Colorado State University Scientists Studying Climate Change Impact on Front Range Drinking Water through USDA Grant

The Colorado Rocky Mountains are undergoing rapid changes as the result of climate change. Through a new United States Department of Agriculture grant, Colorado State University scientists and the U.S. Forest Service are investigating how those changes will impact drinking water for the millions living along Colorado’s Front Range.

Through the $125,000 USDA grant, postdoctoral researcher Gina McKee and associate professor Thomas Borch from CSU’s Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, along with Chuck Rhoades from the U.S. Forest Service, will study the potential impact of climate change on water quality affecting more than 25 million who rely on the forest’s headwaters as their drinking water source.

“This research will provide critical information about the future quality of drinking water consumed by millions along the Front Range of Colorado and beyond,” said McKee. “I am thrilled to receive this prestigious award from the USDA NIFA postdoctoral grant program. The opportunity to conduct this cutting-edge research at CSU investigating the impact of climate change on water quality is a real honor.”

Due to increased temperatures from climate change, Colorado’s mountain pine beetle infestation has killed approximately 10 million lodgepole pine trees since 2006. The collaborative project between CSU and the U.S. Forest Service will apply advanced analytical techniques for the first time to determine what the vegetation change in the Rocky Mountains means for the water produced along the Front Range. The change in vegetation could have a dramatic impact on the chemistry and quantity of natural organic matter (NOM) in forest headwaters which in turn affects water quality.

One unique aspect of the project is the advanced analytical techniques the team will use: primarily ultrahigh resolution mass spectrometry. Using this advanced technique, researchers will investigate the impact vegetation change has had on the recovering subalpine forests using a list of biological markers (biomarkers) from the major vegetation types for comparison.

The biomarkers will be used as a tracing tool for each vegetation type in surrounding soils and waters to assess the significance of the vegetation change. Additionally, the scientists will look at the released NOM from subalpine forests as they enter the headwaters and then on as the source of drinking water for millions. This NOM reacts with disinfectants – such as chlorine – added during drinking water treatment to produce carcinogenic compounds called disinfection byproducts that can be carried to peoples’ homes. The formation of the toxic disinfection byproducts is a global issue potentially affecting millions of people worldwide, and therefore is of great concern.

The molecular makeup of the NOM precursor compounds is poorly understood which limits the ability of drinking water facilities to effectively remove them and will be further compounded if this NOM is altered due to the changes in vegetation.

“This project will provide new information that can be used to optimize current drinking water treatment approaches in order to minimize the formation of carcinogenic drinking water pollutants,” said Borch.

During the study, headwaters will be subjected to model drinking water treatment to identify whether vegetation type impacts the formation and quantity of disinfection byproducts and what the likely NOM precursor compounds are. The results could have wide-ranging impacts on millions of people’s ability to obtain high-quality drinking water in light of the changing headwater chemistry.

McKee, Borch and Rhoades will spend the next two years studying the effect of NOM derived from major headwaters and specific vegetation types on the formation of drinking water pollutants.