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The Energy 202: How to make sense of Trump's 'nonsensical' tweets on California's wildfires


with Paulina Firozi


The Mendocino Complex Fire has burned 454 square miles of Northern California as of Aug. 6. (Video: Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

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Between tweets about immigration and the economy, President Trump finally weighed in on the devastating forest fires ravaging California this summer.

But Trump did not have a word for the residents who lost their homes or firefighters who lost their lives. Instead, he wanted to talk about water politics in California, launching a series of tweets that baffled water experts and ignored the role climate change has played in exacerbating wildfires in the arid American West.

On Sunday, Trump blamed unnamed laws for worsening the wildfires. He reasoned "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. It is being diverted into the Pacific Ocean. Must also tree clear to stop fire spreading!"

He followed up with a Twitter message Monday faulting the state's Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, for not providing enough water to fight the fires. That tweet came just a day after the president fulfilled the governor's request to declare the Carr Fire near Redding a "major disaster," allowing federal disaster dollars for housing and food aid to flow to the region.

The tweets are perplexing in a number of ways. Indeed, years of drought have dried out California's woodlands, making forests there more susceptible to wildfires. But the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection says it has more than enough water to fight the blazes. "We're having no issues with water supplies," said Scott McLean, a deputy chief with the agency said.

In fact, some of the largest of the 17 wildfires in the state are burning near some of its largest lakes. Reservoirs like Trinity and Shasta lakes supply water for fighting the Carr Fire. And the Mendocino Complex Fire, now the largest wildfire on record in California, to the south is right on Clear Lake.

And dousing flames with water is only one way state and federal governments extinguish forest fires. Firefighters also deploy chemical fire retardants and clear lines of vegetation to contain blazes.

"I don't understand it," McLean added when asked about Trump's tweets. "I was surprised like everybody else."

Trump's tweets demonstrate a misunderstanding about not only how fires are fought but about how rivers flow. California does divert water from its rivers, as Trump suggests — but not into the Pacific. As the state's population has grown, its residents have redirected water to cities for drinking and to farmlands for irrigating. The water that remains in California's rivers still does what it had always done — flow from their headwaters at higher elevations down into the ocean.

And Trump does not mention how a change actually occurring in California — high temperatures due to man-made warming worldwide in the atmosphere — are drying out forests and, as the Interior Department put it in a 2016 report, creating "a longer wildfire season with more intense wildfires."

Politics, rather than science, may explain why Trump is tweeting about California's water. Peter Gleick, a hydrologist and founder of the Pacific Institute think tank, believes Trump is trying to tie California's current wildfires to the unrelated debate of how to divide California's fresh water supply between upstream agriculture and downstream ecosystems that sustain habitat for both farmed salmon — another big business in the state — and the tiny, endangered fish called the delta smelt.

"He seems to be suggesting that somehow California's water policies have created a shortage of water to fight the fires, which is completely ridiculous," Gleick said. "It's just nonsensical."

Gleick added: "He's taking advantage of a natural disaster to weigh in ignorantly on California environmental policy."

In the past, Trump has railed against California policymakers for not supplying more water to the Central Valley farmers that constitute the core of Trump's supporters in the state. "They’re taking the water and shoving it out to sea," he said at a 2016 rally in Fresno where attendees waved "Farmers for Trump" signs. "The environmentalists are trying to protect a certain kind of three-inch fish," referring to the delta smelt.

Trump does not mention the Endangered Species Act by name as one of those "bad environmental laws," but his administration is attempting to curtail its application across the federal bureaucracy at the urging of farming, mining and energy interests.

Trump could also be referring to state water regulations. California's water resources board is considering allocating more water to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to sustain fish populations there, leaving less for farms and cities to use. When visiting a pair of reservoirs west of Yosemite National Park, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signaled his skepticism of the state plan with remarks that encouraged farmers that the federal government may try to block the state.

Zinke followed up Trump with a tweet of his own about "frivolous litigation" getting in the way of efforts to clear timber fueling the flames.

Here Zinke may have in mind an effort by Republicans in Congress, with the backing of the Trump administration and the logging industry, to ease requirements for time-consuming environmental reviews on tree-thinning projects that are often the subject of lawsuits from environmental groups. 

But other wildfire experts say the failure to clear dangerous underbrush is due to a dry spell in federal funding. "California is investing millions and millions of dollars in fuels management," said A. Leroy Westerling, a professor and wildfire expert at the University of California at Merced. "It would be great if the federal government would step up and do the same."

For years, the U.S. Forest Service siphoned money from accounts meant for measures to prevent future forest fires, like clearing underbrush, to pay for battling current blazes. In March, congressional Democrats and Republicans finally agreed to end that practice.

According to Westerling, if even more water was diverted to farms, downstream regions like the Bay Area would be even more susceptible to fire.

"The land along the river, if it's not getting the water, it's drying out," he said.

Correction: The original version of this story inaccurately stated California's water resources board voted in July to allocate more water to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta for fish populations. The vote has not occurred yet.


— Yosemite is "rivaling Beijing:" But not in a good way. The smoke that is filling the air near California's Yosemite National Park as a result of the Ferguson Fire has kept large portions of the park closed during what is usually a heavy tourist season. Late last week, the park’s air quality, which has since improved, was “worse than anywhere in American and is rivaling Beijing,” the Associated Press reported. The partial park closure, the longest and most extensive since 1997, will lead to a “a financial loss of several million dollars for the park, its hotels and gateway communities that rely on summer tourists for business,” a park spokesman told the AP.

President Trump issued an executive order Aug. 6 to reinstate the sanctions on Iran that were dropped following the 2015 nuclear deal. (Video: Reuters)

— U.S. moves to restore some Iran sanctions lifted under nuclear deal: The Trump administration moved to restore trade sanctions on Iran that were suspended under the 2015 nuclear agreement, a decision that puts the agreement's fate “in jeopardy,” The Post’s Carol Morello reports.

The sanctions were set to be restored at a minute after midnight on Tuesday. “From that moment on, Iran will be prohibited from using U.S. dollars, the primary currency or international financial transactions and oil purchases,” Morello reports. “Trade in metals and sales of Iranian-made cars will be banned. Permits allowing the import of Iranian carpets and food, such as pistachios, will be revoked. So will licenses that have allowed Tehran to buy U.S. and European aircraft and parts — a restriction that comes just days after Iran completed the acquisition of five new commercial planes from Europe.”

Now what? The Post’s Ishaan Tharoor writes that some experts say “the sanctions coming back online are less asphyxiating than those in place before the forging of the nuclear deal. And while European partners may reluctantly heed pressure from the White House, key importers of Iranian energy, including India and China, may not go along so easily.”

— Steel yourself for tariffs: Two of the nation’s steel giants have successfully blocked 1,600 requests from companies looking for relief from the administration’s steel tariffs. “Charlotte-based Nucor, which financed a documentary film made by a top trade adviser to Mr. Trump, and Pittsburgh-based United States Steel, which has previously employed several top administration officials, have objected to 1,600 exemption requests filed with the Commerce Department over the past several months,” the New York Times reports. “The ability of a single industry to exert so much influence over the exclusions process is striking even in Mr. Trump’s business-friendly White House, given the high stakes for thousands of American companies that depend on foreign metals.” 

— Mark your calendars: The Interior Department on Friday published for the first time Zinke’s weekly schedule, and The Hill reports that the department plans to do so regularly. “We are always looking for ways to increase transparency and communication with the press and public,” Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said in a statement to The Hill. “Posting to the website what the secretary did that week accomplishes both of those goals.”


— Man, it’s a hot one: Out in the ocean, that is. The water off the coast of San Diego hit a record in 102-years of temperature measurements. The temperature in the Pacific Ocean at Scripps Pier was 78.6 degrees on Thursday and 78.8 degrees on Friday, The Post’s Angela Fritz reports, besting a previous record of 78.4 degrees in July 1931. “Seventy-nine degrees is crazy-warm for Southern California waters, but compared with the bathwater off the coast of Florida, it’s chilly,” Fritz writes. “The coastal Atlantic water around Miami is typically 85 degrees in the first half of August. The Gulf Stream is responsible for the bathlike water off the East Coast, but on the other side of the continent, the ocean currents flow from the cold north. Water temperature on the West Coast tends to be too cold to swim in — comfortably, at least — without a wet suit.”

— Storm watch: The nearly category 5 Hurricane Hector could stay out of Hawaii’s path entirely, but the storm could still evolve, The Post’s Angela Fritz reports. “Two factors should keep Hector’s impact on Hawaii minimal — relatively cool ocean temperatures and high pressure building over the North Pacific,” she writes, adding that although forecasts look “promising,” the Central Pacific Hurricane Center wrote Monday that “only a slight deviation to the north of the forecast track would significantly increase potential impacts to the state of Hawaii.”


— Arkema executives on trial: Two executives from Arkema made their first appearance in court on Monday after the pair were indicted last week in relation to explosions at the company’s chemical plant in Crosby, Tex. that occurred as a result of flooding from Hurricane Harvey. In a statement on Friday, the district attorney in Harris County, Tex., wrote that a grand jury had indicted the company and its CEO and a plant manager for “recklessly” releasing chemicals into the air and putting first responders and nearby residents at risk. Bail was set for the pair at $20,000 each, the Houston Chronicle reports, which added both “will continue working for the company despite the charges, and Arkema is paying their legal fees.”



  • The United States Energy Association holds an event on flexible carbon capture technology.

Coming Up

  • The EPA holds a PFAS community engagement in Colorado Springs today and Wednesday.
  • The United States Energy Association holds a presentation on using coal for value-added products on Thursday.

— Here are some stunning images from what is now the largest wildfire ever recorded in California, from Santa Rosa Press Democrat photographer Kent Porter: