Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Obama administration on Wednesday urged California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to call state lawmakers into a special session to deal with the state's water crisis.

Meanwhile, the administration will ask the National Academies of Science to determine whether other scientifically sound practices can be used to protect endangered species besides curtailing water delivery from the Delta Bay to the state's farm belt.

The administration summoned state officials and interest groups to a conference on how to deal with a shortage that's causing high unemployment and economic distress in the state's Central Valley.

Precipitation rates over the past three years in California have ranged from 63 percent to 78 percent of the state's average. Compounding the problem, restrictions on water delivery were put in place to protect a native fish. The two factors have led farmers to idle more than a quarter-million acres and put thousands out of work.

Lawmakers from the Central Valley focused on the latter factor Wednesday as the primary cause of their constituents' problems. They asked federal officials to waive the Endangered Species Act for a year or two until more long-term solutions could be found to bring more water to the region. Some described the problems in their districts as a raging fire.

"Instead of red lights and fire trucks, I see too much business as usual," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif.

"This is our Katrina," Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., said referring to the hurricane that killed more than 1,600 people in Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told lawmakers that water shortages and the degradation of the Delta Bay were the result of decades of inaction. He took exception to the criticism about the lack of federal action. He said the federal government has invested more than $400 million to upgrade the state's water infrastructure "after eight years of neglect."

"This is not about lip service," Salazar said, adding that pointing fingers would make it harder to find long-term solutions to the twin goals of protecting the Delta Bay and ensuring adequate water supplies.

The Interior Department says the drought is responsible for roughly three-quarters of the water shortage. Still, some lawmakers from the Central Valley are placing much of the blame on efforts to save the delta smelt, salmon and other fish.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said that mindset is too simplistic.

"We have a problem ladies and gentleman and it won't be solved by saying, 'turn the pumps on, turn the pumps off,'" Feinstein said.

Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, whose family has farmed in the San Joaquin Valley for three generations, said previous droughts have never led to the kind of water shortages that farmers are experiencing.

Nunes and Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., have failed in recent weeks to persuade lawmakers to pull back on two of the government's comprehensive plans -- called "biological opinions" -- for balancing water use and protection of endangered species. One reduces water flows to the San Joaquin Valley for the protection of a native fish species called the delta smelt, and the other possibly reduces water flows still more to protect salmon and other fish.

Feinstein took particular exception to those actions because she was not warned beforehand as she was trying to manage the passage of an appropriations bill.

"I never thought I would be in that position when people I'd worked with for 15 years would have blindsided me," she said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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