US Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt has once again waded into rough surf off the California coast.
Mr. Watt's anouncement last week that oil exploration rights in an 8.8 million-acre area off the state's north coast will be auctioned in late 1983 set off a storm of protest - not only from environmentalists and Democratic leaders, but from fellow Republicans.
The oil-lease area stretches down the California coast from the Oregon line to just north of Santa Barbara. The Reagan administration's previously announced intent is to open some 1 billion acres on the outer continental shelf for oil and gas exploration by 1985. That includes a total of 37 million acres off California.
Four basins totaling 775,000 acres were withheld from what is termed Lease Sale 73. Inclusion of those environmentally sensitive areas -- off Eureka, Mendocino, Marin County, and Santa Cruz -- in a lease sale announced in 1981 raised strong bipartisan protests, and they later were withdrawn. The new announcement also includes a three-mile no-exploration zone to protect a marine sanctuary off Big Sur.
Critics charge that much of the area being offered for oil leases is just as subject to environmental damage as the tracts being excluded. They also note that there is no guarantee the excluded zones -- surrounded by oil-lease tracts -- will be protected in the future.
Friends of the Earth, based in San Francisco, points out that some of the Lease Sale 73 tracts ''are right next to these areas. Some are even closer to shore. It's like dropping the hole, but leasing the doughnut. This sale threatens the same beaches, the same fishing industry, the same marine mammals and bird life. . . . People should not be misled by the Interior Department's deceptive press release.''
Richard Charter, coordinator for Local Governments of Northern California, also objects to the new lease sale plan as an attempt to get through the back door what Mr. Watt has been blocked from getting out front.
Republican candidates for various state and national offices in this year's elections joined prominent Democrats in criticizing Watt's oil-leasing plans. US Rep. Paul N. (Pete) McCloskey (R) of California, who has battled Watt on other issues and is seeking the GOP nomination to the US Senate in the June 8 state primary, says the lease announcement ''can't help the reputation for competence, judgment, and statesmanship in the Reagan administration.''
US Rep. Don H. Clausen (R) of Crescent City says he is ''opposed to oil and gas exploration in any area off the north coast.''
Gov. Edmond G. Brown Jr., who is also running for the US Senate this year, charged Watt with seeking to ''drain California and ravage its environment.''
Democratic US Sen. Alan Cranston called Watt ''an advocate for an extreme, pro-oil industry position'' instead of ''the impartial arbiter of competing public interests that his position demands.''
Memories of the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 linger. Public opinion polls indicate that Californians strongly oppose more drilling along their coast.