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ICO Article: Friends of Gualala River host water policy experts

This article was published in the
Independent Coast Observer
on March 22, 2002.

Friends of Gualala River host water policy experts
By Julie Verran

Courtesy Independent Coast Observer, Gualala, CA

The proposal by water mogul Ric Davidge to use sea-going polyfiber bags to take water from the Gualala and Albion Rivers south has focused the community on water. Recently three speakers helped set the proposals in context.

“There’s nothing like something going on right in your backyard,” said Nancy Price from the Alliance for Democracy at Gualala Arts Center, near one of Davidge’s proposed water intakes, where about 75 people gathered to prepare for a visit from Davidge himself.

Price said the State Division of Water Rights confirmed by phone on her way to the meeting that once Davidge has a water right, he can sell it like any other property with no further public input.

“The implication of this very simple permit request is enormous,” she went on. “It seems like it’s your friendly U.S. corporation, wanting to ask for fresh water for Southern California.” Now Davidge says the water would go to San Diego and maybe Mexico. The corporation applying for the permit, Alaska Water Exports, is a subsidiary of WorldWater SA, an international consortium.

Once he had the water rights he applied for, Davidge could transfer title to another corporation with no permit or noticing process. He could sell it to WWSA or any other corporation. He could create a subsidiary in Canada or Mexico, and sell water rights to them, and then he would be covered by trade laws, not California water rights law.

“Mr. Davidge has an extraordinary wealth of experience on many public and private levels and he understands these things,” Price said. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, Davidge would be protected in various ways, she went on. If the quantity of water extracted was shown to be too great to support the river system and the state or county wanted to reduce it, that is not allowed under NAFTA. He could go to NAFTA trade court and ask for remediation.

“It’s obvious why he would want to transfer bulk fresh water,” Price said. Worldwide droughts and increasing water pollution create great pressure to find fresh water. “The trade in bulk fresh water is an enormous opportunity for business.”

Bulk water is not yet under world trade law, Price said, and it is heavily debated whether water will be a right or a commodity. The European Union wants commodification, and U.S. wants energy deregulated, so a trade-off is going on.

If Davidge can get in under the trade agreements and have all the advantages under those agreements, which supersede municipal, county, state and national law, Price said, he could go into secret trade tribunals, which ruled in favor of corporations, in eight or nine cases so far, with enormous settlements, which come out of taxpayers’ pockets.

“We’ll never know who owns the water or what they’re doing with it,” said Price.

“Then we have to stop him from getting the permits,” said an audience member.

Frank Arundel, a water activist from Los Osos near San Luis Obispo, helped the audience draw parallels with Cadiz’s ongoing water extraction scheme in the Mojave Desert. He asked if there were Endangered Species in the rivers. In the Mojave, there is the desert tortoise. When it gets hot, they dig down into dry lake beds. There is a huge aquifer not far below the surface, so the dry lakes flood with little rain. Audience members found parallels with salmon and steelhead.

Keith Brackpool, the Cadiz water mogul, was losing money, and brought in a Saudi prince to rescue him, Arundel said.The audience responded with Davidge’s backing by the Abdul Latif Jameel Group, the oldest private firm in Saudi Arabia.

The Davidge project is backed in part by the NYK Line. “What this shipping company in Japan is about is that water is the next big thing to ship, so the economics are there,” said Arundel.

“Question everything, the simplest thing about the water,” Arundel advised. “The environment pays for the taking of this water, and the environment is all of us.”

In 1988 the Wise Use Movement was launched in Nevada by a group including Charles Cushman, Arundel went on. As Cushman’s lobbyist Davidge later crafted a Republican plank on property rights.

“This guy’s well connected; he’s not going away.” Governor Gray Davis made Brackpool the back room water czar, Arundel said.

“It’s going to disrupt you, make you mad, make you want to give up,” he said, adding that the U.S. is the one country that is 70 percent and more in public hands, and other countries want to get that down to 50 percent.

“It’s a great fight that you’ve got going here,” Arundel concluded.

Peter Baye from Annapolis spoke next. As a coastal plant ecologist he has worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Here he spoke as a private citizen.

“This is one process where local citizens have a strong connection,” Baye said, advising looking into Central Valley regulatory precedents for water exports to Southern California. Even very well connected people can get their permits denied, he said.

“Don’t be daunted.”

It matters very much what the project looks like on the ground. Developers piecemeal, or break a large project up into portions that slip by regulatory agencies under their thresholds of significance, to bypass parts of the law. If someone wants a large project expedited, they will come in very early and talk to agency people, Baye added.

One of his specialties is estuaries. The Gualala River estuary is a coastal stream mouth lagoon with a barrier beach at its mouth. Seasonally it develops a tidal outlet that allows limited tidal flows. When the bar closes, it becomes a brackish lagoon.

With intermittent tidal flow, the deposition of fine and coarse sediments is tied to a cycle. People tend to stabilize such estuary/lagoons when near farmlands; they go out and breach early, so we have very few such natural systems.

Others may be prematurely closed to impound fresh water. If someone has a major vested interest in fresh water, they may apply for permit to close a lagoon. This will cause less diversity. So will keeping a system open to the sea artificially, allowing it to become more salty. As it is, a seasonal lagoon is a more diverse natural community.

One impact of the Davidge proposal, Baye went on, is that the dynamics of the entire estuary could be changed. River bars change and channels meander. A fixed intake, such as Davidge proposes within a migrating channel could be covered by a bar. How much maintenance dredging would he need? Maintenance could radically change the conditions in the estuary, especially for fish.

“This is a precedent setter,” an entirely new form of management of estuarine systems, Baye concluded.

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