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Intense, Repeat Wildfires Pollute Rivers, Threaten Water Supplies

Wildfires are increasingly polluting rivers and threatening water supplies, according to a new study by the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

As hotter and dryer conditions spawn an increasing number of wildfires in North America and around the world,” states the paper, excerpted this week by Wildfire Today, “one of the overlooked impacts of these worsening conflagrations is on aquatic environments and drinking water supplies.”

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Similar to their “regenerative” effect on woodlands, wildfires “provide some benefits to streams and rivers in burned areas,” the paper adds. “But scientists are warning that intense and repeated fires can damage the ecology of waterways by exposing them to the sun’s heat, exacerbating flooding and erosion along denuded hillsides, and releasing toxins such as mercury that are often liberated from soil and tree trunks.”

The paper cites fires in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Denver and Fort Collins, Colorado, and Canberra, Australia that had severe effects on local water supplies.

“Water treatment plants in those places were overwhelmed by sedimentation, dissolved organic carbon, and chemicals that were released by fire,” Yale states. And “with fires burning bigger, hotter, and more frequently, the threats to water supplies and aquatic systems are bound to escalate.”