California plan calls for confiscating farmland to build controversial water tunnels

© Robert Galbraith
California has outlined a plan to move forward with an unapproved, $15 billion water diversion project, including possibly seizing farmland through eminent domain, new documents reveal. Critics fear the plan will turn the Bay Delta into a salty desert.

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which has been under development for the last eight years, is a pet project of Governor Jerry Brown (D-California). It calls for the building of a pair of massive tunnels ‒ 40 feet (12 m) in diameter and 30 miles (48 km) long ‒ that would divert a portion of the Sacramento River’s flow around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, moving water from the northern part of the state to the south.

Although California legislators haven’t approved the project, the state has already created plans to acquire land from 300 farms in the delta, documents obtained by opponents of the tunnels show. Farmers whose land would be bought through eminent domain expressed distress over the plan.

“What really shocks is we’re fighting this and we’re hoping to win,” Richard Elliot, who grows cherries, pears and other crops on land farmed by his family for more than 150 years, told AP. “To find out they’re sitting in a room figuring out this eminent domain makes it sound like they’re going to bully us … and take what they want.”

The plan would give landowners a 30-day period in which to consider and negotiate a one-time payment officer for their land, but it simultaneously allows officials to prepare to take the land by forced sale if owners declined to sell.

“Negotiations to continue in parallel with eminent domain proceedings,” the 106-page plan notes.

Elliot slammed the state’s purported ability to seize land in the delta in a statement released by Restore the Delta, the organization that received the documents via a public records request.

“It is wrong and premature that the Department of Water Resources has a unit creating a secret land acquisition plan to take 150 year-old farms, like ours, through condemnation,” he said. “Now it is going to be condemned for thirsty water agencies working with DWR… The entire plan doesn’t make for sustainable food policies, smart land use practices, or even common sense.”

Farmers and cities in the delta area have been some of the most vocal critics against building the tunnels. The biggest fear, especially for those in the agricultural sector, is that state and federal water projects using the northern tunnel would “divert most or all of the Sacramento River's flow in dry years, turning the Delta into a salty, inland sea,” Doug Obegi, staff attorney for the Western Water Project, wrote on the Natural Resources Defense Council’s staff blog in March.

“A new 9,000 cfs diversion facility on the Sacramento River physically could divert all of the freshwater flow from the Sacramento River during most of the year in dry years like 2014 and 2015 (except during storms), although the BDCP plan indicates that they would not do so,” he explained.

Restore the Delta claims that the state will “cease all outreach” on the project “as a cost-saving measure.” Equally objectionable, the group says, is that the DWR will issue “multi-million dollar no-bid contracts to oversee the construction of a project that will dewater the estuary.”

“The most disturbing aspect of the documents are that The Brown Administration and water exporters don’t trust Californians,” Conner Everts with the Southern California Watershed Alliance said in the statement. “Why do they feel the need to 'fool' Californians?”

State officials defended the creation of the plan for a project that hasn’t yet received any official go-aheads.

“Planning for right-of-way needs, that is the key part of your normal planning process,” Roger Patterson, assistant general manager for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, told AP. His district serves 17 million people, large farms and businesses in Southern California, and is one of the water agencies that would benefit from the new tunnels.

The plans were previously delayed last August, when state officials announced that they needed more work. It was triggered by public comments submitted on the draft environmental impact report, which revealed that certain areas of the plan need additional study, Nancy Vogel, spokeswoman for the DWR, told the Sacramento Bee without specifying which areas needed to be addressed.

On Tuesday, Restore the Delta executive director Barbara Barrigan-Parilla testified before a California Senate committee on the project about the need for oversight.

“This committee needs to be asking a series of questions,” she said in her opening statement, “like why was the land acquisition plan not included in the [environmental impact report] for the project? Why is DWR handing out no-bid contracts for the oversight of the second largest public works project in the history of California to a contract firm without engineering qualifications? Why do Californians have to resort to public records act requests to find the truth about this project?”

The plan’s public comment period began July 10, and was scheduled to end August 31. However, less than two weeks after opening up the comment period, the DWR and the Federal Bureau of Reclamation extended the deadline an additional 60 days to October 30.

The government agencies explained the extension by saying it “gives the public, government agencies, and independent scientists more time to consider refinements and changes made since last summer to the plan that seeks to secure California’s water supplies and improve ecosystem conditions in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.”