No one would mistake President Donald Trump for an expert on climate change or water policy, but a tweet he issued late Sunday about California’s wildfires deserves some sort of award for most glaring misstatements about those two issues in the smallest number of words.
Trump blamed the fires on “bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amount of readily available water to be properly utilized.” He complained that water needed for firefighting is being “diverted into the Pacific Ocean.”
What he overlooked, plainly, is the increasing agreement among experts that intensifying climate change has contributed to the intensity of the wildfire season. California’s woodlands have been getting drier and hotter. As my Los Angeles Times colleagues Rong-Gong Lin II and Javier Panzar reported over the weekend, “California has been getting hotter for some time, but July was in a league of its own.”
The current wildfires, which have killed nine people and consumed nearly 400,000 acres of woodland, destroyed 1,100 homes and forced the evacuation of thousands of residents, are among the worst in the state’s history. They’re unrelated to water supplies or environmental laws.
Let’s take Trump’s misconceptions in order. The likeliest explanation for his take on water is that he’s confused by the demands for more irrigation water he’s hearing from Republican officeholders in the Central Valley. They’re the people who grouse about water being “wasted” by being diverted to the ocean, rather than into their fields.
Their demands have nothing to do with the availability of water for firefighting. Fire agencies haven’t been complaining about a lack of water, especially water “diverted” to the Pacific. Major reservoirs are near the worst fire zones; the Carr fire is near Lake Shasta and Whiskeytown Lake and the Mendocino Complex fire is near Clear Lake. All are at or near their historical levels.
“There have been no issues getting water from them,” Scott McLean, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, told me.
Cal Fire, which is managing the wildfire battle, has deployed some 200 water tenders to the fire zone and is dispatching air tankers as flying conditions permit.
“The idea that there isn’t enough water is the craziest thing in the world,” says Peter Gleick, president emeritus of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security in Oakland. “There’s absolutely no shortage.”
The availability of water isn’t necessarily a governing factor in fighting wildfires, which aren’t battled like tenement blazes in the urban center. The battle is dictated by topography, the construction of physical fire breaks, and the use of fire retardant dropped from airborne vessels.
The valley growers’ stepped-up complaints about water diversions have gotten the Trump administration’s attention. Among those leading the charge is Rep. Jeff Denham, who has been peppering constituents in the Central Valley with promises to fight for “our water.” That’s irrigation supply diverted from the San Joaquin-San Francisco Bay Delta. Denham hosted a visit to the area last week by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, whose agency has obligingly attacked state water policies.
Denham and his Central Valley colleagues are especially exercised about a plan announced last month by the California State Water Resources Control Board to step up water flows into the San Joaquin River, which eventually empties into the Pacific. The board is taking that step because so much water has been pumped into the valley at the expense of the river ecosystem that the state’s salmon fishery has been all but destroyed. Denham, who calls the plan a “water grab,” has introduced legislation in Washington to block it. As Gleick points out, water in Northern California flows to the ocean naturally — it’s the irrigation and urban users who have “diverted” it.
As for the “bad environmental laws,” it’s unclear whether Trump means California laws or federal laws. Trump may be referring to state and federal laws that place water allocations to protect fish and wildlife on equal standing with irrigation and urban user supplies. Whatever his targets, they don’t prevent “readily available water” to be utilized to fight fires.
Or he may be referring to state and federal laws aimed at controlling emissions of greenhouse gases or protecting endangered species. Both categories are under attack from his administration.
It’s proper to note that the environmental policies being promoted by the Trump White House will make climate change worse. Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change. He’s proposing to eviscerate government standards on fuel economy, which would mean more emissions of greenhouse gases, and proposing to revoke a waiver allowing California to set its own, tougher standards.
Trump has called climate change science a “con job,” a “myth” and a “hoax,” so it’s unsurprising that he would be utterly insensitive to the connection between climate change and heat-driven wildfires.
The sole nugget of fact in Trump’s tweet may be found in its final line, which states, “Must also tree clear to stop fire spreading!” This isn’t exactly placed in cogent or coherent thought, so it’s possible it’s a truth nugget of the blind squirrel variety.
If Trump means “tree clear” to mean more logging, then he’s merely putting his oar in for more commercial exploitation of the forests. If he means the construction of fire breaks to contain fires, that’s correct but it’s a well understood technique and is exactly the technique being applied as a matter of course.
If Trump means better forest management by consistent clearing of the underbrush that becomes tinder for wildfires, that’s true — but it’s not a novel concept. The suppression of smaller fires over the decades, in part to protect residences that have encroached into woodland, has increased the opportunities for bigger fires to take hold.
But those policies fall within the jurisdiction of the federal government, as well as the state, since national forests and their environs are where much of the encroachment — the so-called wildland-urban interface — has taken place. Among other factors, federal spending on fire suppression in the national forests has effectively subsidized the expansion of the interface, by taking the costs of fire control off the shoulders of the residents.
But if Trump intends to address this factor, there’s no sign of it in any government policy statement. Its absence tells the story behind Trump’s fire tweet: He has no idea what’s causing the wildfires this season, no conception of how to fight them and no plan in place to alter the trend of more fires or more severity. Doing so means devoting attention to a complex problem that involves science, nature and government action. That can’t be accomplished via a Sunday-night tweet.