updated 8/12/2009 4:07:58 PM ET 2009-08-12T20:07:58

California's ongoing water crisis is a major national priority, akin to restoring Florida's Everglades or the Chesapeake Bay on the East Coast, a top Obama administration official said Wednesday.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar intends to hold a public meeting in Washington next month to discuss plans to save the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the freshwater estuary that supplies drinking water to two-thirds of Californians and is one of the most important wildlife habitats on the West Coast, Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes said.

Hayes was in Sacramento to update farmers, city dwellers and environmentalists about federal efforts to free up water for crops and fisheries as the state hobbles through its third year of drought.

"California's delta is as important a national resource as the Everglades, or the Great Lakes, or the Chesapeake Bay," Hayes said. "Not only is it a crucial ecosystem that is in peril, but more than 20 million Americans in the most populated state in the nation rely on it for their drinking water. The status quo is not sustainable."

Water is a precious resource in California. In recent years, legal battles over dwindling supplies have interrupted and reduced irrigation flows to the San Joaquin Valley, which supplies much of the nation's produce, forcing farmers to fallow hundreds of thousands of acres and idle farmworkers.

Low rainfall has meant there is less water in the delta to sustain native salmon, posing a major threat to the fishing industry.

State and federal agencies are evaluating several conservation strategies for the estuary, including a controversial proposal that could cost up to $17 billion to build a canal to move water around the ecosystem.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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