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Wildfires present more problems than you might think

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Wildfires present more problems than you might think

Wildfires are burning in several areas of western United States. When this happens, local water utilities spring to action because you may be surprised at the extent to which wildfires effect our water quality, supply and use.

One of the areas currently experiencing wildfires is Oregon. At the time of this Oregon Public Broadcasting article, water operations in Clackamas and Washington counties are running normally, water is safe to drink, but demands on the local water supply have increased. Officials asked residents farther away from the fire-impacted areas to reduce their water use, so more water could be directed in the areas closer to the wildfires.

In certain circumstances, it is possible for chemicals used in fighting the fires to find their way into the water supply, leading to a water quality issue. Officials issued a boil water advisory for residents of a certain part of Medford, Ore., where this happened. The advisory was lifted two days later.

In Eugene, Ore., the McKenzie River is a water source treated at the Hayden Bridge Water Filtration Plant. Customers that get this water have raised taste and odor concerns, including “an ashy taste.” This has led to the need to increase the amount of chlorine used to clean the water. Additionally, when water’s turbidity – clarity – has been negatively impacted, operators then must clean some of the equipment used to filter the water more often.

Lastly, the wildfires burning close to watersheds increases the water’s temperature. The increased temperature can negatively affect fish and other wildlife in the water, which could then negatively affect the food chain or can lead to an algal bloom, which then impacts water quality.

When wildfires in Colorado burned through large swaths of forests, it became easier for sediment to end up in the water supply without trees and other plants there to capture them. 

“When snow melts and the rain falls, the water flows through forests and into streams,” said Christina Burri, watershed scientist at Denver Water. “A major issue after a fire is the increased amount of sediment we see in the streams that flow through burn areas and into our reservoirs.”

In certain areas, this erosion can lead to changes in the soil or flooding.

Wildfires present many issues to those living near them, including for those actively fighting them and those treating the water stored or distributed near them.

Photo credit: Oregon Public Broadcasting

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