At Office H2O, we know that wildfires are devastating occurrences that can lead to long-term changes in the landscape. With a significant amount of the nation’s drinking water originating from forested watersheds, however, wildfires can also have a lasting effect on water quality. Due to climate change, the duration and extent of the Colorado wildfires have increased in recent decades. This highlights the need to understand the water quality concerns stemming from Colorado fires. Today, Office H2O will be detailing these concerns as well as talking about the solutions available to fix these issues. Let’s get started!

How Do Wildfires Affect Drinking Water Sources in Colorado?

As it turns out, there are various ways that Colorado fires can have an effect on the state’s drinking water sources. According to a report co-authored by CU Boulder researchers, “wildfires can contaminate nearby streams and watersheds through mobilization of sediments, nutrients, and dissolved organic matter, straining the capabilities of downstream municipal treatment facilities.” This research, funded by The Water Research Foundation (WRF), outlines various concerns posed by Colorado wildfires, including both the short- and long-term effects on not only the availability of drinking water sources but also their quality.

According to Fernando Rosario-Ortiz, an associate professor in CU Boulder’s Department of Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering, “a great number of drinking water utilities draw water from forested watersheds. When these watersheds are impacted by a wildfire, the impacts on source water quality can be severe, forcing utilities to respond in order to continue to provide safe drinking water to their customers.” Although both land managers and ecologists have studied fires extensively, the full scope of the effects that Colorado fires can have on drinking water sources still remains largely uncertain. Current research, however, suggests that Colorado fires can degrade surface water quality through ash deposition, increased sediment loads, higher degrees of nutrient runoff, and erosion. This, in turn, promotes algal growth.

Another water quality concern presented by Colorado fires is found in the fact that both the spatial and temporal heterogeneity of fire effects, combined with the effects of precipitation events, can result in unequal system loading as well as a need to develop treatment plans that are site-specific. While drinking water utilities strive to provide safe, quality drinking water for their respective communities, the unpredictable nature of Colorado fires makes it extremely challenging to develop the necessary treatment-plant-specific strategies needed to treat source water that has been degraded by the various effects of wildfires.

In summary, according to USGS.gov, the potential effects of Colorado fires on drinking water and downstream aquatic ecosystems are as follows:

  • Increased sediment loading of water supply reservoirs, shortened reservoir lifetime, and increased maintenance costs
  • Changes in the magnitude and timing of snowmelt runoff, which influence filling of water supply reservoirs
  • Changes in source-water chemistry that can alter drinking water treatment
  • Increased loading of streams with nutrients, dissolved organic carbon, major ions, and metals
  • Post-fire erosion and transport of sediment and debris to downstream water treatment plants, water supply reservoirs, and aquatic ecosystems
  • Increased turbidity (cloudiness caused by suspended material) or heightened iron and manganese concentrations, which may increase chemical treatment requirements and produce larger volumes of sludge, both of which would raise operating costs

What Can Be Done?

In 2017, a bill was put in place to address a number of issues surrounding Colorado water challenges. This bill, known as The Colorado Water Plan, is defined as “a collaborative framework that sets forth objectives, goals, and actions by which Coloradans can collectively address current and future water challenges through feasible and innovative solutions.” While this bill seeks to address various water quality concerns in Colorado, it places a special interest on the effects of Colorado fires and proposed solutions to rectify these issues.

A large part of The Colorado Water Plan is based on a focus on forest management. This includes measurable actions that are currently being taken statewide in order to appropriately address water challenges mainly through the protection of the environment and watershed health. Let’s take a look at the costs and benefits of these proposed solutions based on three categories: watersheds, communities, and infrastructure.

Watersheds

As outlined by The Colorado Water Plan, a lack of proper forest management results in the greatest cost and impacts and yet are some of the most difficult actions to implement. In Colorado, wildland fire can consume between tens and hundreds of thousands of acres per year. While the objective of forest management would not be to eliminate these natural disturbances on the landscape, it would seek to reduce the frequency of unwanted high-severity wildfires in Colorado that result in negative effects on water quality. In implementing effective forest management techniques to protect water quality, the following actions need to be taken under The Colorado Water Plan:

  • The proper application of fuels reduction treatment
  • Management practices such as partial cutting and clearcutting
  • The forming of watershed management partnerships to identify and reduce wildfire risk

Communities

All Colorado water users are affected by fires in one way or another through the loss of resources and disruption of water services, the potentially ongoing impairment of water supplies, the temporary closure of businesses, higher costs of wildfire response and landscape rehabilitation to communities and users, and the increasing costs for treatment of impaired water. Without proper forest management, these effects can be hugely impactful on Colorado communities and water users. Although the costs associated with wildfire response and rehabilitation for communities can be expensive, these costs vary widely based on the severity and overall size of the incident.

Infrastructure

Finally, the effects of Colorado fires on water supply infrastructure should be considered. These effects include sedimentation of reservoirs, intakes, and supply pipes, decreasing water quality to a point where the water supply becomes completely unusable with the existing infrastructure and damage to equipment and supply areas. Without proper forest management, not only are these potential effects likely, but the costs associated are also great. This includes the costs associated with the rehabilitation and replacement of equipment, utilizing an alternate water supply, and a greater need to dredge sediment from reservoirs in order to extend the useful life. Clearly, proper forest management action is needed in regards to Colorado water infrastructure.

Always Have Clean Drinking Water with Office H2O!

As you can see from the information included in this article, water quality concerns stemming from Colorado fires are serious. Without the proper forest management actions, your community may be at risk of drinking water of a reduced quality. With an Office H2O bottleless water system, however, you’ll never have to worry about the quality of your drinking water!

Not only do our bottleless water systems eliminate a need for plastic bottles, but they also undergo a 9-stage filtration process that removes particulates such as dirt and rust, along with lead, chlorine, and other harmful chemicals. We all deserve high-quality, clean drinking water. Never be without fresh drinking water with a bottleless water system from Office H2O. Browse our selection of systems today to find one of your own!