State transportation officials have emboldened a protest movement in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta by removing yard signs objecting to Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to build two giant water diversion tunnels.
The signs, proclaiming "Save the Delta! Stop the Tunnels!", have proliferated in yards fronting state highways in the region in recent weeks. It is an effort by residents and activists to make their voices heard on the controversial issue.
But the signs began to vanish in the last few days, and residents learned they had been removed by workers from the state Transportation Department's maintenance office in Rio Vista. Caltrans officials said the signs were placed too close to the roadway, violating state law.
Many of the signs stood in front of homes, farms and businesses along Highway 160, the levee road that follows the Sacramento River in Sacramento County.
"They have removed all the signs in Walnut Grove plus everything north of there to Clarksburg," said Debbie Elliot, a Delta resident along Highway 160 whose own sign is still standing. "This is unfortunate but revealing in terms of how they want to silence us."
Many of the signs were provided by Restore the Delta, a coalition of local residents and environmental groups that opposes the tunnel project. Now that group plans to stage a protest Friday at 10 a.m. in front of Caltrans headquarters at 1120 N St. in Sacramento.
"We are outraged," Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, director of Restore the Delta, said in a statement. "This is biased enforcement of little-used provisions to silence critics of the governor's proposed peripheral tunnels."
The $25 billion water project proposes two giant tunnels, each 35 miles long and as wide as a house, that would divert Sacramento River water to existing state and federal diversion pumps near Tracy.
The project is backed by many San Joaquin Valley farmers, who have criticized water cutbacks to protect endangered Delta fish species. A final plan for the tunnels, part of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, is expected by the end of this year.
Residents said Caltrans officials first explained they were enforcing a state law that bans election signs within 660 feet of a freeway.
Residents saw irony in this, because the governor has asserted there will be no public vote on the tunnels. They also note San Joaquin Valley farmers have been allowed to keep their own protest signs within 660 feet of Interstate 5 with slogans such as "Congress Created Dust Bowl" and "State Restricted Water Delivery Area."
In response to an inquiry from The Bee, Caltrans spokesman Matt Rocco said a different state law is at work. He did not cite a specific legal code section, but said "any private sign" is forbidden within 14 feet of a state right of way.
"Therefore," Rocco said, "if signs are placed beyond the 14-foot limit from the pavement edge, they will not be removed."
Richard Stapler, a spokesman for the state Natural Resources Agency, which oversees planning for the water tunnels, said his agency is working with Caltrans to clarify the rules and make sure property owners have a means to express their views.
"I want Delta residents to know we are appalled by the removal of these signs," Stapler said. "These people have a right to speak out it doesn't matter one whit if we agree with what they say or not."
Contact The Bee's Matt Weiser at (916) 321-1264. Follow him on Twitter @matt_weiser.