California plan calls for confiscating farmland to build controversial water tunnels

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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.

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