Latest plan to ease water woes: big baggies

The biggest state in the West is once again getting moist under the collar over water issues. This time, call them "baggie wars."

The instigator behind this latest battle is one Ric Davidge, an entrepreneur from Alaska who says he can solve shortages in Southern California by gathering river runoff in the north and exporting it south in giant plastic bags.

San Diego, which needs the water, is open to the idea.

Ever-wary northern Californians have made various other suggestions - politely and otherwise.

Headlines, jokes, and jabs are flying ("won't float," "idea all wet," "can't hold water"), but Davidge says similar technology is already being used internationally.

He claims that big poly fiber bags - cheaper than pipelines and aqueducts - are the future of global water delivery. The technology is ready to go, and so is he.

Northerners are glad Mr. Davidge is ready to go, and are suggesting somewhere other than their estuaries.

But the idea, experts say, is by no means outside the realm of possibility.

"California and the rest of the West are now at a point where they really can't dismiss ideas that once would have been considered downright silly," says Rich Golb, former president of the Northern California Water Association, and now a West Coast water consultant. Outlandish ideas have arisen in the past - from Alaska pipelines to towing icebergs - but this one can't be dismissed as easily.

500-mile tugboat ride

The idea is this: Under two applications filed with the state Water Resources Control Board, Davidge wants to submerge 24-inch pipes at the mouths of the Albion and Gualala rivers, two small rivers in Mendocino county, north of San Francisco. The pipes would sit below the alluvial soil at the bottom of the rivers, and would include screens to keep out fish and other organisms.

The pipes would connect to docking stations on land nearby, where pumps would move the water into the giant bags, 100 ft. wide and three football fields long. Nine times a week, the giant water mattresses would be tugged 500 miles by sea to San Diego.

"We have found a way to harvest water from rivers without changing the water flow, or harming aesthetics," says Mr. Davidge. The ocean-going tow idea is also time-tested. One of Davidge's partners has successfully floated similar water bags between Cyprus and Turkey.And the company has learned from mistakes in which bags have torn or been wrested from tugboats by stormy seas.

Davidge is taking his argument and detailed plans to Albion March 15, but already faces strong opposition from environmental groups, farmers, loggers, and residents.

One of those people is Linda Perkins. For 25 years, she has lived at the mouth of the Albion River. For her and most communities in the north, the idea amounts to no more than a water grab, one that will damage the still-pristine waterway and the endangered salmon that swim in it.

"Everyone jokes about this, but I'm afraid it's serious," says Perkins, an environmentalist who is concerned that the idea will alter both the local landscape and the views to sea. By state law, all citizens have equal right to the water, if they can prove a need, a detail that concerns her. She says 998 of the town's 1,000 residents oppose the idea.

Davidge got the idea about two years ago when San Diego put out the word that the city is looking for enough water to service 40,000 households. Heading an international consortium with ties to Saudi Arabia and Japan, he thinks he can meet the market price, without doing ecological damage. San Diego officials say they are definitely in need of water and are exploring other options, from desalination plants to other suppliers.

"[Davidge] is a lot further along than many others," says Marsi Stier, deputy water director for the San Diego Department of Water. "He has demonstrated that the technology has worked, and that it's a transfer without an aqueduct. It's an intriguing idea."

Potential snag: the permit process

It's also legal, if officials are convinced that San Diego's water needs are legitimate, and that Davidge can extract the water without undo ecological harm.

But most observers say Davidge has a long, treacherous road ahead of him. Besides public opinion, the project must be approved by the state's water board and the California Coastal Commission, which will require ecological and other studies that could take years. San Diego needs its water by 2004, and most think there is no way Davidge can be ready in time, even if things went smoothly.

"The time line ... will be many years," says Randy Stemler, an analyst for the California Coastal Commission. Ahead are structural and ecological impact studies, geotechnical studies, and several periods for public comment.

"He doesn't know the people up here," says Mr. Stemler. "They are fiercely independent. He has no idea what he is tackling."

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