President Trump has cannonballed into California’s water politics, accusing the state’s Democratic governor—an outspoken Trump foe—of mishandling deadly wildfires.
“Governor Jerry Brown must allow the Free Flow of the vast amounts of water coming from the North and foolishly being diverted into the Pacific Ocean,” Trump wrote yesterday on Twitter as blazes ravaged parts of the Golden State. “Can be used for fires, farming and everything else. Think of California with plenty of Water—Nice! Fast Federal govt. approvals.”
But experts say Trump is conflating two unrelated sets of problems: worsening wildfires and fights over water access.
Climate change has worsened the state’s historic drought, according to scientists, while high temperatures have killed trees and brush and made wildfires burn hotter.
The tweet came on the same day that the Mendocino Complex Fire became the largest wildfire in state history. A combination of two blazes about 150 miles northeast of San Francisco, the Complex Fire by yesterday evening local time had consumed 283,800 acres.
Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of water to fight the fires, said Kevin Conway of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire. Water is taken from nearby lakes and trucked in as needed. Firefighters are using aircraft and flame retardant, along with water, to quench blazes.
Trump seems to be echoing a GOP argument about water access after years of drought have squeezed California’s agriculture and aquatic ecosystems.
California Republicans close to the president—like Reps. Kevin McCarthy and Devin Nunes—have proposed expanding dams and allowing farmers to use more water, rather than letting it flow into rivers to support fisheries.
Trump seems to be supporting that aim. But massive fires are burning in Northern California’s mountainous, wooded areas—not the Central Valley farmland where Republicans want more water to irrigate fields.
“The wildfires are occurring in open spaces, not agricultural land, so it’s not about how much we’re irrigating fields,” said Brent Haddad, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who specializes in water management.
Conditions are dry, but that doesn’t mean firefighters are running out of water. In many cases, there’s plenty nearby.
Water shortages haven’t been a problem for the Carr Fire, which is burning near at least three lakes, nor for the Mendocino Complex Fire, burning around Clear Lake.
“[These fires are] growing because it’s hot, and the land is dry, and the winds are fierce and climate change has made all these things worse,” said Peter Gleick, co-founder of the Pacific Institute and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
“But there’s no shortage of water. No one’s holding back water to fight these fires.”
‘He’s just got everything backwards’
Trump on Sunday said the wildfires were being magnified by “bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amounts of readily available water to be properly utilized. It is being diverted into the Pacific Ocean” (Climatewire, Aug. 6).
Experts said that’s just not the case.
“He’s completely ignoring the real causes of these fires, which is a combination of bad land management, higher temperatures from climate change and severe drought,” Gleick said.
“He’s just got everything backwards,” he said.
Haddad said there’s been a clear climate signature on the drought and wildfires and that California is preparing for conditions to deteriorate even further.
Northern California got only about half its average rainfall last year, even as the warmer air drove up evaporation, said Michael Loik, a professor of environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz.
“These patterns are consistent with models of climate change. If this is not a changed climate now, it sure is a harbinger of what it will be like in the near future,” he said.
Zinke weighs in
Another part of Trump’s tweets—“Must also tree clear to stop fire spreading!“—tracks more closely with fire science.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke echoed the sentiment yesterday in his own tweet warning that the amount of dead timber is causing fires to burn hotter. Zinke said forest managers should be able to remove that fuel without threats of “frivolous litigation.”
Both California and the federal government support thinning dead trees, dead brush and other ground fuel, said David Sapsis, a wildland fire scientist with Cal Fire.
A task force to address dead trees, ordered by Brown, was launched in 2016. So far, it has cleared 1.2 million trees that posed the greatest threats to safety, out of about 129 million trees that have died since 2010, according to Cal Fire.
But that might not be enough, said Loik of UC Santa Cruz.
“’Tree clear’ (whatever that means) would not do the trick (assuming he means forest thinning) because so much of the burned habitat is shrubland and grassland,” he said in an email.
Sapsis said the state and federal forest officials are working on clearing dead brush and other fuels on the ground as they remove dead trees.
Nunes thanked Trump on Twitter for bringing attention to the issue while slightly reframing it: "Forests should be managed properly and water should be allowed for farmers to grow food to feed people.”
Attention might have been all that Trump was looking for, Haddad said.
“When he tweets, it’s not really meant to influence policy, but just to alert voting blocs that he knows what their issues are—because what he says makes no sense at all,” he said.
Steve Maviglio, a Democratic consultant in California, saw a clear political angle in the president’s statements.
“The only possible reason is to throw a bone to his base, who have a low regard for both California and the state’s environmental leadership," he said in an email. “Facts have never mattered to his followers, and these tweets fit squarely into that kind of dialogue.”
He added: “It’s a twofer for Trump: a political opportunity to be anti-California and anti-environment in the same tweet.”
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.