DISCOVERY BAY -- The future of the Delta hangs in the balance, and it will take an extensive grass-roots effort to stop state plans that would negatively alter its ecosystem.
That was the message relayed often Wednesday night to a capacity crowd of more than 200 concerned East Contra Costa residents who packed the Discovery Bay Elementary School gymnasium for a town hall forum.
Presented by environmental organization Save the California Delta Alliance, it featured updates on pressing Delta issues from Contra Costa Supervisor Mary Nejedly Piepho, of Discovery Bay, and Assemblyman Jim Frazier, D-Oakley, and what they are doing to curtail a plan that would divert water from the region.
Concerns center around Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal to build a pair of 37-mile-long tunnels that would convey water from the Sacramento River south of Sacramento near Courtland to Clifton Court Forebay near Byron, bypassing the Delta.
The price tag is unknown, but estimates range from $14 billion to $20 billion. It also is uncertain who would pay for the project.
A draft of Brown's plan, formally called the Bay Delta Conservancy Plan, is supposed to be released later this month, and environmental documents are slated to come later this year.
Residents opposed to the plan should weigh in early and often, as its approval would not require legislative oversight, said Michael Brodsky, legal counsel for the Delta Alliance.
"(The hearings) need to be like the Watergate hearings," he said.
Tunnel proponents argue that it would provide water to needy residents in Southern California and farmers in the Central Valley, while being located farther upstream than past plans so the conveyance of Delta water wouldn't bring salt water in from the bay and alter the ecosystem.
Local lawmakers and most at the meeting disagree.
"It sounds like we are going to be hosed," said Discovery Bay resident Dana Matthews, adding it is the first time he had really paid attention to the issue. "It's being disguised so it sounds like it makes environmental sense."
Bethel Island resident and former harbor owner Richard Robertson said the only way to fight the idea is to air TV commercials in Southern California showing what environmental damage it would do.
Earlier this week, six U.S. representatives who serve the five counties that surround the Delta urged Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Department of Commerce Acting Secretary Rebecca Blank to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of alternative proposals to the tunnel plan so they can receive equal consideration.
Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton, who wrote the letter, said in a news release that not looking at all alternatives is "irresponsible, risky, and a disservice to the taxpayers who will ultimately foot the bill."
"To destroy one area of California and deprive people of the water resources that they desperately need is completely unacceptable," he said.
Wednesday's meeting concluded with a viewing of the film "Over Troubled Waters," which documents how the estuary is threatened. The film was made by a group called Restore the Delta.
Alliance President Jan McCleery reminded the crowd that residents of Delta communities have rallied before to stop state projects "in their own backyard," including putting two gates up to protect fish in 2009 and the original Peripheral Canal idea in 1982.
"This group really has a lot of power. Collectively, we can make a difference," Piepho said.
Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.