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Berkeley Lab study finds California wildfires increase runoff, groundwater

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SEPTEMBER 10, 2019

A study published Aug. 14 from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, or Berkeley Lab, found that wildfires in California can be beneficial to the state’s water supply.

The study, entitled “Watershed Dynamics Following Wildfires: Nonlinear Feedbacks and Implications on Hydrological Responses,” discovered that post-wildfire areas hold more snowpack during the winter, have a greater amount of summer runoff and have increased groundwater storage, according to a Berkeley Lab news release.

According to Fadji Maina, a postdoctoral fellow in the Energy Geosciences Division at Berkeley Lab and the study’s lead author, the increased groundwater and surface water is a result of increased snowpack, made possible by the wildfires.

“Because wildfires damaged the vegetation, the absence of the vegetation will lead to an increase of snow accumulation which will increase the snowmelt, then runoff and groundwater storage,” Maina said in an email.

Maina said in the email that the team studied the Cosumnes watershed, which spans the Sierra Nevada and Central Valley.

“The watershed is a rare undamed watershed in the state allowing (us) to understand natural processes and to isolate the impacts of climate and natural disasters from the human activity,” Maina said in the email. “Besides, as around 70% of the water supply of the Central Valley originates from the snowmelt in the Sierra, it is really important to model the connection between the Sierra and the Central Valley.”

According to Maina, as wildfires become more common in the western United States and continue to damage land cover, it is important to understand their impact on the environment.

“The study aims to inform stakeholders about the impact of wildfires on the hydrology and water supply,” Maina said in the email. “It also allows (us) to determine when and where runoff and groundwater level increases after a wildfire, an important aspect for water management decisions.”

Contact Maya Akkaraju at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @maya_akkaraju.
LAST UPDATED

SEPTEMBER 10, 2019


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