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Water district says Mad River bag bid still just a proposal

Eureka Times-Standard

Water district says Mad River bag bid still just a proposal

By James Tressler The Times-Standard

Friday, February 14, 2003

EUREKA — Shipping billions of gallons of Mad River water in huge plastic bags to thirsty cities down south is still only in the discussion phase, officials at the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District said Thursday.

The district members insisted they are nowhere near deciding whether to pursue the proposal, pitched in early January by the Alaska company Aqueous Corp.

Each of the district’s members said they are committed to protecting the North Coast’s water rights as well as the environment. But they added the district must explore any proposal which could save money for Humboldt County water customers.

“We’ve all tried to be very careful, realizing that we’re dealing with a precious resource,” said district member J. Bruce Rupp. “And realizing that for many years water was taken from here without any benefit to the North Coast, and with adverse environmental impacts.”

Little new happened Thursday, except the water district unanimously agreed to expand the mission statement of its advisory committee, the Humboldt Municipal Water Task Force, to include evaluation of large-scale water projects like the Mad River proposal.

The task force, composed of representatives from all the water district’s customers, is set to review the proposal at its meeting next Friday.

Project proponent Ric Davidge and his company Aqueous Corp. want to buy up to 20,000 acre feet — 6.5 billion gallons — from the Mad River each year, water which is controlled by the district. The company would ship the water in huge plastic bags to places like Monterey and other Central and Southern California cities, where a huge demand for water would likely fetch a hefty price for Davidge. For the district, which can’t profit on the sale of water, the deal could save residential customers $1 to $2 per month, and save the Samoa Pacific Cellulose pulp mill thousands per month.

In recent years a number of seemingly outlandish enterprises to export North Coast water have bobbed up, but all were sunk, in part because of public opposition.

North Coast residents are divided as ever on this latest proposal. Some see it as unusual, but concede the district should try to gain leverage with something most of California doesn’t have: excess water.

Others fear such a deal could lead to a loss of local control of the water, as well as contribute to a further decline of the North Coast’s already depleted rivers.

The water would be pumped from Samoa Peninsula connections to bags in the bay, which would likely require some new infrastructure. By a conservative estimate, Aqueous Corp. would have to make 323 trips from Humboldt Bay to haul 15,000 acre feet of water. The untreated water would have to be treated before or after it was shipped, since the industrial use water is not fit to drink.

Moving water outside the district’s boundaries is also a complicated technical and legal endeavor. The water district may have to amend its water rights for the water to be used outside the district.

Prior to the Simpson Paper Co. mill’s closure in 1993, it along with the Louisiana-Pacific Corp.’s pulp mill were the district’s biggest customers, together picking up more than two-thirds the district’s water costs. Samoa Pacific has since picked up L-P’s mill, and is set to renegotiate its own water contract with the district next year.

Theoretically, the cost savings of having a new big customer would be passed on to the water district’s remaining 80,000 customers in Arcata, Eureka, Blue Lake, McKinleyville and other service districts.

In recent weeks, these municipalities have been reviewing the water proposal. Arcata is the only one so far that has flat-out rejected it. The city of Eureka recommended cautious consideration. Other agencies are expected to make their recommendations sometime over the next week.

District member Vern Cooney blasted certain unnamed members of the city of Arcata, which has opposed the project, for what Cooney described as the inappropriately harsh manner in which some of the city’s officials levied criticism.

“That was really getting out of hand,” Cooney said. “We need to weigh what is good for the community.”

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