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Gonzaga study to investigate impact of wildfire on drinking water quality in the Pacific Northwest

By Amanda Sullender, The Spokesman-Review
Published: February 29, 2024, 3:53pm

SPOKANE — Amid increasing wildfires, Gonzaga University will study the impact these environmental disasters have on drinking water quality in the Pacific Northwest.

Conducted in partnership with Montana State University, the study is funded through an $850,000 U.S. Forest Service grant.

The project examining how public water systems can better prepare for wildfires is part of a larger partnership between Montana State and the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station, led by Montana State faculty. The Gonzaga portion of the research will be led by civil engineering Professor Kyle Shimbuku.

Water is contaminated from wildfires primarily when fire leaves behind charred material that is later washed into a river or lake following a storm. This contaminated river water can move far away from where the original contamination occurred.

“Wildfire could still impact water systems that don’t seem close by the fire and might not expect to be impacted,” Shimbuku said.

The ash and sediment can can have a large impact on aquatic ecosystems, as well as accumulate in drinking water . The sludge and potential carcinogens created through this process require greater resources to treat before drinking.

With the study’s results, Shimbuku hopes water treatment in the Pacific Northwest can more easily adapt to increasing wildfire. One treatment method they plan to study is the use of activated carbon, which is used in Brita filters to remove contaminates.

“We are investigating how technology like that could really improve the resilience of a water system to a potential wildfire and provide more flexibility in the event of a wildfire,” he said.

The study also will look at how much these wildfires cost water utilities and how government can prepare for impacts in the future.

Taking place over the next four years, researchers likely will begin studying the Cedar Creek watershed in Oregon and the Mackenzie River watershed in Washington. Later, researchers may return to study groundwater systems in Spokane and Eastern Washington, according to Shimbuku.

The long-term impact of wildfire on waterways is an immediate concern in Spokane County following last year’s Oregon Road and Gray fires. It is unclear what impact the fires have had on local water quality, though debris has appeared to have contaminated several lakes.

Medical Lake Mayor Terri Cooper, who chairs the Spokane Region Long Term Recovery Group, said it’s unclear exactly what will need to be done after debris entered both Medical Lake’s namesake body of water and nearby Silver and Clear Lakes. The City of Medical Lake is seeking a $29 million water and sewer project to get homes on the west shore of Silver Lake off of private wells, septic systems and drain fields.

“My efforts at the state and federal level is for immediate debris removal at government expense,” Cooper said.