Trump picks fight with California over wildfires
President Trump is solidifying his opposition to California’s environmental policies, saying they are to blame for the state’s historic wildfires.
Trump initiated the spat on Sunday when he tweeted that the fires “are being magnified & made so much worse by the bad environmental laws,” which cause water to be “diverted into the Pacific Ocean,” and prevent trees from being cleared.
A day later he posted another tweet about water being “diverted,” and he said Gov. Jerry Brown (D) “must allow the Free Flow of the vast amounts of water coming from the North.”
Evan Westrup, Brown’s press secretary, said Trump’s tweeting “does not merit a response.”
The water debate taps into a deep-seated controversy in California: the balance between letting water flow through streams and redirecting it for agriculture and other uses.
Experts say Trump is giving voice to Republican opposition to the state’s progressive environmental policies by taking issue with state measures designed to protect fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta by allowing water to flow through the delta and the San Francisco Bay, then out to the ocean.
Farmers in the south and central parts of the Golden State would prefer that more water go through aqueducts and other infrastructure to their lands.
But those water programs play little to no role in fighting wildfires, according to experts in the state.
“Honestly, the way the state manages its water, that really has no bearing on the explosive growth of the fires,” said Glen MacDonald, a geography professor at the University of California Los Angeles who studies wildfires. “It just has nothing to do with anything.”
Meanwhile, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as Cal Fire, says it’s having no issue finding water to fight the fires.
“We have plenty of water,” Cal Fire Deputy Chief Scott McLean told The Hill after Trump’s tweet on Monday. “We can pretty much get water out of streams, creeks, ponds, rivers, lakes.”
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who represents an agriculture-heavy district in the Central Valley, cheered Trump’s Sunday tweet with a tweet of his own saying, “Forests should be managed properly and water should be allowed for farmers to grow food to feed people.”
But those are unrelated issues, according to Bill Stewart, a forestry specialist at the University of California at Berkeley.
“The big fires have scores of water-dropping helicopters getting water from nearby lakes and reservoirs,” he said. “There is really nothing to connect wildfire suppression and the separate issue of the allocation of water to fish or farms.”
However, Trump is also touching on complaints that environmental policies stop land managers from clearing brush, dead trees and other biomass in forests that feed fires, and experts say that is a legitimate debate.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke weighed in on that issue Monday.
“The overload of dead and diseased timber in the forests makes the fires worse and more deadly. We must be able to actively manage our forests and not face frivolous litigation when we try to remove these fuels,” he wrote on Twitter.
Republicans in Congress have been trying for years to push for more active forest management, saying there’s a concerted effort to block such management.
MacDonald said the jury is still out on that one.
“There’s room for debate, and you could ask whether the regulations prevent that,” he said. “Those are debates and discussions that will always be occurring.”
The bigger issue, MacDonald said, is funding.
“Congress and the president could help out with that by, rather than cutting fire funding, putting more money into basic” prevention efforts, he said.
Overall, experts say Trump’s Twitter remarks ignore two of the biggest factors in the wildfires: Climate change, which is likely exacerbating the droughts that lead to fires, and increased development near forests that makes the fires more dangerous to life and property.
“California’s forests are burning because of past severe drought and current extreme temperatures and weather, worsened by human-caused #climatechange, which you think, in your fantasy world, doesn’t exist,” tweeted Peter Gleick, president emeritus of the Pacific Institute and a frequent critic of Trump’s environmental policies.