California Wildfires and Water: Tied Together in a Destructive Harmony

August is  both National Water Quality Month and the start of fall wildfire season. Although the easiest connection to make between water and fire is that water extinguishes flames, when it comes to our water delivery systems, the two actually have a much more complicated relationship. In more recent years, the EPA has turned its attention to how wildfires can have a lasting impact on future water quality.

Active wildfires are only the beginning

It is no secret that fires have gripped the state of California for the last several years and often reach national attention. Although naturally occurring fires contribute to forest maintenance, the majority of the largest and most destructive fires in California history have been on this side of the 2000’s – with names like the 2018 Camp Fire and 2020 Bobcat Fire remaining chilling to this day. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CALFIRE) reports that the state’s extended drought conditions, as a “direct result of climate change,” have lowered moisture levels, increased the risk for wildfires and continue to prolong the wildfire season, in its “2022 Fire Season Outlook” report.

This past June, the Union Fire burned 110 acres in Jurupa Valley – part of the Santa Ana River Watershed. The visual of active flames is often what we see in the media, and when they are put out, the immediate danger to threatened homes and businesses, trees, vegetation and wildlife eventually fades.

It’s always a relief when fires are extinguished. But from a water perspective, “that’s when all the problems start,” hydrologist Kevin Bladon of Oregon State University explained to the Los Angeles Times.

Aftermath of wildfires can pose a challenge for years

As California continues to experience longer wildfire seasons, the extreme unpredictability of where – and how much – wildfires will burn poses a serious challenge for water suppliers. As the United States Geological Survey notes, “Wildfires increase susceptibility of watersheds to flooding and erosion and can have both short- and long-term impacts on water supplies.”

Vegetation that normally holds soil in place is burned away, and in the months and years following a wildfire, rainfall on the burned area can pollute water supplies, putting an immense strain on water treatment plants to safely remove excessive sediment, nutrients, dissolved carbon, major ions and metals. These accommodations can cost in the tens of millions, potentially shutting down treatment plants, and forcing water suppliers to find alternative supplies. For ecosystems and endangered aquatic life, the contaminated water can spell disaster.

Wildfires can also change the timing and amount of snowmelt runoff, causing floods and unreliable water supply levels in reservoirs. To meet the needs of their communities, agencies may be forced to supplement water from a variety of other expensive sources.

Ensuring water is safe and reliable

Thankfully, SAWPA and its partners are always working to ensure your tap continues to be a source of safe, fresh and clean drinking water. In addition, they have been taking steps to minimize the destructive force of wildfires for years. Here’s how:

Water quality reports: Your water supplier tests the water that flows through your tap hundreds of times each year. In the event of changing raw water quality, agencies coordinate water sourcing and treatment processes to ensure it is always top quality and continues to meet both federal and California standards. In addition, the Safe Drinking Water Act requires all public water systems to provide customers with a yearly update on their tap water quality. Visit your water agency’s website or contact them to review your water quality report.

Forest management: In the Western region of the U.S., 65% of fresh water originates in forested watersheds, according to the EPA, which face the danger of wildfires. Bringing it closer to home, 30% of land in the Santa Ana Watershed is National Forest land. In light of this, SAWPA partnered with the Cleveland and San Bernadino National Forests to form “Forest First,” which secured millions to fund forest management programs that keeps destructive wildfires at bay.

Expanding water reliability: SAWPA’s member agencies continue to invest in infrastructure and programs to diversify water sources. The Groundwater Replenishment System, a joint project between the Orange County Water District and Orange County Sanitation District, is a locally-controlled facility that purifies up to 100 million gallons of recycled water each day – enough to meet the needs of nearly 850,000 residents.

Water is the source of all life – supporting our families, animals, agriculture, the economy and more. Keep these tips in mind to help protect our most precious resource from wildfires:

  1. Avoid any activities that involve fire or sparks when in hot, dry and windy weather.
  2. Extinguish fire pits and campfires and report unattended ones.
  3. Build campfires in an open location and far from flammables.
  4. Regularly maintain your equipment and vehicle.
  5. Check conditions and regulations before you use fireworks or consider safe alternatives.

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