Wildfires and Drinking Water

There is a relationship between wildfires and drinking water. When wildfires burn in areas that serve as the watershed for drinking water the quality of that drinking water will be affected the next year and perhaps longer. Fire kills the vegetation that holds soil in place. After a fire when there are heavy rains or spring snowmelt that water will carry debris down the hills and mountains to rivers and streams.

When debris is carried down the mountain it accumulates in reservoirs which serve as drinking water storage. Then when cities draw down that water and treat it with chlorine a reaction takes place that forms carcinogens. Two groups of compounds, known at the trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids are formed when chlorine interacts with organic material in the water.

These compounds are known to be carcinogens. The trihalomethanes are known to be inhaled, in a shower or at the sink. The haloacetic acids are more dangerous when consumed by drinking.

All of the western and northern states, as well as much of Canada, have this problem. But the issue of fire and drinking water quality have not been connected until now. No one (except me) has reached out to inform consumers that wildfires may directly impact their health long after the fire is over. Most people look at the burn scar and think ‘oh what a shame’ but they don’t connect it to the quality of the water they are drinking.

wildfire and drinking water

We think of mountains as providing us with high quality pristine water. But this is often not the case. Wildfires are natural. They are often caused by lightning and have always occurred. Some claim that fires are getting worse due to climate change. Regardless we need to make the connection between the area that has burned and the people drinking water from that landscape.

Government is slow to catch on to these things. Slower still to do anything about it. Only you can protect your family be taking action to filter the water coming to your home. While USEPA regulates certain contaminants in your water they don’t regulate all of them. And natural occurrences like fire can cause your water supply to exceed federal standards.

California had massive wildfires during the summer of 2021. Following that the state has a massive amount of snowfall during the early winter of 21/22. I published a press release that come the summer of 2022 the drinking water in the areas where these two existed together would be very high in carcinogens. Instead, apparently much of that snow melted during the winter. Now California is looking once again at drought.

What I have not been able to learn is whether that snow penetrated already dry ground in the mountains or did it run off and at least partially fill the state’s reservoirs. California is once again facing severe drought. If the huge snow pack California had early in the year penetrated dry ground that’s a good thing. That fact that there wasn’t more snow leaves the state in a bind once again.

There are many places across the West where wild fires have happened. If you live in one of those you will want to take steps to protect yourself from drinking water with higher than normal carcinogens.

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About James McMahon

Studied ecology at the University of Illinois, mountain survival at Eastern Washing University, Deep Ecology at Naropa, River Ecology with The Nature Conservancy and Luna Leopold
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