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ICO Article: Water bag scheme provokes intense reaction

This article was published in the
Independent Coast Observer
on February 1, 2002.

Water bag scheme provokes intense reaction
By Julie Verran

Courtesy Independent Coast Observer, Gualala, CA

Community reaction is intense to the proposals to send water from the Gualala and Albion Rivers to San Diego and possibly Mexico by water bag.

The ICO stories of the past two weeks were followed this week by stories in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and the Sacramento Bee.

The Wednesday morning talk show on KZYX/Z took up the issue from the first caller. Concerned citizens calling the State Water Resources Control Board to get on the list to receive notice of the official opening of public comment jammed the agency’s lines for some time after the show.

The best number to use is the general one, (916) 341-5300. The number for staff engineer Kathryn Gaffney that is widely distributed will work, too, but she seems to be getting overloaded.

Gaffney said on Tuesday that there will be no public hearings in the near future on the two applications, 31194 for the Gualala and 31195 for the Albion, and if there are hearings, they will be held in Sacramento before the State Water Resources Control Board.

Hearings will not be held at all unless there are protests during the public comment period which are not resolved. The opening of public comment is not set yet. When it is, protests can be submitted for a 60-day period.

Then, the applicants, Alaska Water Exports Inc. and World Water Exports SA, headed by former Alaska water chief Ric Davidge, will have the opportunity to respond.

Gaffney said the state water board can cut back the amount of water the projects propose to withdraw from the two rivers.

Steve Herrera, another member of the Water Resources Sacramento staff , said Wednesday they are not sure yet what is the lead agency responsible for preparing an environmental document under the California Environmental Quality Act. It may be one or both of the two counties involved, Mendocino and Sonoma. It may be the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Water Resources staff will go into that after the projects are publicly noticed, Herrera went on.

That means people will have to comment without knowing what, if any, agency will be responsible for preparing an Environmental Impact Report. The state may simply issue a Negative Declaration, the usual procedure for smaller water projects.

If after the comment period it turns out that Water Resources is the lead agency, they will go out to a consultant for the EIR, charge the applicants for that work, and then have Water Resources staff evaluate any EIR, Herrera said.

Is San Diego panting for water from these particular rivers? It seems not. Marcy Steirer, a division chief in the City of San Diego Water Department who works on long term water needs and planning, said Tuesday that she only first heard of these particular projects after the ICO called to inquire about them.

San Diego has discussed water bag and tanker imports with Ric Davidge’s companies as well as others, she said. San Diego imports 90 percent of its water. They have welcomed proposals for imports by sea which are only conceptual so far. The companies need to show their proposals will work.

“Who knows what the future will hold,” said Steirer.

The city calculates that it can accept up to a ball park figure of 20,000 acre feet per year by ship. That is what the port capacity and logistics can handle. It is also the amount Davidge proposes to extract from the Gualala River alone, with another 10,000 acre feet from the Albion. (An acre foot would cover an acre of land a foot deep.)

Steirer said that the City of San Diego is committed to open public discussion of planning issues. Indeed, last October, planners were outside city hall on the sidewalk with a model of a redevelopment project under glass, talking with passers-by.

Mendocino County Supervisor David Colfax reacted strongly to the water proposals.

“At first glance this looks like a ridiculous concept, but who would have guessed that outside companies would come in and take out our timber,” Colfax said. “This has to be taken very seriously.”

Colfax said that from what little he knows of such projects, they usually don’t work.

“It’s the next attempt to take something from the Appalachia of the west,” he concluded. Former Supervisor Norman De Vall of Elk also thought the proposal would not work, with more detail based on his extensive maritime experience. He felt the projects could violate a very old United States law that bars foreign-made ships from coastwise trade.

Of Albion, Linda Perkins said, “The community is outraged, when they’re finished laughing.

“We consider that the Albion is fully appropriated by the coho salmon, the steelhead and the Albion community.”

Roy Austin of Sea Ranch did a lot of calculations and advised Sea Ranchers that the projects were not a good investment.

“Our whole area has become a tourist destination because of the beauty of the river,” said Jan Harris, kayaking entrepreneur and president of the Redwood Coast Chamber of Commerce. She said all the local lodging web sites show the Gualala River.

“It would pretty much destroy our area as a destination,” Harris said of the water export plan.

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