Capitol Alert

Trump says California’s water policies are making the wildfires worse. Is he right?

President Donald Trump recently broke his silence on California’s wildfire disasters by blaming the state’s environmental and water laws, saying the state has exacerbated its fire problems by letting large amounts of water flow out to the Pacific Ocean.

Trump’s remarks, which he posted in a pair of tweets Sunday and Monday, drew immediate criticism from fire experts in the state.

“It boggles the mind,” said LeRoy Westerling, a fire and climate expert at UC Merced. He said California has no shortage of water to fight fires, and the state’s fire risk is largely a product of a dry winter.

On Sunday the president tweeted that California’s wildfires “are being magnified & made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amount of readily available water to be properly utilized.” He also urged California to thin its forests “to stop fire spreading!”

In a followup tweet on Monday, he scolded the state more generally for its policy of allowing water to reach the Pacific, saying the supply could “be used for fires, farming and everything else. Think of California with plenty of Water — Nice! Fast Federal govt. approvals.”

The tweets come as California nears a decision on water allocations that would take water from farms to address environmental degradation.

Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean pushed back on the idea that the firefighting agency doesn’t have the resources it needs to battle the Carr Fire, Mendocino Complex Fire and others bedeviling the state.

“Just be reassured that we have plenty of water,” McLean said.

Despite Trump’s criticisms, the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Sunday said federal disaster assistance is available for victims of California fires from July 23 forward. That help includes funds for temporary housing, home repairs and loans for uninsured property loss.

Trump’s argument that California must thin its forests to reduce fire risk is somewhat more complicated. Numerous fire safety experts have echoed those comments over the years. The Public Policy Institute of California, in a report last year, said state and federal officials have been reluctant to remove trees partly because of environmental concerns.

Yet Westerling said it’s ridiculous to criticize California when it’s the U.S. Forest Service that’s largely to blame for not thinning forests.

“The vast majority of the trees in California belong to the federal government,” he said. Thinning those forests “is not something the Trump administration has stepped up to facilitate.”

William Stewart, a forestry management expert at UC Cooperative Extension, agreed. “The entity that’s doing the worst job are the people working for him,” Stewart said, referring to Trump.

Stewart said the Carr Fire, which killed seven people and forced mass evacuations in and around Redding, started in shrub and grasslands west of the city, not in the forests. Only lately, after the threat to Redding abated, has the fire moved north onto Forest Service land and forested property owned by Sierra Pacific Industries, he said.

Trump’s tweets about California water policy come as the state and federal government appear headed toward a showdown over water allocations. The State Water Resources Control Board will soon vote on a plan to leave more water in the San Joaquin River watershed for endangered fish and other environmental purposes. That would reduce supplies for farms and cities that rely on the watershed.

The Trump administration, which has vowed to make more water available for farmers, has suggested it will try to undermine the state’s effort to leave more water in the rivers.

In a letter to the water board in late July, Brenda Burman, commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said the federal government might sue the state for interfering with Reclamation’s operation of New Melones reservoir. New Melones is a federally-owned reservoir that stores water for San Joaquin Valley farmers.

The state “does not have unfettered discretion to impose regulatory constraints that interfere with the congressionally authorized purposes of a Reclamation project,” she wrote.

The current wildfires in Northern California have burned more than 400,000 acres and destroyed 1,100 homes. The Mendocino Complex fire on Monday became the second-largest in state history, reaching 273,663 acres as of 7 a.m., Cal Fire reported.

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