When Daniel Wilson learned earlier this year that the state of California wants to bulldoze his family's pear orchard to build a giant Sacramento River water diversion, he and his brother were making a major new investment in the crop.
Located near the town of Hood, in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the orchard has grown Bartlett pears for 50 years as the foundation of the family farm.
But Bartletts are not as marketable as they once were. So the brothers were grafting thousands of trees to grow new pear varieties – Bosc and River Maid Red – to ensure viable crops for 50 more years.
The transition costs about $10,000 per acre and takes years to yield a crop. Should they continue if the state intends to condemn the land for its $14 billion plumbing project?
"Literally the question from my brother was, 'Well, do I stop grafting?' " Daniel Wilson said. "And I said, 'No, we can't stop living.' But it's not going to go well. This orchard right here is ground zero for intake No. 2."
Wilson and his neighbors are in the cross hairs of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal to solve decades of California water conflict. The plan calls for two giant water diversion tunnels served by three intakes and a vast web of additional infrastructure.
The plan has been in the works for seven years as a way to resolve long-standing tensions between statewide water demand and stress on the Delta. The estuary helps meet the water needs of 25 million people and 3 million acres of farmland, primarily south of the Delta. The tunnels are intended to make that freshwater demand less harmful to imperiled fish. The plan also calls for 100,000 acres of habitat restoration.
But the megaproject is giving rise to life-altering questions for people who live in the Delta, a mosaic of 70 islands and 1,000 miles of waterways that is the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas.
Nowhere are the effects more significant than in this 10-mile corridor of farmland between Freeport and Walnut Grove in Sacramento County. All three intakes are proposed here, along with most of the additional above-ground infrastructure.
"It changes totally the river from Freeport to Walnut Grove," said Cathy Hemly, the matriarch of another prominent farming family, which has grown pears and apples since 1850. "We are absolutely in the bull's-eye."
Among the main features proposed for this corridor:
Three intakes, each consisting of a 40-acre site elevated 2 to 5 feet above the existing levee, with industrial buildings six stories tall.
A 1,000-acre reservoir south of the town of Hood, called an intermediate forebay, to provide gravity flow to the two main tunnels.
High-voltage electrical substations and miles of power lines.
Barge landings on the river's edge, each as long as a football field, one near Walnut Grove and another along the north fork of the Mokelumne River, on Tyler Island.
A soil "borrow" area north of Hood, totaling 610 acres, to provide earth fill for the intake sites and other facilities.
Disposal areas totaling 717 acres for "tunnel muck," the mixture of soil and excavation chemicals dug from the tunnel bores.
These project features affect only Sacramento County. Numerous other effects are expected in San Joaquin, Contra Costa and Alameda counties.
In Sacramento County the total affected land area is 3,530 acres, more than double the effects in the three other counties combined.
The full extent of these features has not been clear until recently, because the plan has been shifting and changing during the seven years. At times, doubts emerged over whether it would proceed at all, because the Southern California water agencies funding the plan have feuded among themselves and with the state.
But Brown last year expressed strong support for the project, and his administration over the past two months released the most detailed information yet. With public hearings planned this summer, state officials aim to adopt a plan by the end of the year.
As more details are released, officials have begun to acknowledge the scope of the changes in store for Sacramento County if the project moves forward.
"What I'm most concerned about, frankly, are the temporary impacts during construction," DWR Director Mark Cowin said in a recent meeting with The Bee's editorial board. "We're going to do everything we can to mitigate those impacts. We realize this is a huge issue."
In a subsequent interview, he said efforts are in the works to shrink the project's footprint. For example, he said, the intermediate forebay could perhaps be smaller. Officials are also looking at the possibility of combining the intakes to build fewer than three.
"We'll modify the design as necessary in order to minimize impacts," Cowin said. "If we show a shaft going through someone's living room, that doesn't mean we're intent on putting it in that location."
State officials and the water contractors they serve say these huge changes are a necessary response to the threat of floods, earthquakes and sea-level rise. The Delta is bound to be altered by these forces eventually, they argue, and the new plumbing will protect the vital freshwater supply when that happens.
"This project represents the best available option for responding to the certain effects of climate change on California's water supply and infrastructure," the governor said last week in a letter to federal officials.
"In addition, the plan presents a valuable opportunity to restore the San Joaquin Delta, one of the nation's most economically important and environmentally sensitive wetland regions."
County to lose prime farmland
Officials acknowledge, nonetheless, that the scope of the project is so great that some effects simply cannot be avoided and would permanently change the Sacramento County landscape.
The leading example is the loss of so-called "prime" farmland. The entire construction area proposed for the three water intakes, the forebay and related structures is ranked as prime agricultural land. This is the federal designation for the most fertile soil type in the nation.
The project would convert 2,660 acres of Sacramento County prime farmland to industrial purposes. This is about equal to all the prime farmland converted to urban uses in Sacramento County over the past 15 years, according to data maintained by the state Department of Conservation.
It comes as the Delta area is emerging as a high-value wine-producing region. Many century-old orchards have been converted to vineyards, and small wineries are garnering followers and prestigious awards.
One is Scribner Bend Vineyards, another family farming business located along a namesake curve in the Sacramento River. The Scribner family stands to lose some of its prime farmland to the tunneling project. The state wants to dig it up and use it as fill to elevate the facilities above floods and sea level rise.
Under the proposal, another plot of Scribner land would become a disposal site for so-called "tunnel muck," owner Mark Scribner said.
An estimated 27 million cubic yards of muck would be generated in the course of excavating the two massive tunnels, which would be bored 44 feet wide and 35 miles long. Laid end-to-end, that's enough cubic yards to span the diameter of Earth – twice.
The muck consists of waste soil extracted from the tunnel bores, mixed with excavation chemicals used by the tunneling machines. The plan is to treat the mixture to remove the chemicals, then pile the remaining muck – permanently – in designated storage areas.
This means covering a total of 2,826 acres, at various locations in the four counties, in muck piled 6 feet high. In essence, the project would create a series of muck plateaus along the tunnel route.
Scribner said none of this is compatible with a healthy vineyard and winery operation. The winery does a lot of its business these days in special events such as weddings, he said, and customers are drawn by the serene and scenic environment.
"I don't think many people are going to go down there to see bulldozers or muck piled up, at least not the wine drinkers I know," he said. "It absolutely takes us out of business."
Another factor which has received "no mention," Scribner said, is how the project may affect irrigation drainage. All crops require water, but they won't grow right if excess water can't be drained away effectively.
Scribner is a trustee of Reclamation District 744, which manages drainage in the region by maintaining canals and pumps. Giant soil excavation and muck storage operations in the middle of the district are sure to disrupt drainage, he said.
"It looks like they are going to just decimate the mechanics of how our reclamation district operates," he said. "If that becomes dysfunctional, then the remainder of the property is going to be dysfunctional also, because we'll have no way to drain."
Muck storage to knock out homes
The tunneling proposal calls for taking out 27 Sacramento County homes and 65 additional structures, mostly agricultural buildings.
In this category, Daniel Wilson again finds himself a target. A tunnel muck storage area would literally cover his home on Brannan-Andrus Island, south of Walnut Grove, which has been occupied by family members dating back to 1918. The family's pear packing shed occupies the same site, where they spent $3 million on upgrades just two years ago.
A third muck area is proposed farther south on farmland owned by the Wilson family on Tyler Island. The land is used to grow corn and holds valuable natural gas wells.
"We will lose probably 300 to 400 acres by the time they get done," Wilson said. "I see this as destroying our family in specific."
Much of the land required for the project is likely to be acquired through the state's powers of eminent domain, probably resulting in lawsuits. Residents of the area are generally opposed to the project, and few are expected to be willing sellers. For the past several years, they have used lawsuits to fend off hundreds of "temporary entry permits" sought by DWR under eminent domain to drill for soil samples.
Other homes not cleared away by eminent domain would be affected by traffic, lights, noise and vibration during construction.
Each pumping station requires a stable platform for its massive fish screens, pumps, pipelines, sediment basins and acres of concrete. This requires a pile-driving effort that will create months of noise and vibration.
Preliminary planning documents estimate pile-driving machines would deliver 8,400 hammer strikes per day, every day, for as long as four months at various locations.
DWR estimates 40 homes in Sacramento County would be affected by vibration from pile driving. Noise would affect about 500 parcels during the day, including two schools, and 846 parcels at night. These estimates do not include the town of Clarksburg in Yolo County, located across the river from the northernmost intake.
Construction activity is also a concern for Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, which borders the project area on the east. The refuge is home to greater sandhill cranes, Swainson's hawks, burrowing owls and other wildlife that are sensitive to noise and lights.
"It's taken almost a decade for these birds to start reusing some of these sites that they used to historically use," said refuge manager Bart McDermott. "So if we're going to then add noise and possible light pollution, it is a concern. We want to ensure we're not going to have roost sites abandoned or any other kind of negative effects."
The threat of all this construction has already affected land values and investment in the area.
Homes have become difficult to sell because the project has cast a legal cloud over any land potentially affected, said Lorene Warren, a real estate agent for more than 30 years who has represented properties in the area.
Sellers are legally bound to disclose what they know about the project, she said.
"The minute I disclose that they're going to take it by eminent domain, nobody's going to want that property," Warren said. "If you notice, there's really no properties on the market down there, or none that have sold. It just affects everybody."
Contact The Bee's Matt Weiser at (916) 321-1264. Follow him on Twitter @matt_weiser.