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As the song goes, “It's the same old thing as yesterday.”
In every movie about an existential threat to humanity, there’s always a part in the beginning where everyone is in denial and they don’t want to believe the science. In the movie of our lives, that was about 10 years ago, at least. The shit is hitting the fan and people don’t seem the least bit concerned.
More than 80 large wildfires in the western U.S. and Canada are not only disrupting local life and prompting evacuations, but also sent smoke drifting into skies to places like New York City. Fires impacting the air quality for people thousands of miles away? Can we call it extreme weather now?
The smoke instigated a haze giving the sun a deep red or orange color. Talk about Apocalypse Now.
“Wildfires are some of the world’s most deadly and expensive hazards,” according to information from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
In 2018, the Camp Fire in California was the state’s deadliest wildfire, killing 85 people and destroying close to 14,000 homes and 500 businesses. The fire was the world’s costliest natural disaster in 2018 with overall damages topping $16.5 billion. A year later, that fire led to widespread chemical contamination of the water infrastructure in Paradise, California.
Even just a decade ago, researchers didn’t understand if smoke from wildfires could impact human health, but we’ve learned a lot since then.
Colleen Reid, an assistant professor of geography became one of the first U.S. researchers to study the health impacts of wildfire smoke. In a recent interview with CU Boulder Today, she said that “wildfire smoke can have measurable and potentially lasting health impacts.”
She describes wildfire smoke as “a complex mix of gases and solid and liquid particles.”
“From a health perspective, the particles—that dark cloud that you see when you look at the smoke plume—are most concerning,” she added. “They are so tiny they don’t fall to the ground with gravity and, unlike larger particles, they don’t get stopped in the trachea or nose when you breathe them in.”
She also discussed concerns about hazardous air pollutants such as formaldehyde, benzene, and hydrogen cyanide present in wildfire smoke.
Each season brings more drought, more heat, more wildfires. How can we prepare for such extremes?
We need to think about our water supplies. Wildfires can and do compromise water quality during a fire and for years after the fire has been contained. During the active burn, ash can settle on lakes and reservoirs used for drinking water supplies. Toxic chemicals from burned infrastructure can seep into the surrounding soil and groundwater.
Wildfires also increase susceptibility of watersheds to flooding and erosion.
It’s time to start developing water treatment strategies for treating source water effected by wildfires.
While water treatment facilities are accustomed to dealing with sediment, wildfires can create vast amounts of debris run-off, and treatment facilities need to be prepared to handle it.
Research conducted by Dr. Mussie Beyene, an EPA postdoctoral researcher working with EPA ecologist Dr. Scott Leibowitz, has examined pre- and post-wildfire data on streams in the western United States to understand how wildfires change the daily flow of sediment and water in streams.
“If you are a municipal water supply manager, you are most concerned with changes in the magnitude, frequency, and timing of extreme water discharge and sediment—what are the highest and lowest amounts of water and sediment that flow into a stream after a wildfire—because your water treatment plants and your water storage systems may not be built to accommodate them,” he said in a 2019 EPA article.
According to research from the California Water Center, effects of wildfire on municipal water systems can include:
Increased sediment loading of water-supply reservoirs, shortened reservoir lifetime, and increased maintenance costs
Increased loading of streams with nutrients, dissolved organic carbon, major ions, and metals
Post-fire erosion and transport of sediment and debris to downstream water-treatment plants, water-supply reservoirs, and aquatic ecosystems
Increased turbidity (cloudiness caused by suspended material), or heightened iron and manganese concentrations, which may increase chemical treatment requirements and produce larger volumes of sludge, both of which would raise operating costs
Changes in source-water chemistry that can alter drinking-water treatment
(Bring these tips to your next city council meeting!)
And it isn’t just our drinking water that’s at risk. Think about the water that’s integral to all aspects of our lives and economies.
Water cools power plants, for instance, and we may face energy issues if our power plants can’t cool themselves. Some energy is derived from water directly, in the form of hydroelectric plants. When the total volume of available water decreases because of fluctuations in the environment, that energy source is also put at risk. It’s a vicious circle.
Our farm animals need water to drink, and thus agriculture is hit by the changes in water that stem from the changes in our environment. And, of course, the crops we depend on for food depend, in turn, on water.
A 2012 drought brought the Mississippi River to record low levels, holding up shipping and leading to harvest failures in the Midwest. The extreme floods and droughts that we’ve become accustomed to seeing on the nightly weather reports often mask deeper, systemic changes and shocks— the implications of which can last for decades.
As extreme weather events increasingly become the new normal, the lights are flashing red. Are we going to heed the warnings?
Scientists have been monitoring and warning us about these problems for years. In 2015, researchers called evaporation “a large and continuing problem in the Colorado River basin, including Lake Mead and Lake Powell, where about 500 billion gallons of water evaporate annually.” These are the two largest manmade water reservoirs in the country. Once this water is gone, it’s gone. This year those who live near Lake Mead are calling it “unrecognizable.”
The time to find new water management strategies is here. The time to act on climate change is now.
Get to your city council meetings and start the conversation about preparedness and ask what your municipality is doing to prepare for extreme weather events. Get up to speed on infrastructure legislation and call your representatives to let them know how important it is to you. Volunteer time or money with an organization in your area working to solve climate issues.
Be an informed consumer and strive to give your business to companies committed to our environment. While more than 80 percent of the largest U.S. companies have set emissions reduction goals, more than 20 percent have actively lobbied against them, according to report released Tuesday by sustainability nonprofit Ceres, as reported by Bloomberg Green.
Talk is cheap. I’m sick of corporations policing themselves, on their toxic chemicals or on their climate policies. It’s time for better business and for everyone to get with the program. The signs could not be more obvious.
And yes, big news broke yesterday that top Flint health officials’ phones were altered or wiped completely during the 18-month period the city switched to Flint River water. I wish I could say I was surprised, but I talk about cover-ups all the time.
What actions are you willing to take on climate change this week? Let’s talk about it and brainstorm in the comments below.