Senior Obama administration officials released a new action plan Tuesday aimed at bolstering the federal government's role in solving California's water crisis and restoring the vast freshwater estuary that provides drinking water to millions of households.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said six federal agencies would make it a top priority to study the factors harming fish, boost water deliveries to cities and croplands and supply drought aid to farmers.
The collapse of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has caused native fish species to plummet, and a three-year drought coupled with restrictions on water deliveries have led to unemployment and economic distress in the state's farm belt and fisheries.
"The California water crisis is a full-blown crisis that requires all hands on deck to help those who are suffering," Salazar said. "We are moving aggressively to do our part."
In September, Salazar held a hearing about the state's water woes in Washington, where federal officials pledged to address the ongoing shortages and come up with an interim plan focused on the region's most pressing environmental and water supply problems.
The six agencies will coordinate with state authorities to restore the ecosystem _ considered one of the most vital wildlife habitats on the West Coast _ and speed the flow of water through state and federal canals south of the delta, officials said.
They also will support efforts to overhaul the state's antiquated water system as laid out in a $11.1 billion package of water bills passed by the state legislature last month. Now that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed the legislation, the bond measure to fund it will go before voters in November for final approval.
In recent years, legal battles over dwindling supplies have interrupted and reduced irrigation flows to the fertile San Joaquin Valley and Southern California homes, once federal officials determined that the giant pumps sending water south were grinding up native fish.
As part of the new plan, the Environmental Protection Agency will study other factors that also may be harming the ecosystem, including invasive species, sewage overflows and degraded wildlife habitat.
"There are no shortage of stressors out there," EPA fish biologist Bruce Herbold said. "Farming communities near the delta use hundreds of chemicals, and Stockton and Sacramento are two of the fastest-growing cities, so we want to look at all those potential pollutants and find out what's actually affecting the fish."