Wildfires litter West’s dwindling waters with ashy mud – Boston News, Weather, Sports

(CNN) — Officials in Las Vegas, New Mexico, had barely finished battling the massifs Calf Canyon Hermits Peak wildfire Earlier this month before they had to adjust their defenses to another threat: ash-filled erosion that could pollute their water.

Mayor Louie Trujillo is busy these days with the fire-ravaged country on the banks of the Gallinas River. As much as the parched West needs rain, Trujillo and other officials are running with the weather for distraction precious river water into a downstream lake before rain comes and washes the burnt topsoil and ashes in the river.

“There are large parts of the watershed that you can see that have been completely burned. It looks like burnt toothpicks sticking out of the ground for miles,” Trujillo told CNN. “With the ground instability, in a heavy rain event it would be like putting water on a wad of baby powder where it doesn’t get absorbed at all; it just falls. We hope to get through the monsoon season by doing some of the interventions we need to do along the watershed.”

Megafires aren’t just Burn down houses, trees and wildlife in the West. They also destabilize the ground. When it rains, thousands of tons of charred sediment flow into rivers and reservoirs, which are used for drinking water. The Gallinas River, for example, provides about 90 percent of Las Vegas’ water supply.

“It’s literally like tasting dirt,” said Andy Fecko, executive director of the Placer County Water Agency in Auburn, Calif., a city between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe.

“It adds a tremendous amount to treatment costs,” Fecko told CNN. “They’re trying to filter out water that’s 10 to 20 times dirtier.”

While they can filter out the taste of dirt and ash, water treatment managers also worry about the lingering effects of charred organic compounds mixing with the chlorine used to purify the water so it’s safe to drink. The Federal Environment Agency has warned against this health effects of mixing the two.

All of this is adding to the strain on water resources, which are already being depleted by the mega drought in the west. Conservationists and officials are sounding the alarm about another impact of a warming climate, massive wildfires and fragile water resources.

“This isn’t our first mega-drought, so we have to make really good use of every drop of water that we store,” said Dan Porter, the Nature Conservancy’s forest program director. “These mega fires make that very difficult.”

The taste of mud

September 2014, California’s King Fire ripped through over 100,000 acres in El Dorado County. This fire was relatively small compared to other mega fires, but burned very hot.

It was “a blast of an event that obliterated everything in its path,” Fecko told CNN. “After that event, it was nuclear winter up there.”

The fire was only the first problem. In the rainy season that followed, more than 300,000 tons of ashy topsoil mud ended up in the Rubicon River — normally pristine water that flows down from the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The huge sediment dump caused the Fecko water board a headache on two fronts, he said. The first was the impact on their hydroelectric facilities, which became clogged with debris that made it difficult to channel the water through to generate electricity. The second was drinking water.

“You just can’t filter out the taste and smell,” Fecko said, comparing the taste and smell to the earthy smell of rain. And he said the added sediment has doubled the cost of water treatment at his facility, requiring water filters to be replaced more frequently.

It can take years for this taste and smell to go away. This period only gets longer in the middle of a mega drought.

“It’s essentially these microorganisms that you can’t filter out, they’re so small,” Fecko said.

And while humans have water filtration, wildlife doesn’t. University of California, Davis researchers took photos of frog eggs after sediment deposition; They were covered in a fine, ashy dirt that prevents the eggs from getting oxygen.

“They depend on clean, well-oxygenated water,” Porter said. “As the wildfire chokes the mud-filled stream, the water’s oxygen storage capacity is reduced. It clogs gills; it clogs egg sacs.”

With a 8 year restoration project Led by Fecko’s water agency, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and other partners that are ongoing, conservationists are hoping the frog population has recovered. But even after nearly a decade of restoring the landscape, sediments still appear in hydroelectric bays, Fecko said.

A potential carcinogen

These micro-organic compounds, which impart an odd taste and smell to water after fire-induced erosion, are of concern for another reason.

When organic compounds from the ash interact with the chlorine used to treat water, it can create byproducts that, with long-term exposure, can act as carcinogens — things that can cause cancer. It’s another aspect of this problem that scientists and water quality managers are studying.

“It’s tasteless, you can’t see it, but what the EPA has found is long-term exposure to these disinfection byproducts, chronic exposure can actually be carcinogenic,” said Dan Corcoran, superintendent of operations at the El Dorado Irrigation District in Placerville, California. “It’s a nationwide problem and an evolving science.”

The Corcoran Water District has had to deal with this issue after last year’s massive falls Caldor Fire ignited the countryside in August. In October, the area was hit by an atmospheric river rain event, causing massive flooding and erosion.

“We went from drought to flood management literally overnight,” Corcoran said, describing a “wall of water” blackened with ash and filled with dead trees and debris flowing through the watershed.

Restoration projects in fire-ravaged areas are underway and include mandatory burning and thinning to ensure the next fire is not as catastrophic and less challenging for rivers and reservoirs.

But there is also an awareness campaign for policymakers and local residents about the threat that wildfires pose to their drinking water.

“71 percent of the entire state of California drinks water that comes from the Sierra Nevada,” Corcoran said. “Three-fourths of the people who live in our state should be concerned about how our headwaters are managed.”

And as climate change exacerbates California’s drought conditions and causes snowmelt water to drain weeks ahead of schedule, water officials and conservationists are warning of even more uncertainties.

“I don’t think people really understand the seriousness of the threat to the entire water management system throughout California and the West,” Porter said. “We are facing a climate-driven set of processes over which we do not have complete control.”

(Copyright (c) 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed, or redistributed.)

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https://whdh.com/news/wildfires-contaminating-the-wests-depleting-water-with-ashy-sludge/ Wildfires litter West’s dwindling waters with ashy mud – Boston News, Weather, Sports

Nate Jones

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