Caltrans sparks outrage by yanking tunnel protest signs in Delta

mweiser@sacbee.comJuly 10, 2013 

State transportation officials have emboldened a protest movement in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta by removing yard signs objecting to Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to build two giant water diversion tunnels.

The signs, proclaiming "Save the Delta! Stop the Tunnels!", have proliferated in yards fronting state highways in the region in recent weeks as residents and activists have grown more vocal in their opposition to the project. But in recent days, the signs began to disappear, and residents learned they were removed by workers from the Caltrans maintenance office in Rio Vista.

Many of the signs were placed in front of homes, farms and businesses along Highway 160 in Sacramento County.

"We are outraged," Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, director of Restore the Delta, said in a statement. "This is biased enforcement of little-used provisions to silence critics of the governor's proposed peripheral tunnels."

The group now plans to stage a protest Friday at 10 a.m. in front of Caltrans headquarters at 1120 N St. in Sacramento.

The $25 billion water project proposes two giant tunnels, each 35 miles long and as wide as a house, that would divert Sacramento River water to existing state and federal diversion pumps near Tracy. The project is backed by San Joaquin Valley farmers, who have criticized water cutbacks to protect Delta fish species. A final plan for the project is expected by the end of this year.

Caltrans officials at first told residents they were enforcing a state law that bans election signs within 660 feet of a freeway.

Residents noted the irony in this, because the governor has asserted the public will not be allowed to vote on the tunnel project. They also note San Joaquin Valley farmers have been allowed to keep their own protest signs within 660 feet of Interstate 5, with slogans such as "Congress Created Dust Bowl" and "State Restricted Water Delivery Area."

In response to an inquiry from The Bee, Caltrans spokesman Matt Rocco said a different state law is at work. He did not cite a specific legal code, but said "any private sign" is forbidden within 14 feet of a state right-of-way.

"Therefore," Rocco said, "if signs are placed beyond the 14 foot limit from the pavement edge, they will not be removed."

Contact The Bee's Matt Weiser at (916) 321-1264. Follow him on Twitter @matt_weiser.

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