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Proposed Delta Water Tunnels Reignite Battle Over Water Rights

WALNUT GROVE (KPIX 5) -- Hemly Farms has been growing pears and apples in the delta for six generations, going back to the Gold Rush days.

They are one of dozens of family-owned farms that harvest grapes, corn, asparagus and tomatoes on more than 500 acres of fertile soil fed by the Delta's fresh waters.

But the decades-long war for water rights between the Delta and the Central Valley farms further south is coming to a head.

Farmer Doug Hemly told KPIX 5 it could wipe them out. "They are taking the ranches we farm," he said.

He worries because many of the farms are on the path of the state's proposed $25 billion project known as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. It would modernize the way water is diverted south to the Central Valley to irrigate farms there, and for drinking water for Southern California cities.

Two 35 mile-long tunnels, each 40 feet in diameter, will be built under the river. Officials said it would be a more efficient and reliable way to pump fresh water south.

One of the planned 60-acre intake plants sits just south of the Hemly's historic farm home and fruit distribution plant.

It's a controversial project that the State said will also rebuild fish habitats.

Opponents here in the delta said it is cover for a water grab. They believe the state will be taking more water from the family farms for the corporate ones.

"It's a mask for destroying the delta, as far as i'm concerned," said Bill Pease, owner of the River's End Marina, "it's all about the money."

The Central Valley is California's billion dollar bread basket. It's where most of the country's produce is grown.

But Pease said the new tunnels will cut off his boat launch, and kill recreational fishing and boating in the Delta.

He suspected, "It's just going to drain the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers of fresh water. Now the salt water from the ocean in the Bay is going to start coming up and intruding into the Delta."

That worries the McCleerys. They bought their retirement home in Discovery Bay, so they can sail or water ski. But not in what they believe will be contaminated waters.

"People start seeing this isn't the boating Mecca it's always been," worried Janet McCleery, "and we'll lose our economic base. If our backyards get polluted, we're going to lose our home values."

And that's after enduring a decade of construction along the levees. At a recent public meeting held by the state's Water Resources Board, one homeowner said, "We get 10 years of muck piles and diversion. Construction from 7am to 10 at night."

The state is trying to calm fears, promising minimal impact and compensation to farmers and homeowners for lost acreage.

And they emphasize the project will fix wildlife habitats for migratory birds such as the sandhill cranes who roost in the Delta islands. Hundreds of years of an antiquated water delivery system have destroyed marshland.

But Delta folks aren't buying any of it. "I can almost accept the way it's stated," one man said, "but I don't fully trust what is stated.."

Project manager Karla Nemeth said the plan is necessary. The water system that serves 25 million people in the state is stretched to its limits – and improvements can't be delayed. But she admits, it's a tough sell, and not everyone is going to be happy when the final plan comes out.

"I think that's safe to say," Nemeth conceded.

Coalitions that have formed to fight the new tunnels suspect the real intention is not good for them.

"It's a water grab," argues Jane Wagner-Tyack of Restore the Delta. "It's always been a water grab. And whoever puts their straw in the farthest upstream…is going to get the water."

Delta residents suspect the new tunnels will eventually send more water to agribusiness in the Central Valley and to a private water bank where they store excess water to sell later.

The state will release its environmental impact report on the tunnel project before the end of the year. And the public hearings over the plans are expected to be contentious.

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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