Wildfires and Water

A NextGen Blog post by Marianne Swan, State University of New York, Oneonta.

All Photos © Alison M. Jones.

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. Our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts our student essays; sponsors a forum for our student contributors; and invites upper-level students to propose work focused on watershed values, threats and solutions.

A recent graduate of SUNY Oneonta, Marianne Swan is pursuing a career in the field of environmental sustainability with particular interest in food and water security. Read her earlier NWNL posts, New York’s Onondaga Lake and Environmental Personhood.

This year, a record eight million acres of the American West burned.[mfn]United States Geological Survey[/mfa] Drinking water might not be the first thing that comes to mind when wildfires incinerate towns and forests, but the US West’s water supply is indeed threatened. This is critical as forests provide half of the US Southwest’s water to over sixty million people needing clean, safe drinking water.[mfn]United States Geological Survey[/mfn],[mfn]Fry, Tom and Bender, Elizabeth[/mfn]

As climate change accelerates, worsening droughts are expected to make fires more frequent and more severe.[mfn]Moore, Andrew[/mfn] Yet, there are many preventative and regulatory measures that communities can employ to help protect water resources, with the help of federal resources. Additionally, promising technological developments can help experts identify which at-risk regions need the most attention.[mfn]Robinne, François-Nicolas, Hallema, Dennis, and Bladon, Kevin[/mfn]

Dead trees in Stanislaus National Forest, CA, where tree mortality is exacerbated by heat, drought, and pine bark beetles.

Climate Change and Wildfires

While it’s true that wildfires in the American West occur naturally, climate change amplifies them. The steady increase in Earth’s average temperature makes weather more variable and extreme. Specifically, warmer weather is conducive to the spread of the mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) that kills trees, making forests more vulnerable to fire. Worsening droughts dry out air and soil, thus allowing dry plant material to accumulate. These factors make massive fires (especially fires caused by lightning) much more likely.[mfn]Center for Climate and Energy Solutions[/mfn]  Additionally, less snowfall during the wet season means that reservoirs are less reliable water resources.[mfn]Robinne, François-Nicolas, Hallema, Dennis, and Bladon, Kevin[/mfn]

The Impact on Water

Forests provide water storage and filtration. Trees hold soil in place. When all the trees in a forest burn, the surrounding soil is unable to retain water efficiently or filter pollutants, resulting in excess runoff laden with ash, sediment, heavy metals and chemicals. Mercury released from burnt plants and soil can contaminate groundwater and aquatic life, and thus pose a health threat to children and pregnant women in particular.[mfn]Moore, Andrew[/mfn]

When wildfires engulf homes and businesses, they incinerate things like cars and appliances that release toxins when burned. Once long-awaited rain arrives, these pollutants are washed into waterways.[mfn]Moore, Andrew[/mfn] Water treatment facilities then require more resources to remove these pollutants, furthering the stresses caused by the erosion material that builds up after a fire. Changes to snowmelt quantity also affect water treatment facilities. Wildfires are already adding tens of millions more dollars to costs born by western municipalities to treat water.[mfn]Robinne, François-Nicolas, Hallema, Dennis, and Bladon, Kevin[/mfn]

A Flood Control Basin in Santa Fe Dam Regional Park, CA

Forest and Reservoir Management

Water scarcity and fires will continue to be a problem for the American West. The amount of land burned by wildfires has doubled since the 1980’s, and there has been a significant increase in human-caused fires.[mfn]Moore, Andrew.[/mfn] As always, we must carefully consider the potential externalities of potential solutions; for instance, fire retardant sprays have recently been identified as being toxic to aquatic life.[mfn]Rob, Jordan[/mfn]

Prevention is a primary approach to protecting water and precluding unintentional damage created in extinguishing fires. There are a variety of forest management strategies that can be applied, such as installing sediment barriers, thinning trees and shrubs, planting native trees and reducing the amount of impervious surface area in high-risk regions.[mfn]Rob, Jordan[/mfn],[mfn]Moore, Andrew.[/mfn] Potential fuels, such as dead plant material, can be removed from high-risk forests and nearby urban areas.[mfn]Center for Climate and Energy Solutions[/mfn]

Reservoirs can be manipulated to help keep forests moist. Off-channel water supply reservoirs can be filled before the rainy season, and intakes can be closed when large rainstorms are forecasted. Pre-sedimentation basins (space for particles to naturally settle) can be installed in reservoirs to reduce the amount of ash and sediment that makes it to treatment facilities.[mfn]United States Geological Survey[/mfn]

Yosemite National Park scientist, Joe Meyer, discusses Ponderosa Pine mortality exacerbated by drought conditions

Effort at All Levels

Since the 1990’s, millions of new homes have sprung up in the West. Residents who live next to grassy or tree-covered places are extremely vulnerable to wildfires, so they must take extra precautionary measures to protect their homes and water supplies. Nearly half of watershed lands threatened by wildfires are on private land.[mfn]Fry, Tom and Bender, Elizabeth[/mfn]

Local governments can and should use zoning laws to discourage potential builders from settling in high-risk areas. Communities can and should devise plans to reduce risk, and they should certainly have a recovery plan ready before a fire hits.[mfn]Center for Climate and Energy Solutions[/mfn] Identifying alternative water supplies may be a consideration. Educational initiatives can help homeowners be better stewards; and increased resources for training programs can help firefighters prepare for the worst and save lives.[mfn]Radeloff, Volker C. et al.[/mfn]

To reduce risks, residents should distance trees and brush from their homes and remove vegetation between houses. They can also limit the amount of fertilizer and pesticide that they use and landscape with native foliage.[mfn]Radeloff, Volker C. et al.[/mfn],[mfn]Center for Climate and Energy Solutions[/mfn]

Most localities will need help preventing, planning for and recovering from fires. Federal coordination can ensure that plans are enacted quickly after a fire.[mfn]United States Geological Survey[/mfn],[mfn]Center for Climate and Energy Solutions[/mfn],[mfn]Fry, Tom and Bender, Elizabeth[/mfn] Clearing wildfire debris before rain is one way to reduce water pollution, but this requires various resources. Financial tools like bonds can encourage management between public and private entities.[mfn]Rob, Jordan[/mfn]

California’s San Joaquin River Valley urges community action to resolve the local water crisis, and thus wildfire potential

Using Data

The federal government can use available geospatial and remote sensing data to craft unique plans for various at-risk regions. Data on soil, water and land use can help select infrastructure and preventative strategies that work best. Complex climate models can indicate which watersheds will be most vulnerable to wildfires in coming years.[mfn]Robinne, François-Nicolas, Hallema, Dennis, and Bladon, Kevin[/mfn],[mfn]Moore, Andrew[/mfn]

To help make precise water-management decisions during storms, real-time monitoring systems could be established to warn officials of approaching intense rain or flooding.[mfn]United States Geological Survey[/mfn]


There have been many instances of cooperative resource management between individuals and the federal government so far. An early example developed in the 1930’s includes the Colorado Big Thompson Project (C-BT) system of tunnels and reservoirs that carry water to farms and residents across the Rockies. The C-BT acts as a water bank, allowing users to trade water easily.[mfn]Simmons, Randy[/mfn]

To encourage local stakeholders to protect their water resources, The US Bureau of Reclamation provides funding to watershed groups and their projects.[mfn]United States Bureau of Reclamatio[/mfn] The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) partnered up with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the Desert Research Institute, and Google to develop OpenET, a program giving farmers access to evapotranspiration data that allows them to maximize irrigation efficiency.[mfn]Kanowitz, Stephanie[/mfn]

Unpredictable snow accumulations and long droughts will continue to threaten the Western US water supply. Thus, coordination between private landowners and the federal government will be critical in protecting forests and homes, and water integrity.

California water tower against sunset


“Cooperative Watershed Management Program.” United States Bureau of Reclamation, 2020. Accessed December 29th, 2020 by MS. https://www.usbr.gov/watersmart/cwmp/ 

Fry, Tom and Bender, Elizabeth. “Western Water Threatened by Wildfire: It’s Not Just A Public Lands Issue.” The American Forest Foundation, 2015. Accessed December 14th, 2020 by MS. https://www.forestfoundation.org/stuff/contentmgr/files/1/3d98bbe1b03a0bdf4c726534d438b0ab/misc/final_fire_report.pdf

“How Wildfires Threaten U.S. Water Supplies.” United States Geological Survey, 2020. Accessed December 15th, 2020 by MS. https://labs.waterdata.usgs.gov/visualizations/fire-hydro/index.html#/

Kanowitz, Stephanie. “Open Cloud Platform Delivers Water Consumption Models.” GCN, 2020. Accessed December 29th, 2020 by MS. https://gcn.com/articles/2020/10/20/openet-water-management.aspx

Moore, Andrew. “After the Blaze: How Wildfires Can Impact Drinking Water.” College of Natural Resources News, 2020. Accessed December 15th, 2020 by MS. https://cnr.ncsu.edu/news/2020/10/after-the-blaze-how-wildfires-can-impact-drinking-water/

Radeloff, Volker C. et al. “Rapid Growth of the US Wildland-Urban Interface Raises Wildfire Risk.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2018. Accessed December 18th, 2020 by MS. https://www.pnas.org/content/115/13/3314

Robinne, François-Nicolas, Hallema, Dennis, and Bladon, Kevin. “Buried in Mud: Wildfires Threaten North American Water Supplies.” The Conversation, 2020. Accessed December 16th, 2020 by MS. https://theconversation.com/buried-in-mud-wildfires-threaten-north-american-water-supplies-130356#:~:text=Wildfires%20can%20have%20many%20detrimental,reduced%20recreational%20benefits%20from%20rivers.

Simmons, Randy. “Managing Water in the West: Private and Public.” The George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center, 2016. Accessed December 28th, 2020 by MS. https://strata.org/pdf/2016/managing-water-2016.pdf 

 “Water Quality After A Wildfire.” United States Geological Survey, 2018. Accessed December 14th, 2020 by MS. https://ca.water.usgs.gov/wildfires/wildfires-water-quality.html

“Wildfires and Climate Change.” Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, 2019. Accessed December 16th, 2020 by MS. https://www.c2es.org/content/wildfires-and-climate-change/#:~:text=Climate%20change%20has%20been%20a,in%20the%20Western%20United%20States.&text=Research%20shows%20that%20changes%20in,these%20increases%20in%20wildfire%20risk.

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