State officials are moving ahead with plans to condemn private land in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for surveys related to a controversial water-diversion canal or tunnel.
Delta residents have recently been served with a new round of legal notices as part of this process. In most cases, the state Department of Water Resources seeks temporary easements to conduct surveys, and full ownership of 16 square feet of land to drill for soil samples.
State and federal agencies are proposing a giant canal or tunnel to divert a portion of the Sacramento River's flow out of the Delta, carrying the water directly to export pumps already running near Tracy. The thinking behind this concept is that diverting the water from farther north than Tracy would both restore a natural salinity balance to the estuary and protect the diverted water from floods and earthquakes.
But it remains unclear whether a more northerly diversion point is safer for fish, and Delta residents fear the project will damage the region's farm economy.
Estimated to cost about $13 billion, the project is key to the proposed Bay Delta Conservation Plan. The plan remains unfunded and far from approval.
On Oct. 5, Daniel Wilson's 83-year-old mother was startled by an 8:30 p.m. knock on the door of her home on Deadhorse Island, near Walnut Grove in southern Sacramento County.
Looming on the stoop, Wilson said, was a burly, tattooed process server delivering a DWR eminent domain notice. He said his mother was alarmed.
"In my view it was just an entirely inappropriate way for DWR to deal with the public," Wilson said. "We're in a battle here, but we're all business people and adults, and we want to deal in a rational fashion. This was not rational."
In days leading up to the visit, Wilson said, he was in contact by phone and email with DWR staff members about the property access issue. No one bothered to tell him, he said, that a legal notice was coming.
In addition, the land is owned by a 23-year-old family agriculture business, River Maid Land Co., with physical addresses in Walnut Grove and Lodi. It would have been more sensible to serve the legal notice there, Wilson said.
DWR spokesman Ted Thomas acknowledged the serving of the legal notices could have been handled better. The process-service company was hired by the state attorney general's office, he said, not DWR.
"We are well aware of the complaints," Thomas said. "The company has been instructed not to make late-night deliveries, and we are working toward a better way of dealing with this issue."
A judge this year limited the DWR's ability to access private land for the surveys. This resulted from lawsuits brought by about 150 Delta property owners who oppose the project. Some of those legal terms are under appeal by both sides, said Thomas Keeling, a Stockton attorney representing the landowners.
Unable to get the access it needs voluntarily, DWR is moving forward with eminent domain proceedings to obtain a legal right of access. This will include payments to landowners. In most cases, the payments are nominal.
On the Wilson property on Deadhorse Island, DWR is offering a total of $600. Most of that price covers 12 months of access to about three-fourths of an acre for construction and access easements.
For permanent ownership of 16 square feet of land where a hole will be drilled as deep as 300 feet for soil samples, the state is offering $3.
"We just flat don't want them on our property," said Wilson. "I don't like it and I'm going to fight it."
The California Water Commission must grant approval before the DWR can access private land for the surveys. It meets at 1 p.m. today in Sacramento, at 1416 Ninth St., to consider the first round of about 20 such requests.