The College of Forestry at Oregon State University is leading a three-year $4 million-dollar project, with the US Forest Service, Washington State University, Montana State University, and multiple other partners from academia, government, tribes, and community organizations, to develop critical knowledge and increased capacity to inform policy and management decisions for resilient forested watersheds and downstream communities to ensure the protection and distribution of safe drinking water.

When watersheds burn, there is increased potential for floods, erosion, mass movements, and introduction of contaminants to streams and rivers. This issue is critical, because wildfire prone forested watersheds supply water to between 60–70 percent of the US population. These hazards and contaminants can catastrophically impact downstream community infrastructure, drinking water treatment, public health, and aquatic ecosystem health.

“The effects from wildfires on water supplies can persist for decades, resulting in hidden costs to communities that have been estimated to be 30-times greater than the costs of wildfire suppression,” said College of Forestry Professor Kevin Bladon, forest disturbance hydrologist and lead investigator on the project. “Additionally, many communities are unknowingly vulnerable because of inadequate drinking water treatment plant processes and preparedness to treat climate change and wildfire-associated changes in water quantity or quality.”

The funding for this work was part of the 2022 U.S. federal budget and was put forward by Oregon state Senator Jeff Merkley as a priority issue. The research will provide decision makers with information and tools critical to improve their understanding of wildfire impacts in forested watersheds, the opportunities for active forest management to mitigate risks, and to identify communities at greatest risk for impeded distribution of safe drinking water.

“Safe drinking water is one of society’s most basic needs,” said Bladon. “Preventing or mitigating the potentially devastating and long-term impacts of wildfire and climate change on essential clean water supplies in downstream communities is crucial to increase community preparedness, ensure healthy communities and reduce long-term aquatic impacts and financial costs.”

This story is part of the College of Forestry 2022 Fall Update – learn more about our research, new hires, and outreach.

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