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Trump Admin. Takes Advantage of California Fires to Funnel More Water From Endangered Fish to Agriculture, Critics Say

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A Buddha statue is seen at a burned home in Spring Valley, near Clearlake Oaks, northern California, on Aug. 7. Tens of thousands of firefighters battled relentless flames ripping across California on Aug. 7, as the death toll from a series of infernos that erupted last month hit 11. The raging Mendocino Complex fire comprising twin blazes in the western state's north has now ravaged more than 290,000 acres — approximately the size of sprawling Los Angeles — in less than two weeks, becoming California's largest wildfire since record-keeping began a century ago. JOSH EDELSON / AFP / Getty Images

The Commerce Department seemed to take its direction from President Donald Trump's Twitter account on Wednesday when it issued a directive to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to prioritize fighting wildfires over protecting endangered species when allocating California's water resources, The Huffington Post reported.


The directive comes days after Trump tweeted blaming California's raging wildfires on "bad environmental laws which aren't allowing massive amount of readily available water to be properly utilized."

Firefighters disagreed with Trump's assessment.

"We have plenty of water to fight these wildfires," Deputy Chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Scott McLean told The Huffington Post on Monday. "It is our changing climate that is leading to more severe and destructive fires."

But that didn't stop Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross from using an emergency provision of the Endangered Species Act to direct water towards the fires.

"Today, I direct NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service to make clear to all its Federal agency partners that 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," Ross wrote.

Environmentalists are concerned this move isn't about the fires at all, but rather an attempt to use the disaster to intervene in a longstanding disagreement between agriculture, the fishing industry and environmentalists over whether more water should be used to irrigate crops or should be left in rivers to preserve fish species like delta smelt and Chinook salmon.

Ross's directive comes one month after the California Water Resources Control Board proposed diverting less water towards cities and farms in an attempt to save the two endangered species.

"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. 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. The people of California won't stand for Trump destroying our precious resources to line the pockets of his corporate buddies," senior director of the water division for the Natural Resources Defense Council Kate Poole said in a statement reported by ABC News.

Around 80 percent of all water in California currently goes to agriculture, according to The Huffington Post, but, for Trump allies in the state like Republican Congressman Devin Nunes, that is not enough.

Nunes even went so far as to blame the drought that devastated California from 2011 to 2017 on a misallocation of water resources.

"There was plenty of water," he told The New York Times in 2014, according to The Huffington Post. "This has nothing to do with drought. They can blame global warming all they want, but this is about mathematics and engineering."

Meanwhile, another department head also seemed to take his cue on the wildfires from a different argument in the same Trump tweet, in which the president said the state "must also tree clear to stop fire from spreading!"

On Wednesday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke wrote an opinion piece for USA Today in which he blamed the fires in part on a buildup of fuels in forests.

He called for more active forest management through logging, controlled burns and "mechanical thinning" and blamed environmentalists for preventing this kind of action.

"Yet, when action comes, and we try to thin forests of dead and dying timber, or we try to sustainably harvest timber from dense and fire-prone areas, we are attacked with frivolous litigation from radical environmentalists who would rather see forests and communities burn than see a logger in the woods," he wrote.

However, his OpEd doesn't appear to signal any imminent policy change, ABC News reported.

Zinke issued a directive last year calling on land managers to be more "aggressive" in clearing dead trees or brush, but Interior Department spokesperson Heather Swift told ABC News that there were no changes in the works this year.

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