Wildfires that burn in watersheds can have impacts on the water people depend on for everyday use.
With 2018 being one of the worst wildfire years in recent memory, both forest service and water district officials are looking at ways to reduce those wildfire impacts on water supplies.
Fire is a natural part of the landscape, and Utah will continue to see wildfires every year, said David Whittekiend, forest supervisor for the Uinta Wasatch Cache National Forest.
“(Fires) are not something we can completely eliminate,” Whittekiend said Monday at the Central Utah Water Symposium held by the Central Utah Water Conservancy District. The symposium is held annually to help researchers, elected officials, water industry experts and resource managers. This year’s symposium dealt with topics including cyber security, and providing water after large-scale emergency situations such as earthquakes.
Mike Rau, with the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, which moves water “from forest to faucet,” said wildfires have a dramatic impact on water quality.
“Basically, they increase the chance for erosion and putting sediment into water bodies,” Rau said.
Anytime a wildfire occurs in a watershed area, the water quality will be effected.
“And these events, wildfire and flood events, are a threat to drinking water systems,” Rau said. “We’ve seen this in Utah.”
Even the Cascade Springs Fire in 2003 is still having impacts on water quality today, with Little Deer Creek continuing to be the biggest contributor of sediment into the lower Provo River.
Two fires last year in particular had water quality impacts locally, including a small 300-acre fire and the huge, 70,000-acre Dollar Ridge fire.
When rain washed sediment from the burn scar into Deer Creek, the water arriving at the treatment plant was well over 100 times more turbid than normal.
Rau said staff was able to adjust chemical doses and operations to treat the water and produce the same quality of treated water as normal.
With the Dollar Ridge fire, the terrain burned was too steep to even perform preventative measures. Resulting floods, mudslides and debris flows severely impacted the Strawberry River, which feeds into Starvation Reservoir, Rau said.
Rau said that was a “game changer” at the Duchesne Valley Water Treatment Plant, and a threat to the water supply because the treatment plant wasn’t designed to treat water with that level of turbidity.
Those factors resulted in the implementation of a project to add a sedimentation process to the Duchene Valley Water Treatment Plant so it can handle new water quality challenges and continue to deliver high-quality drinking water. The project cost is expected to be at least $16 million, Rau said.
“It’s very expensive to deal with this water quality change,” Rau said.
Rau said he would much rather work on preventing catastrophic fires in watersheds, which is where the forest service comes in.
Some ways the forest service is working to prevent large-scale fires in water sheds include reducing the amount of dead trees, breaking up the landscape so that it’s not continuous, even forest all the way through.
“We have a lot of tools to make that happen,” Whittekiend said. “We need all the tools in our toolbox to be successful.”
Proposed projects in the forest to prevent wildfires or keep wildfires from spreading rapidly and becoming massive include controlled burns, fuel reduction and the building of fuel breaks.
Whittekiend encouraged those attending the symposium to reach out to their local forest supervisor and be engaged in projects being worked on to protect watersheds.
“We are always willing to partner with cash or equipment on the projects we are working on,” Whittekiend said.