STATELINE, Nev. — A top aide to Gov. Pete Wilson assured water officials gathered here Wednesday from across California that the governor has not given up on solving water delivery and environmental problems in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Secretary of Resources Douglas P. Wheeler acknowledged that Wilson's 1-year-old state water policy has encountered "bumps along the road," but said the end of the six-year drought has given Californians an opportunity to start anew.
Wheeler appealed to urban, environmental and agricultural water users to look beyond their "political and biological" disagreements about the troubled estuary and help Wilson seek common ground for solutions. Two-thirds of the state's drinking water and much of its irrigation water is exported from the delta, where it collects from mountains, streams and rivers.
"The presence of this additional water has certainly made a little less tense the dialogue that has troubled us all," Wheeler told 1,500 members of the Assn. of California Water Agencies, the state's largest organization of local water officials. "There should be no doubt about the necessity of dealing with these issues and the governor's intent in providing leadership in solving them."
Wilson came under intense criticism early this month from many water officials and environmentalists when he abandoned a key component of his water policy that called for temporary protections for fish and wildlife in the delta.
Years of pumping water from the estuary have contributed to a host of ecological problems, including the near extinction of the winter-run salmon and delta smelt.
Wilson had proposed the protections through the State Water Resources Control Board last April as an interim measure while a long-term resolution to the delta's problems was sought by a separate committee of urban, environmental and agricultural representatives.
But the governor said early this month that the temporary protections had been rendered "irrelevant" by newly imposed restrictions on water exports from the delta under the federal Endangered Species Act. Critics, however, complained that Wilson relented to political pressure from farmers, who feared the protections would limit their water supplies.
In protest, five members of the 22-member Bay Delta Oversight Council, the group appointed by Wilson to find long-term solutions, have resigned or suspended participation. In his address Wednesday, Wheeler asked them to return, saying the committee "remains an absolutely essential component" of Wilson's water policy, and he pledged to include federal officials in the council's deliberations.
"These problems are not going to go away," Wheeler said.
Wheeler's comments came amid a general sense of pessimism among conference panelists about Wilson's ability, at least in the near future, to rebound from his controversial decision on the interim protections and bring all sides together again.
"We are now at our third governor where we have not had the kind of active leadership that we need to solve this problem," said longtime water consultant William (B. J.) Miller. "Until we get that, I think this thing is going to continue to deteriorate. Maybe we will get into some crisis that provokes action. I hope it doesn't go that far."