A wildfire burns outside Clearlake Oaks, California on August 5th, 2018.
Photo: Josh Edelson (AP)

Donald Trump’s administration has moved to have the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration take control of California water management under the official rationale of fighting the state’s rampaging fires, saying that the water “should be prioritized for wildfire response instead of endangered species protections,” ABC News reported on Wednesday. Of course, state officials say that there is more than enough water to fight the fires.

The Commerce Directive announced a directive on Wednesday ordering the National Marine Fisheries Service, a sub-agency of NOAA, to “facilitate access to the water needed to fight the ongoing wildfires affecting the State of California.” That more or less cuts California Fish and Wildlife, which works with the NMFS to regulate state waters, out of the process. Per ABC News, said directive would allow federal officials to overrule protections for threatened and endangered wildlife:

The change announced Wednesday would allow federal agencies to expedite decisions about water under an emergency provision of the Endangered Species Act.

The directive specifically says that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which includes the National Marine Fisheries Service, will take over management of water during the wildfire emergency in California. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross directed the Service to tell other federal agencies “the protection of life and property takes precedence over any current agreements regarding the use of water in the areas of California affected by wildfires.”

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That follows on a very ill-informed tweet from the president earlier this week accusing California officials of wasting water needed to fight the fires, namely that it is “being diverted into the Pacific Ocean.” (Actual wildfire experts point to the state’s extreme droughts, which are being worsened by climate change, as well as human encroachment in wildfire-prone areas and arcane funding laws that force the Forest Service to raid its regular forest management funds for emergency firefighting, per the New Republic.)

This is probably all as cynical as it sounds, because firefighters who can’t access protected waters are obviously not the cause of the fires raging throughout much of the state. The Trump administration has been hostile to endangered species protections overall, as well as sought to undermine strict California environmental laws on everything from auto pollution to a water-use plan designed to protect salmon. As ABC News noted, there is “concern” what Trump's administration actually intends to accomplish as a result of the order is injecting itself into a fight between the salmon fishing industry, which wants to reduce stress on populations critical to its future, and industrial farmers that want access to protected waterways.

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Per the Los Angeles Times, wildlife experts say the move is nothing more than a pretext to give the Trump administration the power to bypass laws protecting endangered species and redirect the water to “corporate agribusiness”:

“Secretary Ross’s directive is nothing more than a smokescreen designed to weaken these protections that NMFS’s scientists determined are necessary to keep these native fish from going extinct,” Kate Poole of the Natural Resources Defense Council said after the statement was issued. “It’s almost like the extinction of these creatures is their real goal, so that they no longer have to leave any water in rivers, but can divert it all to corporate agribusiness.”

“Secretary Ross’s directive is nothing more than a smokescreen designed to weaken these protections that NMFS’s scientists determined are necessary to keep these native fish from going extinct,” Natural Resources Defense Council water division senior director Kate Poole told ABC News. “It’s almost like the extinction of these creatures is their real goal, so that they no longer have to leave any water in rivers, but can divert it all to corporate agribusiness.”

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“At this point, water supply hasn’t affected any of our operations,” Cal Fire deputy director Mike Mohler told the Times. As the paper noted, firefighters have been drawing water from the Clear Lake reservoir to fight the nearly 300,000-acre Mendocino Complex fire, but the order could be a pretext to undermine California’s regulation of the Shasta Lake reservoir, which feeds recently devastated salmon smolt populations in the Sacramento River. The Times added:

As we’ve reported, the Bureau of Reclamation, an Interior Department agency, has proposed changes in both state and federal water projects to “maximize water deliveries” to non-environmental users and consider “modifications to regulatory requirements” established by the biological opinions.

ABC News added that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recently wrote an op-ed saying that part of the solution to the fires needs to include a more “aggressive approach to thinning of forests. That approach is less controversial, but much of the necessary funding is tied up in budget fights, according to the New York Times.

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University of California, Merced management professor LeRoy Westerling told the paper that California “spending millions and millions of dollars on this while the federal government is sitting on its hands... And all that money is being raised because we’re putting a price on carbon.”

According to CBS News, firefighting costs in California more than tripled from $242 million in the 2013 fiscal to $773 million in the fiscal year ending in June 30, while smoke from the fires now consuming some 600,000 acres across the state now cover three-quarters of the state.

[ABC News]

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