Forested watersheds provide high-quality source water for many communities in the western United States. These watersheds are vulnerable to wildfires, and wildfire size, fire severity, and length of fire season have increased since the middle 1980s (Westerling and others, 2006). Burned watersheds are prone to increased flooding and erosion, which can impair water-supply reservoirs, water quality, and drinking-water treatment processes. Limited information exists on the degree, timing, and duration of the effects of wildfire on water quality, making it difficult for drinking-water providers to evaluate the risk and develop management options. In order to evaluate the effects of wildfire on water quality and downstream ecosystems in the Colorado Front Range, the U.S. Geological Survey initiated a study after the 2010 Fourmile Canyon fire near Boulder, Colorado. Hydrologists frequently sampled Fourmile Creek at monitoring sites upstream and downstream of the burned area to study water-quality changes during hydrologic conditions such as base flow, spring snowmelt, and summer thunderstorms. This fact sheet summarizes principal findings from the first year of research. Stream discharge and nitrate concentrations increased downstream of the burned area during snowmelt runoff, but increases were probably within the treatment capacity of most drinking-water plants, and limited changes were observed in downstream ecosystems. During and after high-intensity thunderstorms, however, turbidity, dissolved organic carbon, nitrate, and some metals increased by 1 to 4 orders of magnitude within and downstream of the burned area. Increases of such magnitude can pose problems for water-supply reservoirs, drinking-water treatment plants, and downstream aquatic ecosystems.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Wildfire effects on source-water quality--Lessons from Fourmile Canyon fire, Colorado, and implications for drinking-water treatment