By Mike Taugher

mtaugher@bayareanewsgroup.com

As lawmakers prepared for a weekendlong sprint toward an elusive fix for the state's rickety water system, the Obama administration rejected Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's plea for relief from environmental protection laws.

In a letter dated Thursday and obtained Friday, two of Obama's cabinet secretaries scolded Schwarzenegger for blaming federal permits that were written under court order for the state's water problems this year.

Dry weather has cost water users more than three times as much water as new permit conditions, which were written under court orders that, in turn, were issued because of the collapse of imperiled fish, the letter noted.

"As for the impact associated with environmental restrictions ... the Delta Vision Task Force that you commissioned concluded that the entire Bay Delta ecosystem is in a state of collapse, and environmental indicators of all types (water quality, invasive species, climate change impacts, etc.) indicate that California's water infrastructure is inadequate, and that the status quo is unsustainable," said the letter, signed by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. "Given these facts, we are disappointed that your letter would attempt to lay the California water crisis at the feet of agency scientists."

Schwarzenegger this week asked the Obama administration to respond to letters dating back to May in which state officials had asked for revisions to the new environmental rules.

Those new conditions are in weighty documents called biological opinions, that, among other things, spell out how Delta water pumps and associated equipment is run to ensure that several species of fish are not driven to extinction.

The documents show that without those restrictions, water deliveries could kill off Delta smelt, several salmon runs, steelhead, green sturgeon and even an orca population in Puget Sound.

Those permits were rewritten after a federal judge, in the face of collapsing fish populations, ruled earlier versions written during the Bush administration were inadequate.

Schwarzenegger's office criticized the federal government's decision not to intervene, lumping the impact of endangered species protection with cuts to water supplies to San Joaquin Valley farmers contained in a 1992 law signed by the first President Bush.

"They just don't get it," Schwarzenegger press secretary Aaron McLear said in a statement. "The federal government is keeping 1.5 million acre feet of water from Californians. That water would put a lot of people to work right now."

Meanwhile, a 14-member conference committee was planning to work through the weekend in hopes of cutting a comprehensive deal to repair the Delta's ecosystem and stabilize water supplies for regions of the state that depend on it for water.

Contra Costa representatives and Delta advocates expressed agitation over the makeup of the committee, saying it lacked any representatives from the Delta, which they argued would be more affected than any other region.

"We want an advocate who will represent the Delta's interests," said Contra Costa County Supervisor Mary Piepho. "We don't have that. We are extremely vulnerable."

Contra Costa Water District general manager Wally Bishop noted that lawmakers expanded the committee from the normal six members to 14, and still could not seat anyone from the region.

"Time and again, when the decisions get made, the Delta interests are excluded," Bishop said. "Even when they suspend the rules, they find a way to exclude Delta interests."

The lawmaker who Delta interests most wanted at the table was Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis. She was kept off the committee because Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg felt if she was on the committee that Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, would also have to be on the committee, said Steinberg spokeswoman Alicia Trost.

While both lawmakers are involved in Delta issues and have strong backing from environmental groups, they have sharply contrasting views in the Delta, where Wolk is strongly opposed to a canal to divert water around the Delta and Simitian is a leading advocate of at least considering that controversial approach.

Since they were unlikely to agree on a package and Steinberg wanted unanimity from the Democrats, both could not be on the committee, Trost said. So he left both of them off it.

She said the Senate leader would ensure Delta interests were considered.