Scientists at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) spent a decade developing world-class modeling and monitoring capabilities to pinpoint factors behind the success of Sonoma’s riverbank filtration system. They were turning their attention to investigating the potential impact of extreme events, such as storms and wildfires, when disaster struck. Suddenly, their experimental approaches to predicting how the system would respond to hypothetical situations are being used to explore real-life perturbations.

Catastrophic fires in Northern California burned more than 110,000 acres in Sonoma and Napa counties last month – including 8 percent of the Russian River watershed. Now with the rainy season underway Berkeley Lab’s research – which seeks to understand how the hydrology and microbiology of the surface and groundwater system respond to extreme events – has become even more critical.

“We were studying the potential impact of fires on the nutrient, solute, and metal delivery to the river,” said Berkeley Lab researcher Michelle Newcomer. “With this unfortunate turn of events our developed approaches are ready to address real questions about water availability and water quality.”

The Sonoma County Water Agency is supporting Berkeley Lab to assess the impact of the recent fires and any post-fire storms on the hydrological and biogeochemical conditions of the water quality as it moves through the Russian River and groundwater system, the main source of drinking water for 600,000 residents in Sonoma and Marin counties.

Berkeley Lab has been collaborating with the Water Agency and scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), who are helping to collect samples and perform water quality analyses, respectively.

“The timing of the fires has presented a big challenge. Coming so close to rainy season, folks who get their water from the Russian River are worried about potential impacts of runoff from the thousands of homes destroyed and thousands of acres scarred,” said Jay Jasperse, chief engineer and groundwater program manager for the Water Agency. “The partnership with Berkeley Lab and USGS will provide vital information.”

Data collected from this program will also be helpful in assessing potential impacts to other water supply systems within and downstream of the affected areas, as well as potential ecosystem affects.

“As soon as the fire happened, we mobilized the next week to identify a series of measurement nodes at key locations in the watershed to collect a time series of water samples,” said Susan Hubbard, the Associate Laboratory Director of Berkeley Lab’s Earth and Environmental Sciences Area. “We’re working to understand how changes in hydrological conditions influence the interactions between microbes, minerals, and fluids in the surface and groundwater, that is, how these interactions change before, during, and after storms and what it means for water availability and water quality.”