SACRAMENTO (AP) -- The California Supreme Court is set to decide if the state must buy thousands of acres of private property to perform preliminary tests for two massive water tunnels in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The dispute stems from Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal, which would send river water around the delta system to farms and communities in Central and Southern California.

The state's Department of Water Resources asked the court to weigh in after an appellate ruling in March said officials were not allowed to enter private property without permission from landowners, who oppose the project.

Officials seek to do geological drilling and environmental testing without having to condemn and buy the land through the time-consuming and costly eminent domain laws before knowing which parcels they may need for the tunnels.

Some 150 property owners, mostly farmers and ranchers located in five counties on the delta, seek to block construction of the two underground pipes, each 40-foot in diameter.

Among the issues, the court asked attorneys to file briefs arguing if the state's preliminary testing constitutes "taking" of property under the legal definition.

Nancy Vogel of the Department of Water Resources said her office is happy to file the briefs laying out their case.


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Attorney Thomas Keeling, who represents some landowners, told the Sacramento Bee he agreed with the earlier 3rd District Court of Appeal's ruling in his clients' favor. He also anticipates the Supreme Court reaffirming the ruling, giving landowners more protection from the state.

Farmer Dennis Gardemeyer said he is leery of California water officials and described the proposed tunnels as another "water grab" by those south of the delta.

"I was surprised by the state's indifference to private property rights," Gardemeyer said.

"I hope the Supreme Court reaffirms that private property rights still mean something in California."