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NASA-funded project to help water utilities cope with wildfire

The dark shape of a tree and a view of the Willamette River covered in wildfire smoke.
The Willamette River seen from Lake Oswego during the Oregon wildfires in 2020. Photo by hapabapa on iStock.

Data from space will be used to help keep drinking water clean in the Pacific Northwest, under a Washington State University-led project that recently received a $1 million NASA grant.

The effort answers a call from coastal utilities that rely on water sources in forested watersheds, which historically have burned once every 100 to 200 years. The 2020 Labor Day fires in Oregon signaled that was changing.

The agencies now feel an urgency to prepare for fire-induced impacts such as erosion that pushes sediment, chemicals, and nutrients into their water sources.

 “As the climate changes, it’s expected that these forests will dry out and burn more regularly,” said Julie Padowski, the project’s lead principal investigator and assistant director of WSU’s Center for Environmental Research, Education and Outreach or CEREO. “The infrastructure required to treat drinking water is expensive, and these water utilities really need to be able to plan in advance.”

Padowski is leading a multi-institutional team through CEREO to develop a modeling tool that simulates potential fire impacts in watersheds to help these utilities prepare.

The challenge is the lack of data for these types of forests since they have not burned regularly in the past. Other areas where wildfires have been more common like New Mexico and Colorado do not resemble Pacific Northwest forests, so the team will use data from NASA’s satellites, such as soil moisture, leaf area and other types of surface-reflectance data, to inform their models and tool development. This data also is regularly updated so the model of a particular watershed will be based on current conditions.

“This modeling tool will offer them a way to think through likely fire scenarios and their impacts to water and vegetation in their watersheds in the coming 25 to 50 years.”

Julie Padowski, assistant director
WSU’s Center for Environmental Research, Education and Outreach

“This modeling tool will offer them a way to think through likely fire scenarios and their impacts to water and vegetation in their watersheds in the coming 25 to 50 years, and what that might look like for their mission to provide clean drinking water,” said Padowski.

Knowing this information helps them take steps such as identifying types of pre-fire mitigation that might be useful for protecting the water intakes from sediment and debris flows, or perhaps be ready with post-fire measures such as mulching or other treatments that help keep ash in place instead of running off into a reservoir.

The team includes researchers from Oregon State University, University of Idaho, and University of Nevada, Reno and the U.S. Forest Service. Seven utilities located in Western Oregon and Washington are advisors on the project, but the team hopes the tool will be useful across the Pacific Northwest, and ultimately throughout the U.S. The grant, which was made through NASA’s ROSES program or Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Science, will last three years. The project will officially kickoff this fall.

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