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The role of precipitation type, intensity, and spatial distribution in source water quality after wildfire

August 7, 2015

Storms following wildfires are known to impair drinking water supplies in the southwestern United States, yet our understanding of the role of precipitation in post-wildfire water quality is far from complete. We quantitatively assessed water-quality impacts of different hydrologic events in the Colorado Front Range and found that for a three-year period, substantial hydrologic and geochemical responses downstream of a burned area were primarily driven by convective storms with a 30 min rainfall intensity >10 mm h−1. These storms, which typically occur several times each year in July–September, are often small in area, short-lived, and highly variable in intensity and geographic distribution. Thus, a rain gage network with high temporal resolution and spatial density, together with high-resolution stream sampling, are required to adequately characterize post-wildfire responses. We measured total suspended sediment, dissolved organic carbon (DOC), nitrate, and manganese concentrations that were 10–156 times higher downstream of a burned area compared to upstream during relatively common (50% annual exceedance probability) rainstorms, and water quality was sufficiently impaired to pose water-treatment concerns. Short-term water-quality impairment was driven primarily by increased surface runoff during higher intensity convective storms that caused erosion in the burned area and transport of sediment and chemical constituents to streams. Annual sediment yields downstream of the burned area were controlled by storm events and subsequent remobilization, whereas DOC yields were closely linked to annual runoff and thus were more dependent on interannual variation in spring runoff. Nitrate yields were highest in the third year post-wildfire. Results from this study quantitatively demonstrate that water quality can be altered for several years after wildfire. Because the southwestern US is prone to wildfires and high-intensity rain storms, the role of storms in post-wildfire water-quality impacts must be considered when assessing water-quality vulnerability.

Publication Year 2015
Title The role of precipitation type, intensity, and spatial distribution in source water quality after wildfire
DOI 10.1088/1748-9326/10/8/084007
Authors Sheila F. Murphy, Jeffrey H. Writer, R. Blaine McCleskey, Deborah A. Martin
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Environmental Research Letters
Index ID 70155983
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization National Research Program - Central Branch