LOS ANGELES — A California Supreme Court ruling removes one obstacle for Gov. Jerry Brown's $15.7 billion plan to build two giant water tunnels in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
The 7-0 ruling means that California officials will not have to pay property owners to access their land to conduct preliminary testing before deciding to move forward with the plan to build tunnels.
"We are pleased with the Court's decision, which validates the procedures we've been using," Department of Water Resources officials said in a prepared statement. "We will continue moving forward with our important work to modernize California's water infrastructure to better protect the Delta ecosystem and water supplies."
The Delta plan backed by Brown includes construction of two tunnels to bypass the Delta and divert water south, instead of the current practice of pumping water out of the south end of the Delta.
Some Northern California landowners and environmental groups, who are concerned about the ramifications of diverting the water south, have opposed the plan.
A ballot measure backed by wealthy Stockton farmer Dean Cortopassi would require a referendum whenever the state wants to use revenue bonds to borrow more than $2 billion for infrastructure projects, potentially blocking Brown's plan, which involves issuing revenue bonds that would be repaid by water districts.
Landowners in the Delta region had demanded payment for access to the thousands of acres required by the state for testing. The payments would have added millions to the cost for the tunnels.
State officials argued that the tests would not significantly interfere with or damage the land, and the state should only be required to compensate landowners for any actual damage or interference.
They further argued that payments to use the land to test to see if the project is feasible would have delayed public works projects.
The testing would require access to about 150 properties in San Joaquin, Contra Costa, Solano, Sacramento and Yolo counties, state officials said in court documents.
Attorneys for Property Reserve, Inc., which brought the lawsuit, said there is evidence the state's activities would destroy crops and disrupt fertilizer and pesticide use.
The California Department of Water Resources filed more than 150 separate positions between 2008 and 2009 seeking permission to conduct the tests, according to the ruling. In 2009, the Department sought to coordinate the petitions into a single proceeding before the San Joaquin County Superior Court.
The proposed geological activities consist of drilling deep holes or borings to determine subsoil conditions.