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Tapping the Mad River’s water?

Eureka Times-Standard

Tapping the Mad River’s water?

Water bag proposal would snare bay water district surplus.

By John Driscoll The Times-Standard

Wednesday, January 08, 2003

After losing a bid to bag water from two other North Coast rivers and send it to San Diego, an Alaskan businessman is now looking to Humboldt County to tap Mad River water.

Unlike the Gualala and Albion rivers to the south, where Ric Davidge tried to establish a new claim for water, here he’d be getting water already allocated to industrial users that no longer exist or have scaled back. It’s just a proposal right now, but it’s one the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District is taking seriously.

The district was not inclined to give out details, but Davidge gave a snapshot of his idea. Through his Alaska-based company Aqueous Corp., Davidge would buy water once used by the Simpson Paper Co. pulp mill, and some water leftover as a result of Samoa Pacific Corp.’s new water-saving pulp process.

“You have a large surplus and the infrastructure and nobody to buy it,” Davidge said.

The mill and former mill sit on the Samoa Peninsula. Water from a surface well on the Mad River is pumped to two connections there. The Aqueous Corp. could tap one of those connections, pumping water to huge fiberpoly bags in Humboldt Bay. The bags are 800 feet long, 200 feet wide and 25 feet deep and can carry about 91 acre feet of water each — 30 million gallons.

Davidge wants up to 20,000 acre feet — enough to cover 20,000 acres to a depth of 1 foot. Communities like Monterey and others in drier climes are interested in buying the water, Davidge said.

To ship 20,000 acre feet per year, Aqueous would have to make 217 trips from the bay each year. The operation would bring 185 to 200 jobs to the Humboldt Bay area, Davidge said, and if a contract is secured, Aqueous may move its bag-making facility here to accommodate it.

That 20,000 acre feet is nearly all the excess water the water district is advertising for sale, but not nearly as much excess as it has available, said Carol Rische, the water district’s general manager.

By law the water district can’t profit from the sale of water. But depending on how the contract is drawn up around such a big sale, if it’s closed, wholesale rates for district water could be trimmed. How that might translate for the average consumer isn’t known at this point.

Rische said the proposal will come before its customers and the general public before any agreement is reached. The Times-Standard’s inquiries prompted the district to finalize a date for a press conference and send out a news release. The conference will be held on Jan. 17.

“We have considered it and said we should be rolling it out to our customers,” Rische said. “Sending water south — it’s not lost on us what an issue this would be.”

The district has also been meeting with county supervisors in pairs — to avoid Brown Act violations — to inform them of the proposal.

Water, water — but it’s not everywhere

Davidge dropped his plan to bag 14,000 acre feet of Gualala and Albion rivers water last month after fierce protests from state officials and Sonoma and Mendocino county residents. They were concerned about how the project might harm the rivers. Davidge, operating under the company Alaska Water Exports at the time, was also swayed by the $1 million it would have cost to study each river.

The Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District supplies water to about 65,000 customers in Eureka, Arcata and Blue Lake and three community services districts. Drinking water comes through a series of wells sunk into the Mad River.

According to one source, in 1998, industrial-use water wholesaled for $65 an acre foot.

This month, the McKinleyville Community Services District is paying $12,000 for the 43 million gallons it buys from the water district, or $90 per acre foot. The average water user there uses 1,000 cubic feet, and pays $14.48 per month in all.

The Humboldt Bay Community Services District delivers water to 7,000 on the outskirts of Eureka. The average customer pays $19.55 a month there.

At those rates, customers pay about $500 per acre foot. The California American Water Co., which delivers water in the Monterey Peninsula area and elsewhere, charges between $1 and $4 per 100 cubic feet of water delivered, or $430 to $1,720 per acre foot.

Monterey, faced with a 1995 court ruling that declared most of the water it gets from the Carmel River is unlawfully taken, has been forced to come up with 11,000 acre feet of water in other ways. The area’s residents use one-fifth less than the average Humboldt County resident, and the region is looking into desalinating seawater and possibly building a new reservoir on the Carmel.

Kevin Tilden, a spokesman for the water company, said Monterey is considering two ideas to find more water and water bags aren’t one of them.

Henrietta Stern, project manager for the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, said Davidge came to town not long ago to pitch the water bag concept. So did another group interested in shipping water to Monterey Peninsula by tanker.

“The key question was water rights,” Stern said. “Don’t talk with us until you have the water rights.”

But Davidge doesn’t need water rights for Humboldt water. He’d be buying straight from the Humboldt water district, which has the rights to the water already.

“We would just be any other commercial buyer,” he said.

At what cost?

Before it closed in the early 1990s, and before the Samoa Pacific mill, then owned by Louisiana-Pacific Corp., switched to a chlorine-free pulp-making process, the mills used 45 to 50 million gallons per day. The Samoa Pacific mill now uses between 10 million and 12 million per day.

When both of the mills were running, they were paying the lion’s share of the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District’s costs, Rische said. Now, Samoa Pacific and other customers are paying a larger share.

What regulatory hurdles Davidge may have to clear to draw the excess water aren’t yet known. The California Coastal Commission may have to weigh in, but what role the commission could play is murky, since a state appellate court recently ruled the agency unconstitutional.

Still, commissioner and Humboldt County 3rd District Supervisor John Woolley has thought about it.

“What happens if (a bag) ruptures in the bay?” he asked. “And what does it do to the environment if it sinks?”

Woolley said county supervisors have questions but may have little more than some influence in the outcome of any arrangement between Davidge and the water district.

Davidge insists the bags are safe. They don’t sink even it they rupture and they ride so low in the water they are almost invisible, he said.

It’s no secret how thirsty Southern California is for water, especially since a major supply from the Colorado River has been cut off by the federal government. Northern California rivers are heavily tapped, to the detriment of fisheries, to water fields and feed the faucets becoming more numerous by the day in the south.

Davidge’s plan seems to rely on water already allocated for industrial use. In the Gualala and the Albion, the effects water-bagging would have on rivers was the idea’s undoing.

“Since we’re taking water from an existing pipe, we won’t be having those impacts,” he said.

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