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ICO Article: Water mogul packs his bags

This article was published in the
Independent Coast Observer
on December 20, 2002.

Water mogul packs his bags
By Julie Verran

Courtesy Independent Coast Observer, Gualala, CA

The California Coastal Commission gave North Coast a holiday gift on Friday, December 13, authorizing letters protesting proposals by Alaskan water mogul Ric Davidge to take water from the Gualala and Albion Rivers for delivery to San Diego via tug-hauled water bags. Following the vote, Davidge wrote to the Water Board withdrawing his applications.

“Friday the thirteenth is our lucky day,” said Ursula Jones of Friends of the Gualala River. The public and agency comment period for the projects was opened by the State Water Resources Control Board Division of Water Rights on Friday, September 13.

Notice was withdrawn in October when SWRCB staff confirmed that Davidge never placed the required legal notices in newspapers, although SWRCB sent him the needed wording and the addresses of the papers.

Many of the people there to support North Coast rivers were glad to see Sonoma County Supervisor Mike Reilly open his first full day as Chair of the Coastal Commission with the Gualala/Albion issue, calling it “something that is dear to my heart.” During the discussion that followed Reilly maintained the tone of high seriousness he set when the water bag issue surfaced in January. He asked the CCC to assert its jurisdiction without regard to the action of the Water Board, “if it comes to that.”

Reilly stepped in as a candidate for Chair after incumbent Sara Wan of Malibu dropped out of the race last Wednesday. The vote split 6-6 between Reilly and the incumbent Vice Chair, Monterey County Supervisor Dave Potter. Thursday, Potter dropped out of the race and Reilly won unanimously.

Friday, Robert Merrill of the CCC’s Eureka office presented slides taken from Davidge’s website www.worldwatersa.com showing a water bag under tow off Turkey and a tug fitted with a huge reel for spooling up an empty bag. Merrill said SWRCB staff was waiting to re-issue public notice once they had financial assurances from Davidge.

In his withdrawal letter, Davidge cited an estimated $1 million cost for state required environmental study of each river as a prime reason for dropping his applications.

The CCC sent a letter to Davidge in March asking him to share information about his proposals and informing him that they would require CCC permits. Merrill said that Davidge did not respond to CCC inquiries.

In his letter, Davidge wrote, “Actions opposing our applications by local, regional, and state governmental bodies without even providing us notice or an opportunity to present ourselves and our ideas is also testament to the emotional mobbing that has overtaken these projects.” Most of the agency opposition took place during the duly noticed public and agency comment period starting September 13.

Merrill, in his staff presentation at Friday’s CCC hearing, said the problems with the Gualala / Albion applications are “varied and numerous.” Among them are effects on salmonids and other species, direct disturbance of ocean hard bottom and kelp beds, effects on whales and other marine mammals, altered river flow and temperature, impaired visual and recreational resources. He asked the Commission to authorize Executive Director Peter Douglas to submit protests to the Water Board.

Next, Reilly asked commissioners to disclose any ex parte communications, which are contacts about an agenda item that did not go to all comissioners in writing. Chris Desser said Jane Kelly from Public Citizen called her. Humboldt County Supervisor John Woolley said he had called the Humboldt Bay Water District about possible similar projects, and had no response from them yet. Reilly said he has had 300 or 400 phone calls, participated in a panel in Santa Rosa last Monday where 100 people came out to discuss it, and participated with Woolley in a public meeting in Mendocino last spring. No-one spoke for the applicant. All speakers supported the staff recommendation.

Don Kemp, an economist and investment banker, found that the Davidge proposals don’t meet minimal standards of due diligence and make it impossible for anyone else to do it, because they don’t give enough information; on that alone they should be rejected.

The cost of transporting water by water bag is at least six times the current cost to San Diego of water. He found that the damage to recreational use amounted to a $1,000 per bag subsidy to the bagging entity, that could not be mitigated and would be borne by the community. Jim Jordan of Friends of the Gualala River asked those who supported the staff recommendation to stand. About 30 did, and more arrived later who were delayed by the storm.

“We’ve done probably more work than the applicant to understand these applications, andwe don’t,” said Jordan. The bags would be nearly 900 feet long and positioned between Whale Watch Point and Gualala Point, in front of Sonoma County’s bluff top trail, the only recreational access for those who do not have access to private land. That would be a desecration to that area, he said, the bags being 200 to 400 yards off those points.

Executive Director Michael Warburton of the Public Trust Alliance said that a lot of the public trust has to do with water. Groups that speculate in water have a predilection for bankruptcy. Under the public trust doctrine, the people of California are the beneficial owners of the water. Warburton asked the CCC to bring up public trusts issues in its letters.

Nancy Price of the Alliance for Democracy spoke for both that group and Public Citizen. She asked that CCC staff analyze the pending trade agreements and their effects on the ability of the CCC to carry out its responsibilities, and include their analysis in the letters of protest. She presented a preliminary analysis she and Ruth Caplan prepared.

The document gave an overview of trade agreements to which the United States is party, and how their provisions relating to water could affect the Coastal Commission. Any disputes under these agreements would be heard in closed tribunals before which California and its agencies could not be parties.

“Clearly, approving even one extraction, collection, and water bag transport system starts California down a dangerous slope into the tumultuous waters [of trade agreements] where California’s regulatory authority could be severely hampered,” they wrote.

Doug Hammerstrom of Gualala said the public trust doctrine applies to water; it is such a fundamental public need that it should not be owned or speculated in for profit.

Executive Director Douglas said that CCC legal staff is looking into the trade agreements. He also said they would add the prevalence of stormy winter seas to the letters.

Commissioner Sara Wan asked staff to add specific impacts to marine species such as sea turtles which could become entangled and suffocate. There are all kinds of other situations where an animal may surface beneath a bag and need air; the bag would cause “direct death.”

The motion to authorize sending the letters was made by Desser and seconded by Woolley.

“If we were not alive to see this, we would not believe it,” said Desser, adding that she is concerned about the trade agreements; this is just one scheme for the commodification of water, there have been others and there will be more. She asked staff to call other agencies and ask them to send protests as well.

Woolley said he was very impressed with the citizen turnout, and asked staff to send copies of the numerous citizen letters with the staff letters to the Water Board. He said there is a similar situation on the Mad River in Humboldt County.

Reilly said the public is at a disadvantage in the SWRCB protest process to raise environmental issues when there has been no environmental study. “The trade issue is scarier than it seems, even,” Reilly went on, and the time to influence the federal trade agreement negotiations is now.

Commissioner Scott Peters, a San Diego City Council member, could not be present; he asked Reilly to convey that the water agency wrote to the city council that correspondence with the logo and letterhead of the water agency had been used without their authorization by the applicant, and that they are not supporting it. Reilly wanted the public to know that our neighbors to the south do not support the water bag project. Many citizen letters reflected that.

The vote was unanimous.

Davidge wrote in his letter to the SWRCB that he was shocked at how little information the State of California made available to him about these rivers. He concluded by advising Albion and Gualala to do more watershed planning, and to include outside interests. “To exclude them from the public process would not be wise as they will have growing political and economic power […]”

He told members of the press, as he has since last spring, that he is working on alternative water sources. Among these may be purchase of bulk water from private utilities and companies with water rights they are no longer using.

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