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Bagging the Mad

Eureka Times-Standard

Bagging the Mad

Sunday, January 12, 2003

A new, clean industry for the area. The tapping of a currently unused but renewable resource. Up to 200 new jobs.

Sounds like a plan.

We’re referring to Ric Davidge’s proposal to pump water from the Mad River into huge, ocean-going plastic containers and tug them to parched points south.

As we reported first this week, Davidge’s Alaska-based Aqueous Corp. would tap water from one of two connections on the Samoa Peninsula put in place to serve current and former pulp mills — mills that no longer use all the available water. In the old days, the mills used 45 to 50 million gallons per day. That daily use is down to between 10 and 12 million gallons.

The basic water-bagging concept is familiar. Davidge pushed a similar proposal for the Gualala and Albion rivers in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. The idea foundered over the environmental concerns of state officials and residents there and the cost to study the proposal and obtain water rights.

Here, the water rights, controlled by the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District, are already in place. Davidge, as far as we understand, would be just another commercial customer.

But there is one great fear that needs to be addressed. Even if the water district signs a limited-term contract, would we ever get back our water if we needed to? Would more powerful Southern California communities become partially dependent on the water, and eventually not be able to do without it?

Surely the law would protect us in such a circumstance, you might say. Direct your attention to the Trinity. That majestic river has been heavily tapped by Central Valley farms and cities since the early 1970s.

Fish stocks plummeted, taking away livelihoods. The need to restore the river became obvious, and the idea was studied. With great congressional and popular support a rock-solid, well-studied plan to return half the river’s flows was put in place.

And our needy neighbors sued.

All it took was one sympathetic judge to damage the effort. The lesson: When you start giving away water, it isn’t easy to get it back.

It’s too soon to sign off on the water-bagging idea. A great deal of public comment and further study is required. The first press conference on the proposal is set for Jan. 17.

We plan to ask a lot of questions, and we hope Humboldt County residents will too.

The scale of the proposed undertaking is large. The 800-foot-long bags can carry about 30 million gallons each.

Davidge says he wants up to 6.5 billion gallons per year. That would mean up to 217 trips per year to transport the water from Humboldt Bay to Monterey or San Diego.

What’s the likelihood of a bag breaking free from a tow and rupturing? What would happen if millions of gallons of fresh water suddenly dumped into the bay? What sort of coastal damage might be caused by a torn plastic bag the size of more than two football fields washing ashore? Would there be any deleterious effect on Ruth Lake, the 14.6 billion gallon reservoir that feeds the Mad all summer long?

We hope Davidge and Aqueous can provide assuring and complete answers.

The proposal would use renewable water resources currently untapped. Lord knows we could use the extra jobs. And any safe, sustainable economic shot in the North Coast’s arm would be welcome.

A region should play to its strengths. San Francisco has a world-class bay; Mariposa has Yosemite National Park; Lake County has, well, its lake.

We have lots of water and access by sea.

But before we buy into this thing completely, let’s make sure we understand all the ramifications. We need our water, whether for fish or to maintain flexibility for growth. The benefits of such a deal must trickle down to us, not flow south unchecked.

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