Wildfires alter forest watersheds and threaten drinking water quality
Document Type: Journal Article
Author(s): Amanda K. Hohner; Charles C. Rhoades; Paul Wilkerson; Fernando L. Rosario-Ortiz
Publication Year: 2019

Cataloging Information

  • DOC - dissolved organic carbon
  • DPB - disinfection byproduct
  • drinking water supply
  • fire severity
  • water quality
  • watershed
Record Maintained By:
Record Last Modified: August 9, 2019
FRAMES Record Number: 58421


Wildfires are a natural part of most forest ecosystems, but due to changing climatic and environmental conditions, they have become larger, more severe, and potentially more damaging. Forested watersheds vulnerable to wildfire serve as drinking water supplies for many urban and rural communities. The highly variable nature of wildfire behavior combined with spatially complex patterns in vegetation, landscape, and hydrologic factors create uncertainty surrounding the postfire effects on water supplies. Wildfires often cause dramatic changes in forest vegetation structure and soil conditions, and alter the watershed processes that control streamflow, soil erosion, nutrient export, and downstream water chemistry. The authors’ work centers on field and laboratory studies to advance knowledge of postfire changes in soil and water chemical composition that influence drinking water treatment. High intensity postfire rainstorms typically increase runoff that erodes ash and soil from burned landscapes and dramatically elevates turbidity, nutrient, and dissolved organic carbon (DOC) levels in surface waters, which can cause short-term challenges for water providers. There is also growing evidence that water quality impacts can persist after high severity fires due to slow vegetative recovery, and nitrogen and DOC have remained elevated for 15 years following high severity fire. Low-moderate temperatures during wildfire may also influence water quality. Research by the authors showed that the solubility of organic matter, and C and N released from soils increased following soil heating at temperatures ≤ 350 °C. Further, the water extracted organic matter from soils heated at 225–350 °C included higher proportions of condensed aromatic structures, such as black carbon and black nitrogen. Short-term postfire water quality degradation following high intensity rainstorms can force water treatment plants to shut down or can significantly challenge treatment process performance. Extreme turbidity and high DOC in poststorm water, coupled with compositional organic matter changes, reduced the coagulation efficiency of postfire water supplies. Field and lab-based studies documented the formation of small, aromatic soluble compounds during wildfire that contribute to inefficient DOC removal from postfire stormwater. Due to increased postfire DOC concentrations, and poor treatability of poststorm runoff, toxic disinfection byproduct (DBP) formation increased during water treatment. Exceedance of drinking water standards for the carbonaceous DBPs, trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids, may present a critical management concern for water providers following wildfires. Further, postfire formation of nitrogen compounds and increased nitrogenous DBP precursors for haloacetonitriles and chloropicrin were discovered. N-DBPs pose a public health concern due to their toxicity, and water providers should be aware of potential increases in N-DBP formation following fire. Evidence from the authors’ studies demonstrates that even partially burned watersheds and wildfires burning at moderate temperature can have significant, lasting effects on C and N exports, source water quality, drinking water treatability, and DBP formation. Both short- and long-term postfire water quality impacts can create challenges for drinking water providers as they confront variability in supply and treatability. Communities, forest managers, and potable water providers will need to adapt to more frequent, destructive wildfires and anticipate greater variability in water quality.

Online Link(s):
Hohner, Amanda K.; Rhoades, Charles C.; Wilkerson, Paul; Rosario-Ortiz, Fernando L. 2019. Wildfires alter forest watersheds and threaten drinking water quality. Accounts of Chemical Research 52(5):1234-1244.