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Lessons from Camp Fire could help prevent water contamination after North Complex

Chico Enterprise-Record logo Chico Enterprise-Record 10/14/2020 Natalie Hanson
a man riding a bike down a dirt road: A Caltrans worker treats soil Friday on a hill overlooking Lake Oroville near Berry Creek, where the North Complex fires burned. (Natalie Hanson -- Enterprise-Record) © Provided by Chico Enterprise-Record A Caltrans worker treats soil Friday on a hill overlooking Lake Oroville near Berry Creek, where the North Complex fires burned. (Natalie Hanson -- Enterprise-Record)

OROVILLE — Fear of contaminating precious local water sources is one way devastating wildfires continue to be felt in communities in Butte County, where the debris of burnt homes from recent fires sits near a watershed used by many in Northern California.

Unfortunately, the same fear of contamination of local water felt after the Camp Fire is mounting after the North Complex fires devastated Berry Creek and the foothill communities near Lake Oroville.

While heat waves and high temperatures remain, there is a fear that when rains do arrive, few county resources will have had time to protect many burnt lots from passing debris into local water sources — such as the lake.

The county’s Forest Health Watershed Coordinator Wolfy Rougle said there is indeed reason to worry about preventing toxic runoff quickly, particularly with the magnitude of the North Complex fires’ destruction, but the county’s resources are stretched thin.

Matthew Trumm explains the use of straw wattles and the importance of preparing fire damaged homes from spreading toxic waste and debris into the surrounding waters and environment Friday morning at Lake Madrone homes north of Berry Creek. (Natalie Hanson — Enterprise-Record) © Provided by Chico Enterprise-Record Matthew Trumm explains the use of straw wattles and the importance of preparing fire damaged homes from spreading toxic waste and debris into the surrounding waters and environment Friday morning at Lake Madrone homes north of Berry Creek. (Natalie Hanson — Enterprise-Record)

While “It would be a great start for (the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services) to just send some trucks full of supplies,” that would not be enough and is not within the county’s power at this time, Rougle said.

“Counties are extremely short-staffed and can’t do this private-lands work themselves on top of the public road repair the county is already doing and is responsible for doing.”

So small nonprofit organizations typically have boots on the ground to do the work with concerned residents, like the Camp Fire Restoration Project.

How did the county work to prevent the same issue after the Camp Fire and protect creeks in Paradise and Magalia from sediment runoff from burnt homes? Rougle said “friends of Butte Creek” and United States Fish and Wildlife Service teamed up to buy straw wattles which volunteer teams deployed around Butte Creek Canyon to protect salmon-bearing streams. The Butte County Resource Conservation District helped build a geodatabase for tracking where the wattles were put down and Butte County Public Works, with the help of Deer Creek Resources and North Star Engineering, deployed hundreds of miles of wattles, then released leftover wattles to the public.

After the Camp Fire, several organizations tested water quality. University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources Livestock and Natural Resource Advisor Tracy Schohr tested the effects of ash and runoff on pasture — “My recollection is she found the impacts were very limited,” Rougle said.

Overall, testing results were good, Rougle said, “Little to no effect on groundwater has apparently been detected from the Camp Fire, or at least not in Butte Creek Canyon.”

However, the Central Valley Water Quality Board also established several water quality monitoring sites, and Assistant Executive Officer Clint Snyder said Tuesday, “We did detect spikes in concentrations of several constituents during our monitoring of surface waters following the Camp Fire.”

Some “water sample events” showed elevated concentrations as a direct result of the Camp Fire burn scar, he said. Due to the concerning results, Snyder said the board is coordinating with Cal OES to find resources to use to prevent runoff as much as possible, although a timeline has not been set.

Department of Water Resources Oroville’s Public Information Officer Liza Whitmore claimed any runoff that might enter the lake from the fires would be diluted by the amount of water already in the lake, “capable of handling over one trillion gallons.” Whitmore said the contamination possible from toxic runoff is “not a measurable significant effect.”

“If you put one drop in a full bathtub, how poisonous is that going to make the water?” Whitmore said.

In addition, if water containing particles or hazardous material from erosion after fires goes to homes, it is treated by the local water purveyor before being delivered, she added. An additional water monitoring station was installed by the department after the fire and this year, the annual debris removal effort is being ramped up to clean out the downed trees from the fire.

In order to address what could happen to creeks and the lake after the North Complex fires, Rougle said she is not currently sure if the county will request wattles or other erosion control support from Cal OES, but said the county can utilize the lessons learned after the Camp Fire.

“The county and local groups have proven they know how to install the wattles correctly, given their impressive results with the Camp Fire where it appears that the wattle installation initiative may have actually prevented significant contamination of the streams,” Rougle said.

And while dilution of toxins will happen, elevated concentration of harmful materials in water resources is still expected, albeit to a lesser degree. Snyder said the community should be concerned about preventing runoff from their lots, and the board will put together another monitoring program to test water samples, prior to the onset of rains and during the winter and spring.

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