This is Eileen Wray-McCann for Circle of Blue. And this is What’s Up with Water, your “need-to-know news” of the world’s water, made possible by support from people like you. 
An intergovernmental environmental watchdog says that it has found evidence that waste pits in Alberta Canada are contaminating groundwater. The pits hold hazardous byproducts from oil sands mining. The report from the Commission for Environmental Cooperation was based on a review of published scientific papers. The commission was established in 1994 as part of an agreement between the United States, Mexico, and Canada. It provides environmental assessments but does not have regulatory power. Though the oil mining waste pits are affecting groundwater, the report says that there is little evidence that chemicals, including bitumen and other organics, have moved into the nearby Athabasca River. Canadian authorities say they have not taken any enforcement action because they cannot tell whether the contamination is from natural sources or from the pits themselves.
In the United States, two lawsuits filed in federal court claim that the Environmental Protection Agency is failing to enforce a landmark agreement to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. One lawsuit was filed by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Maryland Waterman’s Association, which represents the state’s seafood industry. The other was filed by attorney generals of Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, and the District of Columbia, which are all located in the bay watershed. Both lawsuits allege that the EPA is being a lax regulator by letting two other states, Pennsylvania and New York, fall behind in reducing polluted runoff into the bay. The EPA and the bay states agreed in 2010 on a pollution diet that would trim the amount of nutrients and sediments flowing into the nation’s largest estuary. The Baltimore Sun reports that New York and Pennsylvania are far off track for reducing phosphorus and nitrogen flows and that the EPA is not holding them to standards as high as than those agreed upon. Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said that the lawsuits are necessary to prompt action. He said “This has to be a collective effort. Every state in the Chesapeake Bay watershed needs to play a part and EPA, under the law, needs to ensure that that happens.”
This week Circle of Blue reports on fires in the American West, which is ablaze in one of the region’s worst fire episodes in the last century.
Over 300 thousand acres burned in Washington state last Monday. That’s twice the area that burned in all of last year.
In Oregon, the small towns of Detroit and Gates were leveled by wind-fueled flames racing down the Santiam Canyon. As of Thursday night, a half million of the state’s residents lived in areas under evacuation orders or alerts.
In California, where a record three million acres have burned this year, thick banks of smoke enveloped the Bay Area, obscuring mid-day skies with an eerie orange hue. The U.S. Forest Service cited extreme fire risk and closed all national forests in the central and southern parts of the state. Taking refuge in hotels, emergency centers, or with family, many people don’t yet know if their homes are still standing. Where evacuation orders have been lifted, the damage is readily apparent. Not only have houses and businesses been scorched, essential public infrastructure has been destroyed. That includes drinking water systems, which in some cases  show signs of contamination from chemicals released during the fires.
State and local agencies say they are still surveying water system damage and do not have precise information at this time. The Oregon Health Authority says it has heard that a number of small water systems along the Interstate 5 corridor between Ashland and Medford have been destroyed. The Washington State Department of Health says that 11 water systems lost pressure during power outages linked to fires in that state. Their customers are being advised to boil their water or use bottled water for drinking.
One of the most severe examples is central California’s San Lorenzo Valley Water District, which serves parts of inland Santa Cruz County.  District Manager Rick Rogers said that over 7 miles of plastic water supply pipeline were destroyed in the CZU Lightning Complex Fire. The majority of the pipe was above ground. Most of the district’s water system was spared in the fire that started on August 16, and the district has switched to backup water sources, including groundwater. But Rogers listed other infrastructure impairments: damage to booster pumps, to transmission mains, tanks, intakes, water meters, and to sampling stations in certain areas. The preliminary damage estimate is $10 million.
Parts of the San Lorenzo Valley Water District have been under a Do Not Drink/Do Not Boil advisory since August 29 because of benzene contamination. Very few water samples have been tested so far but one taken on September 4 revealed benzene contamination roughly three times higher than the state drinking water standard of 1 microgram per liter. Last week, the district lifted the Do Not Drink/Do Not Boil order for parts of the service area that did not show benzene contamination, but staff said they did not know when the all-clear would be given district-wide.
The destruction and contamination of drinking water systems is a new and unsettling chapter in the story of wildfires in the West. Past fires have burned watersheds, hitting reservoirs with debris and ash that interfere with the water-treatment process. Now, subdivisions are burning, putting the plumbing itself at risk.
Nine of the 12 most destructive wildfires in California history have occurred since 2015. In this case, destruction is measured by the number of structures that burned.  As housing developments expand into areas vulnerable to fire, and as a warming planet increases the likelihood of mega blazes, water managers and regulators expect to be dealing with the risks to drinking water systems for years to come.
Stefan Cajina works for the State Water Resources Control Board’s Division of Drinking Water. He told Circle of Blue: “Since about 2015 we started seeing fires that quickly wipe out large sections of community, and it seems like every year since then we’ve seen one fire or the other that has done this, so I fear that it is something we’re going to be living with.”  In addition to San Lorenzo Valley, a Do Not Drink advisory was also issued by Big Basin Water Company because of damage from the CZU Lightning Complex Fire.
The first instance of fire-related benzene contamination of a public water system in California happened in Santa Rosa, in 2017. The following year, the town of Paradise was nearly obliterated by the Camp Fire, which killed 85 people, destroyed 90 percent of the town’s structures and inflicted substantial damage to the drinking water system. Kevin Phillips was the manager of Paradise Irrigation District. He’s now the town manager, and he told Circle of Blue that the capital cost of rebuilding the water system and replacing contaminated pipes has reached $150 million.
Drinking water systems can be contaminated by fire in several ways. When pipes break, water pressure drops. That pressure vacuum can draw in pollutants from the soil, groundwater, and air, including the organic chemicals in smoke. Plastic components of a water system — pipes, meters, valves — can also burn and release chemicals into the water system. These volatile and semi-volatile organic chemicals can be released when they vaporize out of the water. Short-term exposure can cause dizziness, while long-term exposure can cause anemia or leukemia.
Towns with contaminated pipes have two choices, according to Andrew Whelton. He’s an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Purdue University. He said towns can flush out the contaminants or replace the pipes. The best course of action depends on what the pipes are made of and how bad the contamination is. Plastic pipes can hold onto organic chemicals like benzene more tightly than steel ones. Whelton said that, in an analysis from the Camp Fire, a plastic pipe that had severe benzene contamination took over nine months to reach a state where the pipe supplied water acceptable for California’s drinking water standard.
San Lorenzo Valley aims to repair its system as quickly as possible in order to get water flowing to all the homes in the district. For the sake of  speed, some plastic components are being reinstalled. District Manager Rogers said that discussion about the suitability of those materials for the long term will happen after the emergency period. He said “We are looking at putting these facilities back and hardening them against fire. The district does not want to put them back and go through this again.”
Purdue’s Andrew Whelton agreed that this new era of fire risk should prompt authorities to reevaluate their infrastructure choices. Take the San Lorenzo Valley water supply line that burned. He asked “Should plastic pipe have been installed above ground in a forest that is prone to wildfires? No. Unless you expect to have to replace that under a situation where it is damaged. These discussions need to be happening in state capitols and communities that make infrastructure selection decisions.”
And that’s What’s Up With Water from Circle of Blue, which relies on your support for independent water news and analysis. Please visit and make a difference through your tax-deductible donation.