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ICO Article: Clock running on water bag protests

This article was published in the
Independent Coast Observer
on October 18, 2002.

Clock running on water bag protests
By Julie Verran

Courtesy Independent Coast Observer, Gualala, CA

To protect its rivers from water bag exports the north coast region is galvanized for the largest public protest ever mounted against a California water right application. Citizens are holding community meetings every few days.

Entrepreneur Ric Davidge, who has worked on water policy issues on the federal and state levels for many years, applied to the State Water Resources Control Board in 2000 for rights to take water from the scenic Albion and Gualala Rivers and tug the water to southern California in water bags up to 900 feet long. He also indicated that he may pursue similar projects on the Navarro and Mattole Rivers.

Davidge is acting through several companies he owns and as part of an international consortium that includes Nippon Yusen Kaisha, the largest shipping line in the world, and the ALJ Group of Saudi Arabia, which has many business holdings such as the hotels in Mecca.

Local engineers and shipping experts estimate based on Davidge’s figures for size and capacity of water bags that the tugs needed to haul the water south through wintry seas would exceed the size of any tug now in operation on the Pacific Coast. They look to the Atlantic Seaboard for examples of salvage tugs about 150 feet long with a mast height of 70 feet.

Summaries prepared by major engineering firm Michael Baker and filed with the SWRCB indicate that water treatment barges may be placed in both estuaries as part of the plan. Davidge does not need to show the SWRCB how he plans to treat the water in order to apply for a water right, just show the end users – in San Diego, and the method of getting the water to them – water bags.

The Gualala River estuary forms the boundary between Mendocino and Sonoma Counties. The 300-square-mile watershed lies mostly in Sonoma County and is bounded on the south and east by the Russian River watershed. The Albion and Gualala rivers are home to coho salmon and steelhead trout: protected species of fish.

After two years of correspondence with Davidge fine-tuning his applications, the SWRCB opened a 60-day period ending November 12 for protests from the public and from government agencies. Protests can be based on issues of public interest, environment, public trust, or on prior water rights.

The Gualala Municipal Advisory Council voted this week to consider a protest. To conform to the Brown Act and meet the deadline, they will hold a special meeting later this month to craft it. The town is unincorporated; the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors granted GMAC the power to represent the community to any public agency. Gualala is the service center for about 12,000 full-time residents up and down the coast, and about 30,000 people on peak weekends.

GMAC over a 10-year period crafted a Gualala Town Plan which was approved by the California Coastal Commission in March, 2002. The CCC restricted the town’s urban – rural boundary, required storm water treatment to protect the estuary, and recognized that the local water supply is limited.

Dave Jordan spoke for Friends of the Gualala River at the GMAC meeting Monday. He painted a grim picture. The project would use large industrial equipment in the spectacular curving estuary to dig Davidge’s water intake cistern and pipeline trench. During construction they would have to close off part of Gualala Point Regional Park and the lower estuary, areas popular for beach walking, whale watching, fishing and kayaking. Once installed, the system would require ongoing maintenance.

“What happens after it is installed is worse. The water bags and the tugs show up,” said Jordan, adding that everybody who lives here, vacations here or stops in the restaurants comes here for the natural beauty.

“If we have a large industrial operation 200 yards offshore, people will go elsewhere. They don’t want a view of huge tugboats,” he said. The diesel engines would be exceedingly large, loud and smelly.

“It would be a real disaster if we had a large tug loaded with fuel oil come onshore,” Jordan went on. To help prevent accidents, the Coast Guard would require bright lights at night and bells as well as foghorns.

“That would drastically change the character of this town,” Jordan said. He asked GMAC to make a protest on the basis of damage to the community. The Mendocino County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution of opposition last spring. So did the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.

GMAC Chair Britt Bailey said, “I have not met anyone in the community who supports this project.” Another council member asked about the Wiggins bill.

Assembly Member Patricia Wiggins (D-Santa Rosa) authored a bill which passed the legislature. Governor Gray Davis mentioned the Gualala and the Albion in his message when he signed the bill. It requires the University of California to study proposed North Coast water exports.

Jordan said it was a good bill, and might help delay the Davidge projects, but many problems lie ahead. The UC Regents have not agreed to do a study and no money is budgeted. It could be attacked in court – Davidge has already said he is not going away. The new law has no teeth, but says the Water Board “must consider” UC studies; they could consider them and still grant a permit.

Bailey, a science writer, explained what public trust issues are. A few states, including California and Illinois, hold that boating and some other uses are in the public trust as well as the value of natural resources and biology. In California the public trust doctrine, which derives from English Common Law, was applied after 20 years of litigation to protect Mono Lake. In Illinois a large public trust lawsuit resulted in the public beach along the Chicago shoreline.

As precedent for GMAC action on the water bag proposals, she cited the council’s letter on a timber harvest plan east of Gualala that had an effect on the Board of Forestry denial of the project.

“This town is built on tourism,” said Council Member Jack Neth. “One of the basic arteries to your heart has been cut,” would be the effect of the project on the community. “We would have been bypassed.” When people would talk about visiting the Mendocino coast, they would decide to bypass Gualala, saying there is nothing to do there, can’t walk on the bluff, can’t kayak, and so on, he said.

“The reason the Coastal Commission spent so much time on the Gualala Town Plan was that this is the epitome of a visitor serving community, and if this community is impacted, all visitor serving uses of the coast are threatened,” Neth said.

“This would be an enormous amount of water out of the Gualala River, but a drop in the bucket for San Diego,” said Jordan.

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