Smoke in the water: Wildfires have lasting effects on drinking supply long after they’re put out

On a cold and cloudy day in Superior, Colorado, a gentle breeze blows over a small reservoir outside the city’s water treatment plant. A few months ago, this small pond was engulfed in flames.

In December, Marshall Fire tore These are the bottoms. It became the most destructive in Colorado history, claiming more than 1,000 homes in the area before dissipating the next day. The fire left its mark on the townspeople and the people of the area. They called home. It also lingers in the water, leaving a smoky taste and smell in the drink supply. That forced a costly adjustment, which could come to other communities in the western U.S. where wildfires like this start burning in areas they’ve never seen before.

Alex Ariniello, the city’s director of public works, remembers the day of the fire. In this small Boulder County neighborhood, he has a wide range of activities. When it comes to the water filter, the back seat of the car holds road signs.

He looked at the reservoir, describing a chaotic day as the lawns behind the reservoir caught fire, the flames quickly spreading over the pond and neighboring buildings. The water treatment plant was largely undamaged, save for a pumping station and a backup generator on the road next to the main building. But that day, the winds blew the burning garbage directly into the water.

Alex Ariniello advanced

Senior Public Works Director Alex Ariniello said the water from the reservoir exceeds the state’s quality standards. But the usual purification infrastructure is not enough to remove the small particles that cause taste and smell problems.

It caused problems for two reasons. First, every drop of water that comes out of Superior Residential’s faucets goes through that pond. It is relatively small, covering only 400 acre feet. One hectare foot generally provides enough water for one to two households for a year. This pond is the last stop of the long canals and streams that bring it from the mountains to the high level, so the water problem here is the problem of houses in the city.

Second, the taste and smell do not disappear, even once the burnt pieces are pulled out of the water. Debris of burnt grass and dirt was swept away, but the taste and smell lingered, perhaps in tiny particles invisible to the eye.

The water from the reservoir even exceeds state standards for quality. Although unpleasant, the water was safe to drink. In the subterranean bowels of the water treatment plant, Arinillo spoke loudly over the mechanical whirring of the purification equipment behind him. The tubs and pipes and chemicals are enough to remove the things that make people sick, but not the taste and smell.

“Ashes shall pass,” he said. “Maybe it’s microscopic. Probably not a reaction to those chemicals. It was just causing those problems.

Ariniello and the department were tasked with fixing the issue because they had received constant complaints about how the water smelled and tasted bad, especially when it was heated.

“They were very angry about it, and a lot of people are very sensitive about it. So there are people we should ask. They call us all the time – ‘The water is terrible, and I can’t take a shower.’ They are very afraid of water. So we are trying to allay fears,” he said.

Corona water test

Researchers at Corona Environmental Consulting tested water by adding small pieces of burnt debris to give it an extra smoky taste and smell. They determined that granular activated carbon was the most effective filter on the fine particles left behind.

Recovery is an additional layer of purification. But since the problem is not visible and the water is not difficult to drink, it is difficult to know how to fix it. Down the road from the water treatment plant, a team of scientists has been conducting experiments to identify the problem and determine the best way to remove the fumes.

The lab looks familiar to anyone who took a high school science class. Alongside the tubes, flasks and eye shields you’ll find in tertiary chemistry, there’s high-tech electronic equipment.

Anthony Kennedy, a water process engineer at Corona Environmental Consulting, disputes this attempt. The company was contracted by Superior to understand the taste and smell issue. He starts at the low-tech end, ripping a white trash bag full of trash from around the edge of the tank. This is the root of the problem.

Kennedy picks up a few small twigs and stems, mostly brown around the ends. When you get your nose up close to the pile, you smell earthy and musty with a hint of volcano.

This waste water is pushed through four types of filters and collected on the other side through a system of barrels, tubes and presses. Then it heats up. It will be complicated and expensive to find out Exactly What is the cause of the smell and taste issue? Researchers know it’s an organic compound — two elements joined together at the atomic level — but they’re more concerned with naming it.

Therefore, instead of testing the effectiveness of each filter with high-tech scientific equipment, they use the human nose. The consulting firm’s staff smell each distilled water, and give them a thumbs-up or thumbs-down for the smell of smoke.

Anthony Kennedy Corona

Anthony Kennedy, a water process engineer, adjusts test equipment. Smoked water is pushed through different types of filters and collected. The staff then sifts through the samples to identify the most effective filter.

“We’re basically simulating what senior citizens are going through,” Kennedy said. “So if this water from my shower or tub is this hot, I’m smelling it here? And that means they smell it there.

From those challenges, a clear winner emerged; Granular activated carbon. They are a bit of coal. Kennedy grabbed a handful of black sand. A large amount of this is kept in the tanks of the water treatment, which adds a new line of defense against the constant taste and smell.

“This is the same thing you have in your Brita filter at home,” he said, pointing to a container about the size of a soup can. “We’re looking at pounds here. So 20,000 of them go into one of these big pressure vessels. Imagine a propane tank, but a propane tank ten feet in diameter.

The key to the cleaning power of carbon is in the unique structure of each grain. The little black pieces look solid, but are surprisingly porous. Since organic compounds adhere to the carbon surface, using a material with a wide surface area is a big advantage.

“On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be much to it,” Kennedy said. But really, if I pick up a gram of these particles—a small pile that fits in my hand—most of this material has a surface area of ​​about a thousand square meters.

Granular activated carbon

Granular activated carbon cuts down troublesome particles at the atomic level. A handful of these carbon grains have a surface area of ​​about 1,000 m and have a porous structure.

It may be at an advanced level to get water that smells of smoke that has upset some residents since the Marshall Fire. But it was a very expensive and complicated process for the city. The installation of the new septic tanks and pipes alone is costing the city $1.5 million. In a town of about 13,000 residents, it’s a sizable chunk of the budget when other projects should have been put on the back burner. While there has been some public opposition to using city funds to address the problem, senior officials say it was a necessary step.

For communities in the western US, similar issues and costs may be on the way due to climate change Driving changes For the role of wildfires, the more frequent they are, the closer they are to towns and cities and outside the traditional “fire season.”

“It starts with recognizing that it can concern you and hurt you,” says Chad Seidel, president of Corona Environmental Consulting.

Seidel earned his doctorate in environmental engineering from the nearby University of Colorado Boulder, where he currently holds an additional position.

“[Wildfires] Just keep getting closer and closer to home, and the situations we face are more and more. And communities that think, ‘Oh, we’re not really in the woods, we don’t have to worry about wildfires.’ That is not the case,” he said.


Months after the Marshall Fire, charred trees and ash were all that remained of the area, a neighborhood away. It’s a warning sign that climate change is driving fires closer to cities and infrastructure, climate experts say.

Other scientists agree. Climatologists call the fire in Superior a Warning sign Climate change is bringing fires closer to cities and infrastructure.

“As the human population grows and climate changes, the impact of fire on people and the threats to the natural and developed world will increase,” he wrote. A study From the US Forest Service.

Other studies have documented the effects of wildfires. Transportation infrastructure And Electrical appliances. Researchers report that the amount of damage caused by wildfires continues to damage homes and other structures. Say no Collecting similar data for the effect of wildfire on consumption. But the science all seems to point in one direction — that wildfires will start more frequently, move closer to people and facilities, and require costly repairs long after they’re out.

This story is part of an ongoing coverage of water in the West, produced by KUNC in Colorado and supported by the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for editorial coverage.

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