The state's first effort to condemn land for surveys related to a controversial water diversion project in the Delta did not go smoothly Wednesday.
Members of the California Water Commission struggled to find a pressing need for such "drastic" action and said they need more information.
The commission was scheduled to consider 24 requests by the Department of Water Resources to condemn private land – mostly in Sacramento County areas of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
This was cut to nine at the last minute, however, because officials realized it would be "almost impossible" to consider all 24 at a single meeting, said Allan Davis, a senior land agent at DWR.
After the first one raised major issues, the commission voted 7-1 to delay all of them to its November meeting.
"It's important because of the significance of this step – and, frankly, the drastic nature of it – that we do it properly," said commissioner Dave Cogdill, a former state senator.
Among the issues was the simple fact that DWR did not provide commissioners with legal descriptions of the property it wants to acquire. This is a basic requirement of any action by the commission.
More importantly, questions arose about DWR's need for the land now, an issue that highlights whether the ambitious project is feasible at all.
The project, called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, aims to reverse environmental decline in the estuary and protect a freshwater supply for 25 million Californians.
DWR and numerous other water-agency partners want to divert a portion of the Sacramento River's flow into a massive canal or tunnel, thereby securing the water supply from floods or earthquakes. The 40-mile-long diversion – potentially costing $13 billion – would deliver water to pumps near Tracy, theoretically reducing harm to fish.
DWR has already obtained soil samples along the route from willing landowners. But many have not been willing, so it now seeks legal access through condemnation.
But on Wednesday, at a hearing on BDCP by the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee, new information confused the picture.
Jerry Meral, deputy secretary of the Natural Resources Agency, which oversees DWR, told the committee more soil tests are not needed for an environmental impact report.
This revelation jeopardized another requirement for the commission, which must affirm "public interest and necessity" for condemnation.
Meral told the Assembly committee more soil testing is needed to obtain permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to proceed with the project. He said the Corps requires project design to be 60 percent complete before issuing permits, and it remains far from that threshold.
But the commission wasn't asked to consider that need.
Also, a revised agreement between the BDCP parties calls into question whether they are prepared to pay for that level of design. In the agreement, signed in September, the water agencies commit only to "consider" funding that next step.
"It's hard to know what's going on here," commission chairman David Saracino said.