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Humboldt officials see jobs, revenue in water bag plan

Santa Rosa Press Democrat

Humboldt officials see jobs, revenue in water bag plan

With mills’ consumption down, district entertains idea of selling excess supply

January 18, 2003


Humboldt County water officials on Friday pitched a plan to export Mad River water to thirsty communities elsewhere in the state, saying it’s a job-creating and cost-reducing proposal that would benefit residents and businesses in the region.

The Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District is considering whether to sell excess water to Aqueous International, an Alaskan company headed by the same man who unsuccessfully sought water from the Albion and Gualala rivers.

Ric Davidge, an Interior Department official in the Reagan administration, said his company wants to buy up to 20,000 acre-feet a year — enough water for about 160,000 people — and sell it to other coastal communities.

Despite their praise for the plan, district officials said they won’t negotiate with Davidge unless their existing customers support the proposal.

“We are not going to consider it until the customers agree to it,” the district’s general manager, Carol Rische, said Friday. “Then we will form a task force with our customers and public officials and lay out questions.”

The district is a wholesaler, providing water supplies to several communities. Rische said each of them has been asked to weigh in on the proposal.

Aqueous was formerly known as Alaskan Water Exports, and it caused a furor in Mendocino County last year with its plan to tap the Gualala and Albion rivers for water to ship to San Diego.

The water was to be pumped into poly-fiber bags larger than a football field and pulled by tugboats, a method Davidge has used in the Mediterranean.

Davidge canceled the Mendocino County plan last month, citing the cost of environmental studies and stiff opposition from local residents and public agencies.

The Humboldt County plan offers potential advantages for Davidge and his company.

Unlike his first proposal where he needed to obtain permission from the state to draw water from the rivers, the Humboldt Bay district already holds water rights and is eager to sell excess supply.

The district has been trying to sell its surplus water since Simpson Paper Co. closed its pulp mill and ended its contract with the district in 1999. A second mill also has reduced its water use in recent years.

The water-intensive mills used to pay 80 percent of the district’s operational cost, Rische said. Without the revenue from the mills, other customers have had to pay more to keep the district in business.

The district currently serves Samoa Pacific Corp.’s mill as well as the cities of Eureka and Arcata and several other Humboldt County communities. Collectively, these customers pay the district’s annual operating cost of $3.2 million.

The district hasn’t discussed how much Davidge would have to pay for the water. But to show its customers how much they could save, it came up with estimates of $900,000 to $1.6 million.

Rische said the district may charge a premium for the water to maximize savings for its local customers.

Eureka Mayor Peter La Vallee said the prospect of generating new jobs for residents in the economically troubled area is making the proposal attractive to some residents.

Davidge said 180 to 200 jobs could be created to fill water bags and operate tugboats that would pull them down the coast. A bag assembly plant also could be build near Humboldt Bay, and it would provide an additional 20 jobs.

“There is a significant economic advantage coming to Humboldt,” he said Friday.

Davidge said regions that have shown interest in buying water include the Monterey Peninsula and San Diego, but no agreements are in place.

Although they highlighted potential economic benefits from selling water to Davidge, officials from Humboldt County and cities around the bay said Friday they haven’t made up their minds about the proposal.

They cited unanswered questions, such as potential environmental impacts.

“The good is we need jobs, and the water was being sold to the mills anyway,” La Vallee said. “The bad is what happens with the big bags if they break and wash up on shore?”

You can reach Staff Writer Ucilia Wang at 462-6473 or uwang@pressdemocrat.com.

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