In the News: The Sweeping Effects of Wildfires on Reservoirs

In the news people witness how wildfires in the west can blaze across terrain, destroying ecosystems, burning homes, tarnishing communities, and keeping firefighters busy at work. All of these effects are evident just by a simple glance, but what many people may not know is that the increasing scale and frequency of wildfires are having significant impacts on reservoirs. New research done by the U.S. Geological Survey shows that erosion rates are growing due to wildfires and climate change. When the root systems of trees and plants are burnt away by fires, the foundation that used to hold mountainsides together no longer exists. This erosion is particularly a problem when it results in the accumulation of sediment at the bottom of dams and reservoirs, decreasing water storage space. Dams and reservoirs are imperative sites for water storage. Where water is a limited resource in various regions of the country, especially in the west, it is crucial that the water that is available for consumption has a secure and predictable place to be kept. The conflicts regarding reservoir erosion are not new issues, and dams are typically built anticipating future erosion. However, the exceedingly dry conditions are not normal for the land and will nearly double the rate of sedimentation in 471 significant watersheds in the western United States in the next three decades. After lots of research and analysis, it is almost unanimously agreed that climate change is the cause of this increasingly severe conflict. Tim Randle, a civil engineer with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Sediment and River Hydraulics Group, describes why climate change is triggering a vicious cycle for sediment accumulation. Sediment growth diminishes reservoir storage space, “which leaves you less prepared for the next drought.” It is hard to see a clear solution in the near future because the droughts in the west are constant and anticipated in the future, and maintenance on dams, such as dredging, is tremendously costly. By far, the best ways to fight sediment accumulation in water are preventative measures, such as protecting upslope areas from erosion. Reducing fuel loads and forest restoration efforts are just a few ways that regions can prepare for the future and attempt to curb the damage that wildfires can cause. Many of the actions that need to taken are larger than any individual. Therefor, it is important that people continue to value and conserve water, and spread awareness of preventative measures to combat wildfire-induced erosion.

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