In the wake of wildfires come a multitude of environmental effects, from new vegetation growth to greater erosion, but research shows that there are substantial effects on the water systems in which these fires happen.
As such, Moab and Grand County officials have started looking into what to do to protect the valley’s watershed from the effects of the Pack Creek Fire.
“We are beginning to investigate remediation and restoration measures we can take to protect our water supply and water quality, but we of course won’t know much more until we can assess the impact of the fire,” said Mila Dunbar-Irwin, Sustainability Director for the City of Moab.
Dunbar-Irwin said that the neighboring Emery County has experience with responding to a wildfire to protect water quality, and they are not the only ones.
“This is not the first time there has been a fire in this state,” said Arne Hultquist, the watershed coordinator for the Moab Area Watershed Partnership.
Hultquist said that the U.S. Forest Service would likely be the lead agency on initial measures in response to the wildfire’s effects on Moab’s watershed.
Hultquist also said that the Natural Resource Conservation Service, which is a subdivision of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, provides engineering and other opportunities through its Emergency Watershed Protection Program.
Multiple studies conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey over the past decade have created a body of evidence that water quality can suffer for years following a wildfire in the watershed.
A study released in 2015 found that a 2010 wildfire in Boulder County, Colorado led to downstream water quality impairment even years after the fire had been put out.
“Results from this study quantitatively demonstrate that water quality can be altered for several years after wildfire,” reads the study.
In Moab’s watershed, the areas of greatest recharge to the local groundwater systems occur high in the La Sal Mountains, according to a 2019 report from the U.S. Geological Survey, which also coincides with areas of forest the Pack Creek Fire burned.
However, Moabites source their groundwater from multiple aquifers under the valley, so the exact impacts to the local watershed and the timeline on which those effects take place may prove difficult to precisely gauge.