Meanwhile, the administration will ask the National Academies of Sciences to look at alternatives to protecting endangered species in California that would allow more water delivery from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the state's farm belt.
The administration took the two steps as it summoned state officials and interest groups to an often acrimonious hearing at the Interior Department. The hearing focused on how to deal with a water shortage causing high unemployment and economic distress in the state's San Joaquin 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 San Joaquin Valley focused on the latter as the primary cause of their constituents' problems. They asked federal officials to waive enforcement of 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 likened the problems in their districts to a raging fire.
"Instead of red lights and fire trucks, I see too much business as usual," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif.
Others said they appreciated longer-term steps being taken to improve the region's water supply, but that it's not enough.
"If you don't act now on agriculture, it's going to be thrown under the bus. That's why there's a lot of angst out there," said Republican Rep. George Radanovich.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told lawmakers that California's water woes were the result of decades of inaction as demand for the resource soared.
"Labeling this as a man-made disaster, a regulatory drought, ignores the real issues," Salazar said.
Salazar also 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.
The Interior Department says the drought is responsible for roughly three-quarters of the lower water delivery to the farm belt. Still, some lawmakers from the region are placing much of the blame on efforts to save the delta smelt, salmon and other fish, which has involved lower water exports from the delta to many farms in their congressional districts.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said that mindset would just lead to more environmental lawsuits and delays. She said global warming was behind the drought conditions the state was experiencing.
"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 opinion has led to reduced water flows to the San Joaquin Valley for the protection of a native fish species called the delta smelt, and the other could reduce water flows even more to protect salmon and other fish.
Feinstein took particular exception to the two lawmakers' actions during a recent vote in the Senate.
"I never thought I would be in that position when people I'd worked with for 15 years would have blindsided me," she said.
But Nunes said he and DeMint had no recourse because Democratic leaders had rebuffed previous efforts that denied lawmakers a vote on the issue.
"I can understand why people don't want to take real votes because you have to choose between your radical environmental friends or the people who are standing in food lines," Nunes said.
The administration did manage to please all sides in the debate with its call for the National Academy of Sciences review. Lawmakers from the region are hoping it could lead to increased water deliveries, though Salazar made clear he didn't believe the review could be finished for at least six months.
"It's important to have an independent body look at this," Feinstein said. "The government is not infallible."