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Column: Trump unleashes another unhinged rant about California water and wildfires

Trump dials in to Fox News' Sean Hannity on Thursday: We listened to spare you the pain.
(Fox News )

During an unhinged 26-minute interview Thursday on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show, President Trump begged off the scheduled Oct. 15 debate with Joe Biden, promoted yet another untested treatment for COVID-19 and again made the false claim that mail-in balloting in the coming election will be rife with fraud.

We’ll leave it to the ever-growing army of Trump fact-checkers to unpack most of this torrent of lies and misrepresentations. We’re more interested in scrutinizing comments he made about California’s water policy and wildfires.

They send millions of gallons of water ... out to the Pacific because they want to take care of certain little tiny fish.

President Trump

These are among Trump’s favorite topics, notable because he never gets them right. In this effort he has been abetted before by Hannity, who has often played the role of Trump’s supine interlocutor.

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Some might ask whether it’s worth the candle to push back on Trump’s ignorance and lying about power, water and fires. We think it is, because there are still people out in the wild who take his word as gospel and could benefit from some perspective.

Let’s take his statements one by one:

“Look at what’s happening with the rolling blackouts in California.” This was a shot aimed at the Green New Deal, an aggressive climate change program that was developed by Democratic progressives, but which Biden hasn’t signed on to.

Trump didn’t fully connect the dots, but he was implicitly echoing the arguments of conservatives that fighting climate change on a major scale is too expensive and will lead to electricity shortages because power generation from renewable sources such as the sun and wind can’t meet the needs of consumers.

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The warming trend afflicting California and the West is indisputable, except to those with minds shut tight. That’s President Trump in a nutshell.

Two days of blackouts in August have juiced this argument, but they’re being misrepresented. To begin with, the outages were scattered and brief.

As my colleague Sammy Roth reported, among California’s 40 million residents, “Just under half a million homes and businesses lost power for as little as 15 minutes and as long as 2½ hours on Aug. 14, with another 321,000 utility customers going dark for anywhere from eight to 90 minutes the following evening.”

The problem wasn’t a lack of available electricity, but a series of administrative misjudgments by state power officials that interfered with California’s ability to access those supplies in time.

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The outages weren’t repeated, even though the heat wave that stressed the state’s power grid intensified in subsequent weeks. In any case, they were the first blackouts to hit the state in nearly 20 years, a period in which California has been stepping up its shift to renewables.

“Look at where California is going to have to ration water,” Trump said.

“You know why?” he continued. “Because they send millions of gallons of water out to sea, out to the Pacific because they want to take care of certain little tiny fish that aren’t doing very well without water, to be honest with you.”

Trump seems to be angling for praise for having discovered that fish don’t do well without water. This may be his only indisputable statement on the subject.

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As for the rest, a crisis of water availability is facing not only California but the rest of the semi-arid West, red states as well as blue.

No one would mistake President Trump for an expert on climate change or water policy, but a tweet he issued late Sunday about California’s wildfires deserves some sort of award for most glaring misstatements about those two issues in the smallest number of words.

Thanks to climate change, droughts are becoming more common, more prolonged, and more intense. California, as it happens, has led the nation in its success in conserving water, with the result that demand has barely budged even as the state’s population continues to grow.

The need for conservation has nothing to do with sending water out to sea but the more fundamental natural trends that are upon us.

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Trump has not only done nothing to address them, but has also actively worked to intensify them by taking the position that climate change is a hoax, withdrawing the U.S. from international climatological programs such as the Paris agreement and trying to roll back policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gases — including California’s nation-leading restrictions on auto emissions.

We’ve reported before on Trump’s limitless ignorance about water in general and California water policy specifically. For the most part, on Thursday he merely repeated a liturgy that he picked up, like a virus, during his 2016 campaign from California farmers, and has never shaken off.

Central Valley growers often talk as though only their water needs should count in California — never mind the needs of urban users or the ecosystem.

Water sent out to sea through the state’s natural watercourses isn’t wasted; it’s essential to preserving the natural environment and the millions of residents who depend on it for their own livelihoods, such as those in the salmon industry.

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As for the “little tiny fish,” which Trump spoke of with a sarcastic tone in his voice as though they’re too tiny for big men like himself and Hannity to bother themselves with, he was referring to the delta smelt. Yes, it’s a tiny fish, 3 inches or so at maturity.

But, although growers and their political mouthpieces persist in asserting that water is being diverted away from the Central Valley simply to preserve the species, that’s simply folderol.

The smelt is important not merely in itself but also as a bellwether of the health of the entire delta ecosystem — and the responsibility of humans as stewards of the environment is to not force species into extinction.

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As we observed last year, “we care about the delta smelt not entirely for itself, but because its health is an indicator of the overall health of the delta ecosystem — and the signal it has flashed is alarming.”

“Even the fires in California .... Number one, you should let water come down from the north and accept it instead of throwing it to the Pacific,” Trump said.

He added: “But you also have to have forest management. We send them so much money ... but they have the biggest forest fires, because they don’t manage their land.”

We don’t know how to break this to Trump, but 15 of the 20 most destructive, 10 of the 20 deadliest and 13 of the 20 largest wildfires in state history have all occurred in Northern or Central California. Bringing water “down from the north” obviously would have done nothing to stem the crisis.

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Just two days after President Trump issued an utterly uninformed tweet about the causes of the California wildfires, his ulterior motives began to come into focus.

As for managing “their land,” 57% of the 33 million acres of forest land within the state is owned or managed by the federal government, and only 3% by the state.

It’s true that the federal government provides financial assistance for California to fight wildfires, but most of that comes in the form of reimbursements for firefighting on federal property. Even so, the Trump administration has been trying to stiff California on the bill.

Last year, the U.S. Forest Service withheld $9 million of the state’s $72-million request for fighting fires in national forests. The federal government said it needed to audit the request, but its cheeseparing was unusual, to say the least. I couldn’t determine Friday whatever happened with the dispute.

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Additionally, Trump has been trying to cut the Forest Service’s budget across the board. That would leave the agency with less flexibility to allocate financial resources to fighting wildfires.

State officials tried to overcome Trump’s resistance to learning the truth about the wildfire emergency when Trump came west for a look-see on Sept. 14. The session bore the marks of an intervention, as officials plied him with facts and figures and showed him multicolored maps.

It didn’t work. When Wade Crowfoot, the state’s natural resources secretary, told him “We’re seeing this warming trend making our summers warmer but also our winters warmer as well,” Trump replied, “It’ll start getting cooler. You just watch.”

“I wish science agreed with you,” Crowfoot said.

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“I don’t think science knows, actually,” Trump said.

Science does know. It’s Trump who doesn’t know. The chances he will learn are nil, especially when he has a free license to deliver his ignorant thoughts to a blockhead like Hannity. They’re secure in their own little world, while the rest of us broil, burn and perish from thirst.


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