In a move that pleased farmers but could sink his efforts to resolve California's chronic water problems, Gov. Pete Wilson asked the state water board Thursday to abandon its efforts to impose temporary environmental protections in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
The announcement was praised as a victory for agricultural interests in the Central Valley who had complained that the protections unfairly favored fish over farmers, but it angered environmentalists who say the delta's ailing ecosystem is on the brink of collapse.
Environmental members of a committee appointed by Wilson to find long-term solutions to the delta's problems threatened to resign in protest, placing in question the future of the governor's 1-year-old delta policy. The 23-member committee consists of urban, agricultural and environmental groups with a stake in delta water supplies.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Wilson's decision leaves it no choice but to impose federal protections for the delta, raising the prospect of a protracted battle between the state and EPA.
Patrick Wright, head of the EPA's delta program in San Francisco, said proposed standards will be submitted to Washington as early as the end of April that are likely to be more severe than those Wilson asked the State Water Resources Control Board to abandon.
"Clearly this is a major setback in the state's efforts both to provide leadership and avoid federal promulgation of standards," Wright said. "The EPA has held back from intervening several times . . . but the governor's announcement appears to be an open invitation for the EPA to set standards and we intend to accept it."
In announcing his water policy last April, Wilson described the delta estuary as "broken" and said the so-called interim standards were needed while a long-term solution to the environmental problems was sought.
In a letter to the State Water Resources Control Board released Thursday, the governor blamed his change of heart on the federal Endangered Species Act, which he said has made it impossible for the board to balance the needs of farmers, cities and fisheries.
"What we have now is in effect a blunt instrument that does not permit balancing of any other considerations, with the narrow focus of the present Endangered Species Act purely upon what must be done to protect a listed species," Wilson said at a news conference.
The federal government listed the delta smelt as a threatened species last month. In January, new restrictions on pumping water from the estuary were imposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service to protect the winter-run salmon, which was listed as a threatened species four years ago.
So far this year, the restrictions have prevented the State Water Project from storing about 250,000 acre-feet of water, the equivalent of a five-month supply for the city of Los Angeles, said David Kennedy, director of the state Department of Water Resources. Wilson said federal biologists have estimated that the listing of the delta smelt may reduce water transfers through the delta by 1 million to 3 million acre-feet a year.
"So imprecise (an estimate) gives rise to great suspicion as to the quality of the science being employed," Wilson said.
The governor accused the federal government of preempting California water policy and rendering the state board's deliberations on interim standards irrelevant. He faulted the Endangered Species Act for ignoring economic and other implications. He promised to conduct hearings in California "to form a consensus around needed changes" to the act.
He also directed the state board to begin work on permanent delta standards.
Tom Clark of the Kern County Water Agency, one of many agricultural groups that had pressed Wilson to retreat from the temporary standards, praised the governor's decision as "an act of courage" and "the right thing to do." A study by the agency projected an average 60% reduction in water supplies if the interim standards, known as state board Decision 1630, were enacted, he said.
But others accused Wilson of surrendering to a powerful agribusiness lobby and playing election politics. Wilson is expected to seek reelection next year and he has traditionally enjoyed strong support--financially and in the voting booth--among Central Valley agricultural interests.
"He is not prepared to put any of the political capital he has left at risk. He's under the complete control of the farmers," said Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), who co-authored landmark water legislation last year over objections from Wilson and Central Valley farmers. "He's their guy."
Michael Gage, chairman of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, said urban water officials were perplexed by Wilson's turnabout. Although the MWD and other urban agencies had objections to some of the temporary protections, they support them as a first step toward solving the delta's problems, he said.
"In effect to yank the rug right from underneath D-1630 doesn't make a lot of sense to us," Gage said. "It is basically a cop-out to get beyond the election."
The state board released a draft version of the temporary protections in December, but has been deadlocked for three weeks on an order that would adopt them.
In a practical sense, Wilson's decision to drop the temporary protections will have virtually no impact on water supplies this year because of heavy winter rain and snowfall.
Murphy reported from Los Angeles and Weintraub from Washington.