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Water-quality impacts from climate-induced forest die-off

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Increased ecosystem susceptibility to pests and other stressors has been attributed to climate change1, resulting in unprecedented tree mortality from insect infestations2. In turn, large-scale tree die-off alters physical and biogeochemical processes, such as organic matter decay and hydrologic flow paths, that could enhance leaching of natural organic matter to soil and surface waters and increase potential formation of harmful drinking water disinfection by-products3,4 (DBPs). Whereas previous studies have investigated water-quantity alterations due to climate-induced, forest die-off5,6, impacts on water quality are unclear. Here, water-quality data sets from water-treatment facilities in Colorado were analysed to determine whether the municipal water supply has been perturbed by tree mortality. Results demonstrate higher total organic carbon concentrations along with significantly more DBPs at water-treatment facilities using mountain-pine-beetle-infested source waters when contrasted with those using water from control watersheds. In addition to this differentiation between watersheds, DBP concentrations demonstrated an increase within mountain pine beetle watersheds related to the degree of infestation. Disproportionate DBP increases and seasonal decoupling of peak DBP and total organic carbon concentrations further suggest that the total organic carbon composition is being altered in these systems.

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Figure 1: Evolution of MPB impact in identified watersheds.
Figure 2: Significantly higher TOC and DBP concentrations in MPB-impacted water-treatment facilities versus control facilities.
Figure 3: Seasonal shifts and trends in TOC and TTHM concentrations in analysed water-treatment facilities.

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Change history

  • 31 January 2013

    In the version of this Letter originally published online, in the Acknowledgements, the grant number supporting J.O.S., R.M.M. and E.R.V.D should have been WSC-1204787. This error has been corrected in all versions of the Letter.


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This material was based in part on work supported by the US EPA STAR Fellowship no. FP-91735401-0 (K.M.M.), and the National Science Foundation under Grants CBET-1055396 (J.O.S.) and WSC-1204787 (J.O.S., R.M.M. and E.R.V.D.). Although the research described in the article was financially supported in part by the US EPA STAR programs, it has not been subjected to any EPA review and therefore does not necessarily reflect the views of the Agency, and no official endorsement should be inferred. The data reported in this study are publicly available and archived with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and USDA Forest Service, Forest Health Protection and its partners. The authors wish to thank P. Stanwood for assistance with data acquisition, A. Magee for assistance with statistical analysis, M. Geza for GIS help, K. A. Dickenson for assistance with mapping using Golden Software Surfer 11 and Z. Racine for his assistance in collecting data.

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K.M.M., E.R.V.D., J.O.S. and J.E.M. conceived the study, K.M.M collected and analysed the data, and K.M.M., E.R.V.D., J.O.S., J.E.M. and R.M.M. interpreted results and contributed to writing.

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Correspondence to Kristin M. Mikkelson.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Mikkelson, K., Dickenson, E., Maxwell, R. et al. Water-quality impacts from climate-induced forest die-off. Nature Clim Change 3, 218–222 (2013).

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