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Executive Summary for August 10th

In this weekly roundup, we analyze key water developments around the West, including Trump claiming that Gov. Jerry Brown is limiting access to water for firefighting, an orca’s grief that symbolizes chronic water problems and a new study predicting increased flooding.

Published on Aug. 10, 2018 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Wildfires Become an Excuse for Water Meddling

President Donald Trump on Monday threw a tremor into California wildfire battles with a tweet blaming Gov. Jerry Brown for allegedly limiting access to water for firefighting.

One tweet wasn’t enough, so he followed up by claiming environmental regulations are magnifying the fires. The tweets demonstrated deep ignorance of both water management and firefighting.

The claims were quickly debunked by firefighting officials, who felt compelled to assure the world they have all the water they need. And by scientists, who asserted there is no link between environmental regulation and water for firefighting.

Regardless, the tweets were followed Wednesday by an official policy statement from the secretary of commerce ordering the National Marine Fisheries Service to bypass the Endangered Species Act to “use any water as necessary to protect life and property in the affected areas.”

The only way the fisheries service can carry out that directive is by allowing more water releases from dams and more diversions from the imperiled Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Those limits are meant to protect salmon, steelhead, sturgeon and other species.

There are no direct benefits to firefighting from such changes. Most likely, the Trump administration’s directive is intended to curry favor with supporters in California who complain they need more water for farming.

There are no indications the directive has resulted in more water releases. But if it does, the result will only be more conflict over water in the fall, when water typically does become scarce and migrating fish need it more than ever to survive.

Grieving Orca a Symbol of Chronic Water Problems

A grieving orca has been carrying her dead calf around Washington’s Puget Sound for more than two weeks. This extraordinary display of mourning is a reminder of water management problems that have gone unresolved for decades.

The orca, known as J35 or Tahlequah, is part of a family known as the southern resident killer whales, protected by the Endangered Species Act because they now number only 75 individuals. These orcas range as far south as San Francisco, and are unique in that Chinook salmon are their primary food. They time their travels to match salmon migration into rivers along the coast, including the Columbia, Klamath and Sacramento.

Salmon in all these rivers have been harmed by dams, water diversions and pollution, leaving less for the orcas to eat. Salmon store pollution in their flesh, which then accumulates in the blubber of whales. As a result, southern resident killer whales are considered among the most contaminated marine mammals in the world. When orcas don’t get enough to eat, they start burning through their blubber, exposing them to more of the pollutants.

Can one grieving orca inspire the critical changes necessary to improve water quality and salmon populations? The problems have been understood for years, and yet little has been done to reverse the downward spiral. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee convened a task force to find answers. Unfortunately, it includes no one from the major water management agencies in the region, the Bonneville Power Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“I honestly believe that Tahlequah is on a mission,” Stephanie Solien, co-chair of the task force, told the Seattle Times. “We know on a fundamental level, or we should know, that this is caused by us, that the pain she is experiencing and showing and the hunger they are experiencing are the result of hard decisions we haven’t made. We did this.”

Study: Climate Change Could Mean More Flooding in Mountain Regions

Warmer temperatures are expected to increase winter and spring rain in mountainous areas of the West, likely doubling the number of rain-on-snow flooding events by the century’s end, says a new study.

As climate change progresses, it is raising the freezing elevation in mountainous areas. This would result in warm rain causing premature snowmelt, adding to runoff that causes flooding downstream.

The study by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder and the National Center for Atmospheric Research found the risk greatest in the Sierra Nevada, the Colorado River headwaters and the Canadian Rocky Mountains.

“Rain-on-snow events can be intense and dangerous in mountainous areas, but they are still relatively poorly understood,” said Keith Musselman, lead author of the study. “We were surprised at how big some of the projected changes were.”

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