Wildfires are a growing threat across much of the Pacific Northwest and create a host of management challenges both during and after fire events.  Julie Padowski and a team of researchers from Washington State University, University of Idaho, Oregon State University, University of Nevada-Reno, and the US Forest Service have received over $1 million in funding from NASA’s Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Science Water Resources Program to help water utilities understand how wildfire will impact drinking water supplies in the future. Their work began in spring of ’22, and will continue until 2025.

The full title of their research is “Aiding water managers through a predictive ecohydrological modeling tool for assessing disturbance-induced runoff and water quality challenges“. Their work looks at the challenges that arise for water management after fires occur.  Forests often experience increased erosion, runoff, ash, suspended sediment, and debris flows after fire events. This is of particular concern to many municipal drinking water utilities in the Pacific Northwest that rely on forested watersheds as high-quality water sources.  With little historical context to draw from, utility managers in this region have little information to plan for, or capacity to respond to, water quality threats when fires occur, as evidenced by the 2020 Labor Day wildfires in western Oregon that burned more than 1 million acres and damaged more than 50 drinking water systems impacting water supply for more than 200,000 people.

Dr. Padowski and her team will work with multiple water utilities and state agencies to develop an online, decision-support tool that can be used by water managers to inform operations and planning decisions that impact millions of water customers.  Leveraging the Watershed Erosion Prediction Project (WEPP) and the recently completed FireEarth modeling effort, the team will provide managers with the data and tools to simulate watershed processes related to vegetation regrowth, ash and sediment transport and nutrient leaching to better understand how different management strategies affect water quality after fires occur.

Primary Investigators include Julie Padowski, Jennifer Adam, Mingliang Liu and Amanda Hohner from WSU, Erin Brooks, Mariana Dobre from the University of Idaho, Kevin Bladon from Oregon State University, Erin Hanan from University of Nevada- Reno, and Pete Robichaud of the US Forest Service.