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Summary article

Proposed water export
from two northern California rivers
faces opposition
“Multinationals want Gualala River Water” read a headline in the January 25, 2002, edition of the Independent Coast Observer, the weekly Gualala, California, newspaper. At that time, almost all the residents of this small coastal town and of nearby Sea Ranch thought it was an early April Fool’s joke. Why would someone ship water in huge plastic bags 600 miles south to San Diego, especially from a river that almost dries up in the summer?

A check with the California State Water Resources Control Board confirmed that two applications had been filed on June 6, 2001: no.31194 to take 20,000 acre feet per year from the Gualala River and no.31195 to take 10,000 acre feet from the Albion River, about 45 miles further north. The applicant is Alaska Water Exports, a division of Arctic Ice and Water Exports, Inc., based in Anchorage. AWE is a partner in World Water SA, a Luxembourg-registered corporation that also includes Saudi and Japanese investors and Norwegian technology. The CEO of Arctic Ice and Water and of World Water SA is Ric Davidge who has spent at least the last 10 years developing bulk water export schemes.

One partner in World Water SA is the ALJ Group with headquarters in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. They are the world’s largest independent Toyota distributor and their extensive real estate holdings include developments in California. The Japanese partner in World Water SA is NYK Line, the world’s largest shipping company. The technology has been developed by Nordic Water Supply of Oslo who for several years have now operated a money-losing bulk water transport between Turkey and Cyprus.

Davidge has a long history in Republican and anti-environmental circles. He was appointed to a sub-cabinet position in the Department of the Interior under James Watt during the Reagan administration, after writing the Republican environmental platform. He was heavily involved in the Wise-Use Movement working with Charles Cushman. It was actually Davidge who talked then-Alaska Governor Wally Hickle out of a water pipeline to California when he was director of water resources for Alaska – was he already thinking of barging it from Northern to Southern California?

According to Davidge, his scientists looked at 15 coastal California rivers and finally chose the Gualala and Albion Rivers based on easy access and because most of the watersheds is in private hands. Albion resident Linda Perkins, who represents the local Sierra Club, thinks this is “just a foot in the door” and wonders why her “little Podunk river” was chosen. Davidge says the main criterion was water quality – there is no agricultural run-off into these two streams. But another factor that Davidge does not admit to must have been the relativlely sparse population; there are no major towns near these two rivers. In fact, all of Mendocino County has only about 80,000 inhabitants. What he did not consider was that some of these people fought a proposed nuclear power plant in the 1960s, off-shore oil drilling in the 80s, logging in the 90s, and are only too willing to fight water export in the 21st century. When Davidge gave a presentation at Sea Ranch in March, about 250 local residents showed up. While they listened politely to his sales pitch, it was quite evident that they did not buy into his water bag scheme. Davidge avoided answering many detailed questions, claiming that they were either proprietary or that he had to consult his engineers.

For the Gualala River, Davidge proposes to construct two shallow cisterns 1.5 and 2.5 miles upstream and bury a 2-foot diameter pipe five feet deep in the river channel. This heavy-equipment construction would disturb and rearrange the existing sediment in the river bottom, changing the “taste” cues for the fish and potentially making it harder for the fish to recognize “their” river. All the extra sediment would fill in the estuary. As it is, both the Gualala and the Albion just barely support spawning runs of endangered coho salmon and steelhead trout.

The Gualala River has been heavily degraded by extensive logging, including clearcutting. According to a just published report by the North Coast Watershed Assessment Program, the flat stretches of the river are deeply silted and most of the time the winter run-offs are not strong enough to sufficiently flush out the lower portion of the river. A sandbar closes off the estuary seven to nine months of the year, and it takes a good, heavy rainstorm to open it so that last year’s smolt can leave the estuary and spawning fish can enter the river mouth. If there is a long break between winter storms, the estuary seals up again, barring the movement of the anadromous fish. “We need all the flow we can get to clean out sediment from the river,” says Tom Cochrane, a geologist living at Sea Ranch. The special ecosystem that has evolved around the seasonal opening and closing of the lagoon would be interrupted by the taking of water during peak flows which generally happen only during December through February.

In the spring, northward migrating gray whales are often seen playing and feeding in the shallow waters just offshore from the river mouth, while harbor seals haul out on the sandbar and river otters frolic in the lagoon. All easily visible from the wildflower covered, 50-foot high bluffs on both sides of the river mouth. If the application to export water is granted, this picture of tranquility and rugged natural beauty will be spoiled by huge plastic bags the size of three football fields, and by the continuous barge traffic. Ocean-going barges leaving southward three times a day, towing these enormous, 850×100-foot bags with a draft of almost 30 feet; other barges returning with empty bags rolled up on giant spools ready to be filled again. Powerful pumps will have to run 24/7 to fill the bladders, as some locals call them.

Gualala, on the boundary of Mendocino and Sonoma counties is about two hours north of San Francisco, and year-round tourism is the mainstay of the local economy. The impact of all the barge traffic, of the noise and light pollution would be very detrimental. Both visitors and part-time residents come to this remote, quiet coastal area to get away from hustle and traffic, and an industrial operation just off-shore is the last thing they want here. The few jobs created for handling the proposed pipeline and security could not make up for the loss of jobs in the hotels and restaurants and local stores.

The supervisors of Mendocino County and Sonoma County have both passed unanimous resolutions opposing the water export. While the resolutions stress the environmental impacts, they also mention the danger to the local economy and the uncertainty of the water supply in drought years. California Assemblywoman Patricia Wiggins recently introduced AB 2924 which would give local county supervisors the final say on water export from the North Coast Rivers Special Area which stretches from the Russian River to the California-Oregon border. This proposal was denounced by Davidge as “extraordinarily unfortunate.” In an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune, he called it a reflection of Northern “bigotry” toward the southern part of the state. But then, “you are talking about a guy who has been doggedly, tenaciously pursuing the bulk water issue for years,” said Gil Serrano from Alaska Glacier Refreshments (as quoted in the Los Angeles Times on 3/2/2002) “Ric won’t give up easy. You’ll have to use a silver bullet to kill him.”

What is really behind the water export applications? Nordic Water Supply, one of Davidge’s partners in World Water SA is near bankruptcy – they had revenues of 12 million Norwegian Kroner against losses of 41 million NK last year. Due to bad weather, they had to suspend water bag operations for several months last year on the short, 60-mile stretch between Turkey and Cyprus. If the bags and tugs can’t handle the relatively mild Mediterranean, what will happen on the open Pacific during winter storms? Several retired engineers now living at Sea Ranch have pointed out that at the current price of $450 per acre foot that San Diego is paying now for water, the Davidge scheme does not make economical sense.

What makes sense, however, is for the company to get a right to unallocated California water, hope for the deregulation of water and then sell it to the highest bidder. That is similar to what happened a year ago during the energy crisis in California – the state had to buy electricity on the spot market at a price determined by the sellers. Currently, there is an international movement to deregulate public water and sewage utilities. The French companies Vivendi and Suez-Lyonnaise and San Francisco’s Bechtel Corporation are already taking over municipal systems in over 100 countries, including the U.S.

Under the provisions of international trade agreements such as GATS (General Agreement on Trades and Services), NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), and the proposed FTAA (Free Trade Agreement of the Americas), water is considered a commodity, and multinational corporations, once they have an established business contract, can sue for performance or compensation for lost business. Maude Barlow, from the Council of Canadians, has written extensively about the globalization of water and the dangers for consumers. Adequate, clean water is undeniably a basic human right, but private profit-making has no place in the distribution of this life-essential resource.

So while Davidge hawks his “ecologically benign” proposal to deliver water to parched Southern California, his international partners are positioning themselves to become free-market dealers in water, ready to take full advantage of international trade agreements. No wonder most of the locals on the Northern California coast are taking the water bags seriously now. Some have recently revived an organization called Friends of the Gualala River. Their immediate goal is to stop the water export from their local river and to draw attention to its threatened estuary.

[This article was written by Ursula Jones, a resident of Sea Ranch, California, and a member of Friends of the Gualala River.]

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