Boulder, Luquillo, INVESTIGATOR
Forests yield high-quality water supplies to communities throughout the world, in part because forest cover reduces flooding and the consequent transport of suspended and dissolved constituents to surface water. Disturbance by wildfire reduces or eliminates forest cover, leaving watersheds susceptible to increased surface runoff during storms and reduced ability to retain contaminants. We assessed water-quality response to hydrologic events for three years after a wildfire in the Fourmile Creek Watershed, near Boulder, Colorado, and found that hydrologic and geochemical responses downstream of a burned area were primarily driven by small, brief convective storms that had relatively high, but not unusual, rainfall intensity. Total suspended sediment, dissolved organic carbon, nitrate, and manganese concentrations were 10-156 times higher downstream of a burned area compared to upstream, and water quality was sufficiently impaired to pose water-treatment concerns. The response in both concentration and yield of water-quality constituents differed depending on source availability and dominant watershed processes controlling the constituent. For example, while all constituent concentrations were highest during storm events, annual sediment yields downstream of the burned area were controlled by storm events and subsequent mobilization, whereas dissolved organic carbon yields were more dependent on spring runoff from upstream areas. The watershed response was affected by a legacy of historical disturbance: the watershed had been recovering from extensive disturbance by mining, railroad and road development, logging, and fires in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and we observed extensive erosion of mine waste in response to these summer storms. Therefore, both storm characteristics and historical disturbance in a burned watershed must be considered when evaluating the role of wildfire on water quality.
Murphy, S., Martin, D., McCleskey, R., and Writer, J. (2015): Factors Affecting Source-Water Quality after Disturbance of Forests by Wildfire. H34B-04 Disturbance Hydrology: Assessing the Impacts of Abrupt Landscape Changes on Watershed Hydrology III, presented at 2015 Fall Meeting, AGU, San Francisco, CA, 14-18 Dec..