COLUSA, Calif. (AP) -- Gov. Jerry Brown waded into potentially hostile territory Wednesday, as he pitched his $14 billion plan to reshape California's water-delivery system by building massive tunnels below the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
He attended one of the largest agricultural shows on the West Coast, where he addressed hundreds of farmers.
The stakes are partly personal for the governor, who retains an interest in 2,700 acres of ranch land in Colusa County settled by his great-grandfather.
“I said we're going to protect that land, and I promise you today that I'm going to protect the water on that land and the water in this county and everywhere else in this state,” he told a crowd that generally gave him a warm welcome.
He vowed to return and speak more with community members as his water proposal is developed.
But he also said the 100-year-old levees protecting the Sacramento River delta would not withstand a natural disaster, such as an earthquake or sea level increases.
“We need a secure, reliable supply," he said. "At the same time, we've got to have protections to protect your rights. So it's very challenging.”
Farmers in the delta region and upriver from where the tunnels will be located are concerned about their water supply if the governor's proposal succeeds.
Brown says the tunnels are needed to ensure that water deliveries continue to Southern California cities and Central Valley farmers into the future.
Many farmers and Republican lawmakers want more water storage in Northern California.
“We're still worried. That tunnel he wants to put in, we're not too keen on it,” said Kurt Boeger, a Republican rice farmer from Yuba City.
Boeger said he generally likes the governor and appreciates some of the things he has done for farmers.
“That canal and those tunnels, once they're there, the pressure's going to be on us to send water there,” he said, as others nodded.
Bruce Rolen, a rice and alfalfa farmer from Williams and a member of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District Board, said he wants to see Brown's plan incorporate some of the guarantees included in a water bond proposal approved by the Legislature in 2010 that was postponed because of the recession.
The proposal included water storage as well as “specific money earmarked for our protection,” he said.
When asked later what he meant when he said he would protect the water rights of Northern California farmers, Brown told reporters that he would weigh all the options but did not intend to violate any of the historic water protections farmers have won, dating back to the 1800s.
“There are certain water rights that are historic and anything we do with this delta facility has to incorporate those water rights as an iron-clad legal, statutory and maybe even constitutional guarantee to ensure that they gain and not lose,” Brown said.