To see the people who live in the path of the proposed Delta tunnels, I travel 20 minutes north of Staten Island, to the town of Courtland, 30 minutes south of Sacramento. Posted all along Highway 160, which wends atop the levees, are small signs that read STOP THE TUNNELS.  Unlike the sprawling farms of the southern Central Valley, most of the Delta’s 500,000 acres of agricultural land is comprised of far smaller parcels, occupying 160 acres or less.

The state is reluctant to say how many residents could potentially affected by the proposed tunnels, or how much private property would have to be condemned if the project were to move forward. But a lawsuit filed by dozens of property owners in the Delta in 2011 may give a hint.

In 2008, DWR surveyors sought temporary permission to take soil samples on private property along the proposed tunnel route. In response, roughly 150 property owners filed suit, saying that the state first needed to undergo eminent domain proceedings before entering private property to conduct the surveys. In 2011, a San Joaquin County superior court ruled that the DWR surveys constituted a “taking” of property and required a formal hearing. Last month, an appellate court upheld that ruling, stating that the 200-foot deep bore holes for soil sampling “would intentionally result in a permanent physical occupation.”

Doug Hemly owns land at the proposed starting place of the tunnels. His farm, Greene and Hemly, grows pears, apples and other fruits on a 160-acre plot beside the Sacramento River. “We’ve been farming the same piece of dirt for the last 150 years,” says Hemly. In a conference room, he unrolls an aerial photograph map of the Delta, tracing his finger along the proposed path of the two tunnels, rattling off the names of farmers in the path of the project.

Doug Hemly points to a map where the Bay Delta Conservation Plan tunnels would pass.

Like many in the Delta, Hemly sees the BDCP as an elaborate water grab. He says the demands of southern California have grown beyond what the Delta can possibly support. “I saw what was in the cards for the Delta on a trip to (Central Asia’s) Aral Sea,” he said. There, unchecked water diversions reduced the inland sea to 10 percent of its original size, decimating once vibrant fisheries. “That’s where we’re headed here if we don’t think this thing through.”

The threats to the Delta, however, are not purely external. Farming and urban development in and around the region has had a major impact on both land and water. In summer, crop dusters careen over the low fields, trailing pesticides from their wingtips. And then there are the levees, which have altered the natural drainage patterns. Restricted within high banks, the rivers weaving through the Delta no longer overtop their banks during great spring floods, which once replenished the native peat soils with organic material. Over the years, this “ straitjacketing” of the rivers, along with intensive cultivation, has caused large sections of Delta soils to dry up and the land to sink.

This subsidence can be seen firsthand from the levee roads between Rio Vista and Sacramento. On one side of the road, the languid Sacramento River rolls toward San Francisco Bay; on the other, orchard rows radiate from the base of the levees, 10 to 15 feet below the level of the water.

Not only is low-lying farmland at severe risk from levee failure, say state officials, so, too, are the intake pumps for the state and federal water projects. One nightmare scenario could result from a combination of sea level rise and levee failure – possibly triggered by an earthquake – causing the inrush of brackish water from San Francisco Bay and overwhelming the pumps that feed the California Aqueduct and Delta-Mendota Canal.  In a 2006 study, University of California Davis geology professor Jeff Mount projected a 64-percent risk of a massive levee failure within the next 50 years.

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Back on Staten Island under the massive levees, I watch more cranes wing in against the setting sun and wonder about the future of the Delta as the state moves into another year in an era defined by drought and intensifying water conflict. The Delta remains, in spite of our best efforts to untangle it, a great knot – a watery maze in which numerous endangered species and 500,000 residents happen to dwell.

As the sun dips past the horizon, the clatter of the cranes ceases. It’s time to head home. Silence is soothing when you are in search of a respite, but can be unnerving when you know you are standing on a battlefield.

Jeremy Miller is a contributing editor to High Country News. Photographs are by the author.