Wildfires are raging in California. Several people are dead.
President Trump’s concern?
“California wildfires are being magnified & made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amounts of readily available water to be properly utilized,” the US President wrote on Twitter. “It is being diverted into the Pacific Ocean.
“Think of California with plenty of Water,” he added. “Nice!”
The problem with his tweets, according to environmental scientists and California water experts, is that there’s way more than enough water available to fight the wildfires in California.
Plus, they say, Trump is ignoring the critical issue of climate change, which has raised global temperatures and intensified droughts, making wildfires in the West bigger and more likely.
“This seems to be a confused attempt to conflate the terrible California wildfires with our always contentious debates over water,” said Peter Gleick, an environmental scientist and former MacArthur Fellow who is president emeritus of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California. “Part of what he said implied there wasn’t enough water to fight the fires in California because of our water policies – which is complete nonsense. There’s plenty of water to fight the fires. We don’t even use that much water to fight the fires, but there’s plenty. Three of the state’s largest bodies of water are very close to these fires. It’s just ridiculous.”
Gleick called Trump’s contention that water is being “diverted” into the ocean “ass-backwards.”
“That’s a scientific term,” he added.
US Rep. Devin Nunes, a Republican from California, tweeted his support for Trump.
“Forests should be managed properly and water should be allowed for farmers to grow food to feed people,” Nunes wrote on Twitter in response to Trump’s comments about the wildfires. “Thx for supporting the people of San Joaquin Valley and Sierra Nevada mountains!”
Trump’s additional comment that trees should be cleared to stop fire from spreading drew less attention.
It’s unclear exactly which “bad environmental laws” Trump is referring to. Experts assume he’s talking about the age-old fight for water rights in California, which pits farmers in the state’s conservative Central Valley against big cities and against environmentalists, who want to see some water left in rivers and streams to support populations of salmon and wildlife.
In July, the California Water Resources Control Board released a final draft plan for water in the San Joaquin River, which brings runoff from the Sierra Nevada toward San Francisco Bay. That river (which I kayaked in its near-entirety for a CNN story in 2014) has been described as a Frankenstein sort of thing: dry in its midsection for many miles because it’s been so heavily diverted, mostly by big farms in the Central Valley. When I visited, salmon were being loaded into trucks and driven upstream so they could continue to migrate. (The draft plan deals mostly with water in the lower part of the river).
About 80% of the water used in California goes to agriculture.
At a rally in the Central Valley during the 2016 campaign, Trump suggested that “there is no drought” when the state had been in one for years. ”We’re going to solve your water problem,” Trump said, according to news reports. “You have a water problem that is so insane. It is so ridiculous where they’re taking the water and shoving it out to sea.”
Then-candidate Trump referenced a “three-inch fish” in that speech, which observers took to mean the Delta smelt, a fish endemic to the San Francisco Estuary that’s protected under the Endangered Species Act. During certain times of year, authorities curtail how much water they pump out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in part because of the smelt.
Environmentalists tend to see the Delta smelt as imperiled by agriculture and development.
Although California is liberal territory, several counties in the Central Valley and northern California voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election. And many Central Valley farmers are upset about freshwater being “wasted” on rivers. The Central Valley grows a sizable percentage of US fruit and vegetable crops, as well as almonds.
Scientists are perplexed about why Trump is bringing this up now, though – and what, if anything, it has to do with the active wildfires, including one that has been declared the largest in state history.
His comments about water and fire miss the point, said Margaret S. Torn, an ecologist and biochemist who is a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
“My reaction is that it’s important for us not to be distracted right now,” she said. “The important thing is, there are firefighters whose lives are on the line. There’s a huge amount of destruction. And there’s unprecedented levels of burning. Those (facts) are real.”
Climate change also should be part of the discussion, she and other scientists said.
The scientific consensus is that humans are warming the planet by burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas – putting heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. Hotter and drier weather, which are associated with climate change, make wildfires more likely and help them spread.
According to a 2016 report in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that “human-caused climate change contributed to an additional 4.2 million hectares of forest fire area (in the United States) during 1984-2015, nearly doubling the forest fire area expected in its absence.” Other factors – where people live and forest management practices, for example – influence the severity of wildfires. But researchers are concerned that hotter weather and droughts fueled by climate change play a major role, too.
The Pacific Institute’s Gleick says Trump should recognize that. “The links between the fires and climate change are real, and if he wants to comment on things we need to do to deal with these terrible fires, he ought to be thinking about climate change,” he said.
Torn, the senior scientist, has been studying wildfire and climate for decades.
“Because I’m a third-generation Californian, it’s sad” to watch these fires burn, she said. “I care about the people who are fighting the fires and (who are) losing their homes.
“It’s also an eerie and almost uncomfortable feeling as a scientist to have made a study 30 years ago saying climate change will lead to more severe fires that are harder to contain – and to see that California is experiencing more fires that are harder to contain as the climate is warming.”
These are predictions she hoped would not come true.