The U.S. Geological Survey collected water-quality samples during the first two storms after the Witch and Harris Fires (October 2007) in southern California. The sampling locations represent an urban area (two residential sites in Rancho Bernardo that were affected by the Witch Fire; a drainage ditch and a storm drain) and a rural area (Cotton-wood Creek, which was downstream of a mobile home park destroyed by the Harris Fire).
Fires produce ash and solid residues that contain soluble chemicals that can contaminant runoff. The contaminants, whether sorbed to soil and ash or dissolved, can seriously affect the quality of water supplies and sensitive ecosystems.
Stormflow water samples were analyzed for field parameters, optical properties, and for a variety of constituents, including nutrients, dissolved organic carbon (DOC), suspended sediment, and metals.
pH values for storm runoff from the urban areas (7.6 to 8.5) were less than pH values for ash and burned soil from previous studies (12.5 to 13). pH values for storm runoff from the rural area (about 7.7) also were less than pH values for ash and burned soil collected from the rural area (8.6 to 11.8), but were similar to pH values for wildland burned soil from previous studies. Turbidity values were much lower for the urban area than for the rural area.
Nitrate concentrations in stormflow samples from all sites were less than a quarter of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (2006) maximum allowable contaminant level of 10 milligrams per liter (mg/L) (as nitrogen). Phosphorus concentrations were half as much in filtered samples and two orders of magnitude smaller in unfiltered samples at the urban sites than at the rural site. DOC concentrations in stormflow samples were one order of magnitude lower at the urban sites than at the rural site. Ultraviolet (UV) absorbance at 254 nanometers (UV254) in samples ranged from 0.145 to 0.782 per centimeter (cm-1). UV-absorbance data at the urban sites indicate that the composition of DOC remained similar during both storms even though the DOC concentration changed.
Total suspended-sediment concentrations ranged from 0.01 to 0.24 mg/L at the urban area, and were 12 and 45 mg/L at the rural area. Trace metals analyzed in unfiltered water samples had lower concentrations in the urban area than in the rural area. No concentrations of arsenic or mercury measured in the samples were above aquatic-life criteria. In the urban area, most concentrations of aluminum, iron, and lead exceeded aquatic-life criteria. In the rural area, aluminum, cadmium, iron, lead, and zinc exceeded aquatic-life criteria. Concentrations of aluminum and iron were two orders of magnitude larger in the rural area than in the urban area.