Fire and smoke: our rivers at risk

There is no doubt that this summer’s fire and smoke in the Rogue River Valley is something we all would like to avoid in the future. How to do so is the focus of many serious discussions; there are no easy solutions. One aspect of the conversation that we believe is not receiving the attention it deserves is the health of our rivers.

Here in the Rogue Valley we are blessed to have world-class rivers and streams. Not only does the valley provide exceptional water-based recreation and fisheries, it also provides outstanding water quality, which means local communities enjoy some of the best drinking water found anywhere.

Maintaining and restoring these values is not free. State and federal agencies, along with watershed councils and non-profit conservation groups, continually repair damaged stream channels and their associated wetlands and riparian areas, and remove or retrofit dams, fix failed culverts, and address other problems for fish passage. We also must protect those portions of our streams and rivers that remain healthy, and which provide numerous benefits to our society at virtually no cost.

Over the past two years, Rogue River Watershed Council and its many partners implemented six projects specifically addressing water quality. Seventeen acres of streamside forest were restored along Gilbert, Sugarpine, and Wagner Creeks. The wide variety of planted trees and shrubs will grow to provide heavy shade over the streams. This shade will help keep water temperatures cool, which is necessary to support salmon and trout. The 25- to 75-foot-wide planting areas will also filter sediment and other pollutants out of surface runoff, keeping the quality of water in the stream high during rainstorms and snow melt. We also worked directly with streamside agricultural operations to improve their infrastructure (roads, livestock manure facilities, and fencing) along Wagner and Neil Creeks, again to reduce the likelihood of pollutants reaching these streams.

Healthy rivers and streams are characterized by clean water, riffles and deep pools free from large amounts of fine silt and clay, large woody material that provides cover for fish, and adjacent streamside habitats that shade streams and filter out sediment and pollutants before they enter the stream channel. Too much fire threatens such streams.

One recent study looked at the impacts of the growing number of wildfires in various regions of the country and found damage to streams that included ash flows, increased sedimentation, and degraded aquatic life. That should not be a surprise. Scientists remind us that moderate amounts of wildfire can be beneficial to stream systems but that larger, more intense, and more frequent wildfires overwhelm the resiliency of watersheds to these disturbances and cause harm to fish and aquatic insect populations and water supplies.

Fire suppression can be harmful to streams as well. Constructed fire lines can increase erosion and stream sedimentation. Many aerially applied fire retardants are toxic to aquatic life. An increased dependence on aerial retardant not only is incredibly expensive, it comes at considerable ecological cost. Ammonia and nitrates in fire retardants can enter streams with quick and lethal effect. Fish kills from retardant drops are an increasing problem throughout the West.

Long-term data show that our air and water are getting warmer, snow is melting more quickly, and forests are drying sooner. Across most of the West, we also are seeing reductions in our already meager summer rains.

The problem of addressing increased fire and smoke risk is multi-faceted, and the solution must be devised with all resources in mind.

There are solutions that reduce wildfire potential with limited or no risk to our rivers and streams. Tactics such as prescribed fire, improved wildfire management, selective forest thinning, and improved defensible space practices address a variety of problems without causing harm to other values. As we continue to search for the best approaches, we must not lose sight of the many pieces in the puzzle including our rivers.

Jack Williams is on the board of directors of the Rogue River Watershed Council, emeritus scientist for Trout Unlimited, and former supervisor of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest; Brian Barr is executive director of the Rogue River Watershed Council.

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