Monday, November 02, 2020

Wildfires threaten rural areas with expensive, lingering damage to water utilities

"When wildfires spread across California, they leave a cascade of water problems in their wake: Some communities have their drinking water poisoned by toxic substances. Others wrestle with ash and debris washed into reservoirs and lakes. And many living in remote stretches of the state struggle with accessing enough water to fight fires," Rachel Becker reports for Cal Matters. "Drinking water has been contaminated with hazardous chemicals after at least three California wildfires in recent years: in Santa Rosa after the Tubbs Fire in 2017, in Paradise after the Camp Fire in 2018 and now in parts of the San Lorenzo Valley burned by the CZU Lightning Complex Fires that began in August."

Fixing the damaged water systems can cost up to $150 million for a single small town, Becker reports.

Further complicating matters, "Towns and water agencies also are grappling with advice to give residents in fire-ravaged areas, who are confused by warnings that seem to continuously change about whether their water is safe," Becker reports. "In a state already plagued by water shortages, the problems in rural California are likely to happen again and again as climate change primes the West to burn."

Current drinking-water regulations can't handle the scope of California's problems, said one state official. “The Safe Drinking Water Act doesn’t have a clause like, ‘This is what you do in a fire when a community is completely burned to the ground," Darrin Polhemus, deputy director of the State Water Resources Control Board’s Division of Drinking Water, told Becker.

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