By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published: August 12, 2009
Filed at 8:42 p.m. ET
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- California's ongoing water crisis is a major national priority, akin to restoring the Chesapeake Bay or Florida's Everglades, a top Obama administration official said Wednesday.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will hold a public meeting in Washington next month to discuss plans to restore the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the freshwater estuary that supplies drinking water to two-thirds of Californians and is one of the most vital wildlife habitats on the West Coast, Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes said.
Hayes was in Sacramento to update farmers, city dwellers and environmentalists about federal efforts to free up water for crops and fisheries, and to preside over the latest round of water fights as the state hobbles through its third year of drought.
''California's delta is as important a national resource as the Everglades, or the Great Lakes in the Midwest, or the Chesapeake Bay,'' Hayes said. ''Not only is it a crucial ecosystem that is in peril, but more than 20 million Americans in the most populated state in the nation rely on it for their drinking water. The status quo is not sustainable.''
Water is a precious resource in California. In recent years, legal battles over dwindling supplies have interrupted and reduced irrigation flows to the San Joaquin Valley, which supplies much of the nation's produce, forcing farmers to fallow hundreds of thousands of acres and idle farmworkers.
Low rainfall also has meant there is less water in the delta and rivers to sustain native fish, which has resulted in the cancellation of commercial salmon fishing season for the past two years.
In late June, Salazar traveled to Fresno, the heart of the valley, and assigned Hayes to help find solutions to ease the toll of the state's water shortage on growers.
Since then, the government has directed millions in stimulus funds to the federal Central Valley Project, which manages the dams and canals that move water around the state, and to farmers to build more than 90 new wells to pump more groundwater.
Still, in valley towns where lines for emergency rations of rice, dried beans and canned goods have at times stretched for a block, officials warned that wasn't enough to put jobless families back to work.
Fifty mayors are calling for President Barack Obama to visit the area himself, saying three years of drought coupled with court-ordered protections for threatened fish species have sapped critical irrigation supplies.
Hayes said relaxing protections for endangered species would not solve the state's water woes. Solutions need to restore the delta ecosystem as a whole.
''This ecosystem is one of the jewels of the West Coast,'' Hayes said. ''Some new engineering may be what saves California.''
State and federal agencies are evaluating several conservation strategies for the estuary, including a controversial proposal that could cost up to $17 billion to build a canal to move water around the ecosystem.
Speaking before Hayes at Wednesday's meeting, residents of the fragile delta islands said they feared those plans ignored their livelihoods and communities.
Environmentalists and fishermen said any federal solutions should prioritize safeguarding vulnerable native species, expecially the record-low numbers of chinook salmon that once flourished off the coasts of California and Oregon.
Gary Bobker, program director of the Bay Institute, a nonprofit environmental organization, said the delta ''has a compromised immune system and any one of the stressors could push it over the edge.''