sample. The strips change color based on certain chemicals or contaminants in the water.
- Drop Test Kits are similar to test strips but use dropper bottles to add a liquid reagent to the water sample. The water sample is then compared to a color chart to determine the presence of contaminants.
- Digital Test Kits use electronic sensors to measure the levels of certain chemicals or contaminants in the water. They provide more accurate and detailed results than test strips or drop test kits.
- Bacteria Testing Kits test for the presence of bacteria in water. They typically involve the use of a petri dish with a culture medium. You expose the culture medium to water, allow it to incubate, and then compare the sample to a color chart.
Consider combining test kits for a more comprehensive view. Different kits test for different things, so it’s important to read the instructions and choose a kit that tests for the contaminants or chemicals you’re most concerned about. Also, we recommend having a professional test your water if you suspect serious contamination.
Consider Installing a Water Filter
A carbon filtration system is the most effective way to reduce water contaminants. It passes the water through activated carbon granules which attract and bind pollutants on their surface.
Carbon filtration systems are highly efficient, filtering out particulate matter (PM), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides, and odors and tastes from chlorine or other chemicals.
The installation process is relatively simple; most units come with easy-to-follow instructions, or their companies may post how-to videos on YouTube.
But, if you’re uncomfortable with DIY installation or need help deciding which system is right for your home, please contact us at Orange Coast Plumbing.
- Test your water quality
- Inspect the condition of your water pipes
- Give you a written estimate for filter installation
- Install the system and provide a warranty
Call us today to learn how we can protect your drinking water from pollutants.