NOAA Is Ordered to Override Endangered Species Protections to Access Water for California’s Wildfires

Published Sep 4, 2018

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross sent out a directive that stands in contrast to the scientific practices of how best to fight large wildfires.

What happened: Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross sent out a directive for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Fishery division to “facilitate access to the water needed to fight the ongoing wildfires affecting the State of California.” This prioritizes water usage in California for firefighting efforts instead of for other uses, like protecting endangered aquatic species. State officials in California however say that there is more than enough water available to fight the fires.

Why it matters: This policy stands in contrast to the scientific practices of how best to fight large wildfires and it attempts to subvert the decisions of state scientists and regulators who work at the California Water Resources Control Board and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The largest wildfire in California’s history is being used to unjustly favor political and farming interests over the consideration of endangered fish species. Secretary Ross’ directive is forcing NOAA to sideline scientifically-sound water management procedures for endangered species, thereby setting a chilling precedent.

When federal agencies issue directives that deal with scientific topics, they need to be based on a strong scientific rationale to accompany the change in policy and ensure the protection of our environment and public health. However, a recent directive issued by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Fishery division to use California’s water supply for firefighting instead of for other uses, like protecting endangered species, is not based on scientific evidence. An argument is being made – by President Trump through tweets and by Secretary Ross through the policy directive – that water in California is being used in an inappropriate manner which is impeding firefighting efforts.

NOAA is a scientific agency located within the US Department of Commerce, and the main job of NOAA’s Fishery division is to regulate activities that might harm threatened or endangered aquatic species like salmon. Therefore, Secretary Ross’s directive runs contrary to the NOAA Fishery division’s mission by requiring that it look favorably upon requests to use water for purposes other than for the protection of threatened and endangered aquatic species. The directive has another effect – it cuts the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which normally works with NOAA’s Fishery division to regulate state waters, out of the decision-making process. Interior Secretary Zinke recently confirmed these sentiments through a staff memo, demanding that his staff develop a “plan of action” to circumvent California’s “unacceptable restrictions” regarding water usage.

The arguments put forward by political appointees and used to defend Secretary Ross’s directive are not grounded in scientific evidence. While water is helpful for protecting buildings and human structures from fire and for fighting wildfires along their perimeter (by snuffing out hot spots and by wetting down the ground around the perimeter to prevent a resurgence of fire from the root systems), there is no scientific basis to declare that there is a water shortage for fire-fighting efforts. In fact, major reservoirs of water near the Carr and Mendocino fires are at or near their historic levels. California has enough water to fight the fires, according to state officials and firefighters, and Californian fire agencies have not previously asked for more water to fight fires. Even back in 2015, when California was facing its worst drought in 500 years, fire officials said that the state was unlikely to run out of water for fire-fighting efforts, and that fire ferocity and level of damage were more closely tied to drier conditions rather than to a lack of access to water. According to firefighters and scientists, the availability of water is just one factor of many that is used when fighting wildfires. Other non-water firefighting techniques, such as containment lines, back burning, and using planes to drop fire retardants, play very important roles when a wildfire is particularly large. Larger wildfires like the Mendocino fire are so chaotic that they can generate enough wind and heat that it is common for water to evaporate before it even reaches the fire.

Since Secretary Ross’ directive and President Trump’s tweets prioritizes firefighting needs above the water allocation requirements under the Endangered Species Act, there is concern from some scientists, experts in environmental law, and local reporters that the Trump administration is wading into the political conflict in California over how best to divvy up precious water resources. The agricultural industry and farmers argue that more water should be used to irrigate crops, and the fishing industry and environmentalists argue that the water should be left in rivers to preserve fish species like the Delta smelt and the endangered Chinook salmon. The California Water Resources Control Board recently proposed allocating less water for farmers in an attempt to recover imperiled fish populations, particularly the endangered Chinook salmon. The concern over political interference in California’s water resources appears to be corroborated by Secretary Zinke’s memo to his staff, where he stated that he wanted an action plan in California aimed at “maximizing water supply deliveries,” in part by “streamlining” consultations related to the Endangered Species Act.

While Secretary Ross’ directive justifies his water policy through a public health lens by saying that the fires are “a direct threat to life,” and Secretary Zinke’s memo talks about “incorporating best science,” there is no scientific evidence that shows water is currently needed to protect public health. Additionally, neither Secretary Ross’s directive nor Secretary Zinke’s memo acknowledge scientific evidence that shows wildfire severity and intensity are likely to increase due to climate change, and that building more homes in wildfire-prone areas threatens human lives and property. Policies on firefighting, water management and ecology should be based on voices of scientists and on the best science out there, not on political or industry considerations. By sidelining the science, the administration is using a natural disaster to score political points, is further endangering the Chinook salmon population, and is ignoring the growing threat of climate change.