Forest fires can impact the water as well as the air

Researchers from the University of Alberta's Southern Rockies Watershed Project have been working to understand what impact forest fires have on water quality and treatment.

Researchers from the University of Alberta say increased runoff can add contaminants to our mountain water

There are hundreds of wildfires burning across B.C. and that can affect the water we drink. (Pondosy Bay Wilderness Resort)

Forest fires don't impact just the quality of the air we breathe, they can also impact the water we drink. 

Researchers from the University of Alberta's Southern Rockies Watershed Project have been working to understand what impact forest fires have on water quality and treatment.

"We get the overwhelming majority of our water supplies in Alberta from the forested landscapes," said Uldis Silins, who co-leads the research. 

"So cities like Calgary, Lethbridge, Red Deer, Edmonton, Grande Prairie — all of those cities — the majority of their water is coming from those forested landscapes."

Wildfires result in an increase in contaminants from runoff, such as sediment, nutrients and organic carbon that all gets flushed into pristine mountain water.

Monica Emelko and Uldis Silins co-lead the Southern Rockies Watershed Project which is trying to better understand the impact forest fires have on water quality and treatment. (Submitted by Uldis Silins)

"If we're talking about surface water, obviously we're not drinking water straight out of the river," said Monica Emelko, who also co-leads the research. 

"We have to put out safe water. But some of those nutrients can lead to challenges that make it harder to get our coagulant doses right — our chemicals used during the treatment process — they can lead to larger swings in water quality so that we're constantly trying to keep up."

Emelko says large swings in water quality drive up costs, and water needs to be considered when managing forests. 

  • LISTEN to an in-depth interview on this topic:
For the past few weeks, there's been lots of talk about poor air quality caused by hundreds of wildfires burning in B.C. But it turns out, forest fires can also have a big impact on the quality of drinking water. Water scientists are studying the relationship between recent forest fires and water quality. University of Alberta professor Uldis Silins founded the Southern Rockies Watershed Project. University of Waterloo professor Monica Emelko is co-lead of the project. Both joined host Doug Dirks on the line from Crowsnest Pass. 7:59