California officials don't have to pay property owners to access their land and decide whether to move forward with a $15.7 billion plan to build two giant water tunnels that would supply drinking water for cities and irrigation for farmers, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday.
The landowners in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in Central California had demanded payment for thousands of acres the state sought for pre-project testing, which would have added millions of dollars to the cost of the tunnels project.
State officials said being forced to rent the land for testing would have also set a dangerous precedent that would have driven up the costs of other California public works projects and made some of them too expensive.
The Supreme Court ruled 7-0 in the state's favor, giving Gov. Jerry Brown a major victory in his fight to build the tunnels.
State officials insisted the tests would not significantly interfere with or damage the land, and that the state should be required to compensate landowners only for any actual damage or interference.
Property owners said the tests the state plans to conduct on their land will be lengthy and invasive and constitute an occupation of their property. While the ruling specified no rent payments are required, it did affirm that landowners could seek and get compensation if they can show the pre-testing damages their land.
"The court said you get damages, forget about occupancy," said Norman Matteoni, an attorney for one of the landowners.
Matteoni said the landowners are considering whether to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The project would run four-story-high twin pipes underground for 35 miles and eventually pull thousands of gallons of water a second from a stretch of the Sacramento River to cities and farms to the south.
Supporters say the project would ensure a more reliable water supply and protect fish species.
Opponents contend it would jeopardize delta farming and destroy vital wildlife habitat.
The testing involves access to about 150 properties covering tens of thousands of acres in San Joaquin, Contra Costa, Solano, Sacramento and Yolo counties, state officials said in court documents.
The environmental testing includes trapping wild animals and taking soil samples. For geological testing, experts would bore holes up to 8 inches in diameter and 205 feet into the ground. The holes would be filled after the testing is completed.
Attorneys for the Property Reserve Inc. landowner said in court documents that the preliminary project work would destroy crops and disrupt fertilizer and pesticide use.
An appeals court in a 2-1 ruling two years ago sided with property owners, saying the testing constituted "taking" of private property. That court said that under California's state constitution, the property owners were entitled to a determination of the market value of the property rights the state was acquiring for the project.