May 07, 2013

WaterRF Helps Water Utilities Prepare For Wildfires

Workshop and industry survey highlight prevention, management and recovery best practices

Wild Fires Water Utilities Water Research Foundation Workshop

Wildfires remain a threat this coming summer with the western U.S. still in the grip of a damaging drought. The impact of those fires on water utilities and, most especially the source water upon which they depend, can have significant, long-term impacts. To help water utilities better understand, prepare for and recover from wildfires, the Water Research Foundation (WaterRF) recently conducted a Wildfire Readiness and Response Workshop on the issue.

The workshop gave water utility managers and other interested parties information on the impacts wildfires have on water quality and watershed ecology and how these effects can be mitigated or minimized. The event was supported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Source Protection Program and the Urban Waters Federal Partnership.

Last year, approximately 43,000 wildfires were reported in the U.S., burning a total of 6.4 million acres, or 10,000 sq miles of land. These wildfires have far-lingering effects beyond just the loss of forestation and wildfire. Burned areas are vulnerable to erosion and mud slides that can fill up sources of drinking water with ash, silt, fire retardant chemicals and contaminants, impacting both water quality and quantity.

Experts from the water industry, academia and government agencies addressed the following key areas:

  • Assessing and Reducing Rick
  • Wildfire Impacts on Water Quality and Quantity
  • Post-Fire Restoration and Management Practices

During the workshop, results from an industry survey “Report on the Impacts of Wildfire on Drinking Water Systems” were shared. In addition to providing a number of case studies highlighting wildfire-related experiences of numerous water utilities, survey respondents identified the following mitigation best practices to help enhance the resiliency of watersheds and drinking water infrastructure to wildfire. These include:

  • Conducting strategic fuel reduction activities (such as burning, mechanical removal, grazing, etc.) in the watershed and areas immediately surrounding reservoirs.
  • Ensuring proper maintenance in and around the wells, pumps and storage tanks.
  • Providing education in the form of staff training and awareness among rural residents.
  • Encouraging state or county ordinances to require fire safe activities around rural residences.
  • Creating a network of shaded fuel breaks at key locations to provide firefighters access to remote areas.
  • Developing partnerships and cooperation with other organizations to ensure upstream reservoirs have sediment containment capacity.
  • Being prepared in the event of a fire, including diversifying water intakes and establishing redundancy of treatment plants and raw water supplies.
  • Planning for wildfire appropriately, such as having a formal plan, implementing fuel hazard reduction/reducing wildfire severity, and developing pre-permitting sediment control structures downstream from high hazard areas.
  • Managing forest area in a way that will aid in delivering the highest water quality possible, such as considering the age and species composition of the forest.

The workshop presentations are available on the workshop webpage. The final project report, which will include a review of other literature on the topic, survey results and the final outcome of the workshop, will be published later this summer.