Scientists' warning on extreme wildfire risks to water supply
Dennis W. Hallema,
Kevin D. Bladon,
Mike D. Flannigan,
Stefan H. Doerr,
Giuliano Di Baldassarre,
Amanda K. Hohner,
Stuart J. Khan,
A. M. Kinoshita,
Rua S. Mordecai,
João Pedro Nunes,
Cathelijne R. Stoof,
Matthew P. Thompson,
J. M. Waddington,
Hydrological Processes, Volume 35, Issue 5
2020 is the year of wildfire records. California experienced its three largest fires early in its fire season. The Pantanal, the largest wetland on the planet, burned over 20% of its surface. More than 18 million hectares of forest and bushland burned during the 2019–2020 fire season in Australia, killing 33 people, destroying nearly 2500 homes, and endangering many endemic species. The direct cost of damages is being counted in dozens of billion dollars, but the indirect costs on water-related ecosystem services and benefits could be equally expensive, with impacts lasting for decades. In Australia, the extreme precipitation (“200 mm day −1 in several location”) that interrupted the catastrophic wildfire season triggered a series of watershed effects from headwaters to areas downstream. The increased runoff and erosion from burned areas disrupted water supplies in several locations. These post-fire watershed hazards via source water contamination, flash floods, and mudslides can represent substantial, systemic long-term risks to drinking water production, aquatic life, and socio-economic activity. Scenarios similar to the recent event in Australia are now predicted to unfold in the Western USA. This is a new reality that societies will have to live with as uncharted fire activity, water crises, and widespread human footprint collide all-around of the world. Therefore, we advocate for a more proactive approach to wildfire-watershed risk governance in an effort to advance and protect water security. We also argue that there is no easy solution to reducing this risk and that investments in both green (i.e., natural) and grey (i.e., built) infrastructure will be necessary. Further, we propose strategies to combine modern data analytics with existing tools for use by water and land managers worldwide to leverage several decades worth of data and knowledge on post-fire hydrology.
Abstract High-latitude forests of North America are characterized by their natural dependence on large and severe wildfires. However, these wildfires also pose a range of social, economic, and environmental risks, with growing concern regarding persistent effects on stream flow volume, seasonal timing of flow, water quality, aquatic ecosystem health, and downstream community drinking water treatment. Here, we present the outcomes of a comprehensive scoping review of post-fire hydrologic studies in high-latitude forests of North America (Canada and Alaska). Our objectives were to (1) create an inventory of studies on post-fire hydrologic effects on surface water; (2) analyze those studies in terms of watershed characteristics and the type and duration of hydrologic effects; (3) identify and evaluate the link between upstream hydrologic effects with hydrologic ecosystem services; and (4) propose a research agenda addressing the link between wildfire science and hydrologic ecosystem services. We screened 2935 peer-reviewed articles and selected 82 studies to include based on their relevance according to a systematic, multi-step selection process. Next, we classified the papers into five themes: (a) runoff volume and flow regimes, (b) erosion and sediment transport, (c) water chemistry, (d) hydromorphology, and (e) aquatic food webs. For each study, we documented location, fire regime, watershed characteristics, and ecosystem services. The annual number of published studies on post-fire hydrology in high-latitude forests and, in particular, those addressing hydrologic ecosystem services, has increased steadily in recent years. Descriptions of wildfire characteristics, watershed characteristics, and effects on hydrologic ecosystem services were highly variable across studies, hindering cross-study comparisons. Moreover, there were limited efforts to extend study results to implications for forest or water management decisions regarding ecosystem services from source watersheds. Most studies focused on fire impacts on aquatic habitats and water chemistry while services of direct concern to communities, such as drinking water, were rarely addressed. We contend that study standardization, further use of geospatial technologies, and more studies directly addressing ecosystem services will help mitigate the increasing risks to water resources in northern forests.
Wildland fires in the contiguous United States (CONUS) have increased in size and severity, but much remains unclear about the impact of fire size and burn severity on water supplies used for drinking, irrigation, industry, and hydropower. While some have investigated large-scale fire patterns, long-term effects on runoff, and the simultaneous effect of fire and climate trends on surface water yield, no studies account for all these factors and their interactions at the same time. In this report, we present critical new information for the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy—a first-time CONUS-wide assessment of observed and potential wildland fire impacts on surface water yield. First, we analyzed data from 168 fire-affected locations, collected between 1984 and 2013, with machine learning and used climate elasticity models to correct for the local climate baseline impact. Stream gage data show that annual river flow increased most in the Lower Mississippi and Lower and Upper Colorado water resource regions, however they do not show which portion of this increase is caused by fire and which portion results from local climate trends. Our machine learning model identified local climate trends as the main driver of water yield change and determined wildland fires must affect at least 19 percent of a watershed >10 km2 to change its annual water yield. A closer look at 32 locations with fires covering at least 19 percent of a watershed >10 km2 revealed that wildfire generally enhanced annual river flow. Fires increased river flow relatively the most in the Lower Colorado, Pacific Northwest, and California regions. In the Lower Colorado and Pacific Northwest regions, flow increased despite post-fire drought conditions. In southern California, post-fire drought effects masked the flow enhancement attributed to wildfire, meaning that annual water yield declined but not as much as expected based on the decline in precipitation. Prescribed burns in the Southeastern United States did not produce a widespread effect on river flow, because the area affected was typically too small and characterized by only low burn severity. In the second stage of the assessment, we performed full-coverage simulations of the CONUS with the Water Supply Stress Index (WaSSI) hydrologic model (88,000 HUC-12-level watersheds) for the period between 2001 and 2010. This enables us to fill in the gaps of areas with scarce data and to identify regions with large potential increases in post-fire annual water yield (+10 to +50 percent): midto high-elevation forests in northeastern Washington, northwestern Montana, central Minnesota, southern Utah, Colorado, and South Dakota, and coastal forests in Georgia and northern Florida. A hypothetical 20-percent forest burn impact scenario for the CONUS suggests that surface yield can increase up to +10 percent in most watersheds, and even more in some watersheds depending on climate, soils, and vegetation. The insights gained from this quantitative analysis have major implications for flood mitigation and watershed restoration, and are vital to forest management policies aimed at reducing fire impact risk and improving water supply under a changing climate.
A Regional-Scale Index for Assessing the Exposure of Drinking-Water Sources to Wildfires
Kevin D. Bladon,
Monica B. Emelko,
Mike D. Flannigan,
S. W. Kienzle,
Forests, Volume 10, Issue 5
Recent human-interface wildfires around the world have raised concerns regarding the reliability of freshwater supply flowing from severely burned watersheds. Degraded source water quality can often be expected after severe wildfire and can pose challenges to drinking water facilities by straining treatment response capacities, increasing operating costs, and jeopardizing their ability to supply consumers. Identifying source watersheds that are dangerously exposed to post-wildfire hydrologic changes is important for protecting community drinking-water supplies from contamination risks that may lead to service disruptions. This study presents a spatial index of watershed exposure to wildfires in the province of Alberta, Canada, where growing water demands coupled with increasing fire activity threaten municipal drinking-water supplies. Using a multi-criteria analysis design, we integrated information regarding provincial forest cover, fire danger, source water volume, source-water origin (i.e., forested/un-forested), and population served. We found that (1) >2/3 of the population of the province relies on drinking-water supplies originating in forested watersheds, (2) forest cover is the most important variable controlling final exposure scores, and (3) watersheds supplying small drinking water treatment plants are particularly exposed, especially in central Alberta. The index can help regional authorities prioritize the allocation of risk management resources to mitigate adverse impacts from wildfire. The flexible design of this tool readily allows its deployment at larger national and continental scales to inform broader water security frameworks.
The large mediatic coverage of recent massive wildfires across the world has emphasized the vulnerability of freshwater resources. The extensive hydrogeomorphic effects from a wildfire can impair the ability of watersheds to provide safe drinking water to downstream communities and high-quality water to maintain riverine ecosystem health. Safeguarding water use for human activities and ecosystems is required for sustainable development; however, no global assessment of wildfire impacts on water supply is currently available. Here, we provide the first global evaluation of wildfire risks to water security, in the form of a spatially explicit index. We adapted the Driving forces-Pressure-State-Impact-Response risk analysis framework to select a comprehensive set of indicators of fire activity and water availability, which we then aggregated to a single index of wildfire-water risk using a simple additive weighted model. Our results show that water security in many regions of the world is potentially vulnerable, regardless of socio-economic status. However, in developing countries, a critical component of the risk is the lack of socio-economic capability to respond to disasters. Our work highlights the importance of addressing wildfire-induced risks in the development of water security policies; the geographic differences in the components of the overall risk could help adapting those policies to different regional contexts.
The timing, extent, and severity of forest wildfires have increased in many parts of the world in recent decades. These wildfires can have substantial and devastating impacts on water supply, ecohydrological systems, and sociohydrosystems. Existing frameworks to assess the magnitude and spatial extent of these effects generally focus on local processes or services and are not readily transferable to other regions. However, there is a growing need for regional, continental, and global scale indices to assess the potential effect of wildfires on freshwater availability and water supply resilience. Such indices must consider both the individual and compound effects of wildfires. In so doing, this will enable comprehensive insights on the water security paradigm and the value of hydrological services in fire‐affected areas around the globe.