Bruce Willis helps feed Beaver Creek firefighters

Wildfires pose a major threat to our clean water

03 September 2013

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USA — The problems stemming from climate change will be expressed through water. On the Atlantic coast, we all have images of waves pouring into and through our cities, but in the West, the issue is not one of too much water, but too little. Climate change makes wet places wetter and dry places drier. In the West, one result of a long term drought is more and more devastating wildfires.

2013 is already a huge wildfire year; and it may become a record year after a series of very bad wildfire years. So far this year almost 4,000,000 million acres have burned, an area larger than the state of Connecticut. And yes, it is outrageous that the mainstream news about the fires always says that the fires are exacerbated by the drought without mentioning that the drought itself is very likely caused by climate change. But for the moment, let’s not dwell on that or on the horrible individual tragedies caused by these wildfires in the loss of life, homes, and businesses.

Today’s topic is the threat to clean water from wildfires. Here in San Francisco, we have become acutely aware of the dangers the Rim Fire near Yosemite. That fire is already the largest fire in the recorded history of the Sierra Nevada, a fact that by itself should give everyone pause. For many of us though, the surprise has been the threat this fire has posed to our drinking water, most of which comes from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park. For now, San Francisco has escaped immediate danger by pumping water out of Hetch Hetchy as quickly as possible, protecting our residents from drinking water contaminated by toxic ash. But the threat to our drinking water will continue for years because of erosion and flooding as a result of the burned forest.

San Francisco is not alone. Twenty-percent of the clean water for our nation’s cities originates in forests. In the west, major cities depend on water from forests. In addition to San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Denver and even Los Angeles depend on clean water that originates in forests. Huge wildfires could pose a toxic threat to metropolitan populations hundreds of miles from the fire, populations that feel falsely secure from these fires.

This water is important to us not just for drinking. It also supplies badly needed hydroelectric power. Wildfires that damage our hydroelectric power supply or the transmission corridors we depend upon, threaten our local economies and industries.

Wildfire is potentially a vicious cycle. Each fire releases enormous quantities of carbon dioxide, which helps heat the planet further, increasing the risk of more drought and the risk of even larger fires. Many of us are unaware that these fires threaten our drinking water and our power supplies, more examples of the many unforeseen hazards of climate change.

Most fundamentally, we need to recognize our problems and face them. The story here is larger than the loss of habitat, the loss of life by heroic firefighters and the loss of homes. We can successfully address our climate issues if we identify them and act forcefully; but the story is also one about leadership, vision and will. We face enormous anticipated and unanticipated consequences if we don’t — damaging public health and entire regional economies.

It’s our choice.

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