SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — Despite firefighters saying there is no need for more water to fight California’s wildfires, the Commerce Department is paving the way for more water pumping.
The move comes after President Donald Trump tweeted on Sunday and Monday that California’s water rules were leaving firefighters without enough water, a statement Cal Fire officials say isn’t true.
The president appears to have confused firefighting efforts in California with the state’s water rights system and how water allotments are meted out to farmers and water agencies throughout California. Firefighters are able to draw water from nearby reservoirs and ponds if necessary.
On Wednesday, Commerce Secrectary Wilbur Ross issued a directive to loosen water rules as needed to protect “life and property in the affected areas.”
The California wildfires are a direct threat to life and property and all measures available must be taken to protect both. 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. Public safety is the first priority. Consistent with the emergency consultation provisions under the ESA, federal agencies may use any water as necessary to protect life and property in the affected areas. based on this directive, NOAA will facilitate the use of water for this emergency. 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.
The specifics of the Commerce Department’s order aren’t known, but the potential sources of water are.
NOAA’s fisheries operation oversees many critical portions of California’s water infrastructure, including the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project. It also handles endangered species consultations in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
The State Water Project includes the following reservoirs and is operated by the California Department of Water Resources:
- Lake Oroville
- Antelope Lake
- Bethany Reservoir
- Castaic Lake
- Clifton Court Forebay
- Elderberry Forebay
- Frenchman Lake
- Lake Davis
- Lake Perris
- Little Panoche Reservoir
- Los Banos Reservoir
- O’Neill Forebay
- Pyramid Lake
- Quail Lake
- San Luis Reservoir and Joint-Use Complex
- Silverwood Lake
- Thermalito Afterbay
- Thermalito Diversion Pool
- Thermalito Forebay
Releases from Lake Oroville are currently limited by repairs to the main spillway after it failed in February 2017. Water is still able to be released through other avenues around the lake.
The Central Valley Project is operated by the federal Bureau of Reclamation and includes these dams and reservoirs.
- Shasta Dam and Reservoir
- Trinity Dam and Reservoir
- Folsom Dam and Reservoir
- New Melones Dam and Reservoir
- Friant Dam and Reservoir
- San Luis Dam and Reservoir
The move comes as Republicans in Congress are looking to overhaul the Endangered Species Act before the midterm election in November. Among the possible bills is one that would require the government to consider the cost to businesses before adding an animal to the Endangered Species Act, a major shift in environmental policy.
After Trump’s tweets, California firefighters disputed his findings saying they had all the water they needed to fight the fires. The fires happen to be near large lakes which fire crews are able to use.
Aside from the perfect combination of weather, topography and vegetation left dry by the drought, the Mendocino Complex was able to grow to California’s largest wildfire because of stretched fire resources. Much as the Commerce Department’s order refers to the need to protect life and property, those same concerns played a role in divvying up limited resources in California.
The Mendocino Complex fires started at around the same time as the Carr Fire and after the Ferguson Fire near Yosemite. The Carr Fire spread rapidly and erratically, threatening homes and the city of Redding at one point. Seven deaths are linked to the fire, including a woman and her great-grandchildren whose home was quickly overrun by the blaze.
That kind of fast spread and threat to lives and homes drew a large response. The Mendocino Complex comparatively had a smaller risk to homes and lives and was able to spread larger. No deaths or injuries have been reported in those fires, but 116 homes have been destroyed. In comparison, the Carr Fire has destroyed 1,077 homes, and damaged another 191. Additionally, 22 commercial structures and 500 outbuildings have been destroyed as of Wednesday afternoon