The Trump administration appears to be bringing President Trump’s recent tweets about California’s wildfires and environmental laws to life.
U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross has directed fisheries officials to “facilitate” access to water in order to aid in firefighting efforts in California.
“The protection of life and property takes precedence over any current agreements regarding the use of water,” he said in a written statement.
The “current agreements” are likely about the protection of endangered salmon, which are overseen by the National Marine Fisheries Service in California.
The directive follows President Trump’s tweet on Sunday, which said: “California 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.”
The tweet confused California fire experts, who say water availability hasn’t been a problem.
"We are not having any issues accessing any water supplies," said Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean. "We have plenty. The fires are right near reservoirs. We're doing the job, we're fighting the fight, we have the resources."
Spokespeople at the Department of Commerce and at the National Marine Fisheries Service refused to comment or clarify the policy.
Several California experts were stumped as to what endangered species protections could be at issue.
“While Californians are choking on smoke, they’ve got to be smoking something awfully funny back there in D.C.,” said John McManus of the Golden Gate Salmon Association. “There’s nothing standing in the way of firefighters that comes from salmon protections.”
Federal protections for salmon require some water to remain in Lake Shasta in Northern California through the late summer, instead of releasing it to the Pacific Ocean or delivering it to water users. That’s to help endangered winter-run Chinook salmon, who lay their eggs below Shasta Dam and need cold water in the Sacramento River to keep them alive.
“Provisions in the Endangered Species Act that requiring water to be held in there for salmon ought to be aiding the firefighters now,” says McManus. “In fact, I’m certain that they are.”
Currently under the Endangered Species Act, protections for species should not interfere with efforts to save lives or property. “This objective takes precedence if there is a conflict with protective measures for listed species under the ESA,” say current guidelines on the NOAA Fisheries website. This leeway is already written into existing policy.
Some are concerned that it points to a larger effort to roll back endangered species protections in California. The Department of the Interior is already working on a plan to "maximize water deliveries" to users of its Central Valley Water project, which has historically been limited in some years by fish protections.
“Going forward, the Department and NOAA are committed to finding new solutions to address threatened and endangered species in the context of the challenging water management situation in California,” Secretary Ross’ statement concluded.