Environmental damage from Valley fire could stretch beyond Lake County

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Devastation from the Valley fire is obvious in Lake County, where charred trees, structures and vehicles remain more than three months after the deadly fire consumed 76,067 acres and destroyed more than 1,300 homes.

But the as-yet-unknown environmental effects of the Valley fire — along with other wildland blazes that scarred the region last summer and fall — could reach far beyond the county’s borders.

Winter rains threaten to wash sediment, algae-stimulating chemicals and toxic residue from the fires into streams that flow through the blackened areas to water sources utilized by fish, agriculture and people miles away in the Bay Area and Central Valley.

“We’re very concerned about the fires’ (impacts),” said Chris Lee, water resource specialist with the Solano County Water Agency, which supplies water to farmers and cities in the county with more than 431,100 residents.

About half the agency’s water comes from Lake Berryessa, a federal Bureau of Reclamation-owned reservoir that is located in Napa County and is fed largely by Putah Creek, Lee said. The creek drains the Cobb Mountain area, one of the areas hardest hit by the Valley fire.

Lake Berryessa also could be impacted by runoff from the 25,118-acre Jerusalem fire, also in Lake County, and the 8,051-acre Wragg fire near Berryessa.

The Solano County Water Agency, along with water agencies in Napa and Lake counties, plans to monitor water quality in Putah Creek above and below the lake, Lee said. No tests have been conducted so far.

“We’re still in the preliminary stages,” he said. The agency is evaluating what needs to be done and looking into funding sources to do the work.

In Lake County, water officials expect impacts on Clear Lake to be minimal because few of the streams that feed the lake run through the most severely affected fire zones.

“I’m not expecting any huge impacts,” said Tom Smythe, Lake County water resources engineer.

County and state water officials say that any damage to streams that run through the fire areas most likely will be from sediment, which could clog rivers and damage fish habitat. Nitrogen and other chemical nutrients generated by the fires could wash into the lake, exacerbating its problem with chronic algal blooms.

Toxic residue from burnt homes and vehicles likely will be a lesser problem, state and county officials said. That’s due at least in part to a massive effort by the state to clear debris and toxic materials from home sites, said Carolyn Ruttan, invasive species coordinator for Lake County’s Water Resources Department.

The cleanup of the Valley fire — overseen by California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery — is expected to cost about $104 million, according to the state finance department.

About half the residential lots scheduled for cleanup by the state have been cleared. But worries remain about the potential for toxins to get into the water.

“We’re concerned,” said Sarah Ryan, director of the environmental department at the Big Valley Rancheria, a Pomo rancheria located at the southern end of Clear Lake. The tribe wants testing to detect any contamination in several area streams, including Putah, Kelsey, Cole and Seigler creeks.

Much of what happens to streams and lakes — as well as slide-prone hillsides — will depend on the weather.

While there has been abundant rain in December, it has fallen slowly enough to be absorbed by the soil rather than causing a deluge of runoff.

“The rain has been very kind to us,” Ruttan said.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MendoReporter.

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