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The Iceberg Cometh : Drought: Towing a chunk of glacier into the harbor is the 5th of 8 water shortage solutions the council plans to look at in a $175,000 study.

June 06, 1990|SANTIAGO O'DONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Vowing to search for solutions to the water crisis no matter where the hunt may lead, Ventura city officials have decided to study the possibility of hauling icebergs from the polar caps and planting them off the county's shores.

It's a long shot, everyone concedes. And Mayor Richard Francis goes so far as to call it "an absurd waste of money." But, long shot or not, the iceberg study has the official blessing of the Ventura City Council.

The idea of hauling icebergs from the frigid waters of Antarctica or the North Atlantic is an old one now being refloated only in the face of the chilling political realities: California's four-year drought is dragging on and water supplies are dwindling.

The iceberg study is to be one focus of a $175,000 research project on possible long-term water supplies approved by the City Council Monday on a 5-2 vote.

According to City Engineer Ron Caulkins, getting an iceberg to Ventura would involve hiring a large oceangoing tug that would have to anchor into an iceberg somewhere thousands of miles from the county and then tow it slowly back to a local anchorage.

One of the many problems to be overcome would be the danger of the iceberg melting along the way. But Caulkins said that could be solved.

"We'd have to wrap the iceberg with a diaper or collecting device to collect the melted iceberg water, and the water would be transported onshore by ship or pipeline," he said.

While The Times was unable this week to track down any city in the world that has ever added to its water supply by using portable icebergs, the idea of towing icebergs has popped up with some frequency in the past.

Nobody could remember this week exactly who first proposed it to the Ventura City Council, but Councilwoman Cathy Bean, a member of the city water ad hoc committee that prepared the scope of work, said she asked that the iceberg study be included after residents brought the subject up during City Council meetings.

"We don't want anybody to say that we didn't look into all possible alternatives," she said.

"Water from Icebergs" is the fifth item on the list of eight alternatives, ahead of agricultural runoff, storm water runoff and wells, but behind imported state water, a dam on Sespe Creek, desalinated seawater and water from Canada via supertanker.

Even though it's not high on the list of possibilities, the two council members who voted against the iceberg alternative say it's a needless waste of taxpayer money, and most experts seem to agree.

"In the late '60s there was a symposium in Saudi Arabia to study the possibility, and the main conclusion was that the idea was not practical," said Bob Kriddel, a hydrologist at the ice and climate office of the U.S. Geological Center in Tacoma, Wash.

It's even more impractical in Southern California, Kriddel said, because the West Coast has something of a shortage of good icebergs. He said Alaska "does not have any icebergs of any scale to speak of, so you would have to haul the icebergs in from Greenland or Antarctica across tropical waters.

"The consensus is that when you're talking Southern California, it just isn't practical. The iceberg would be long gone before it reaches its destination."

Doug Priest, manager of the State Drought Center in Sacramento, said the iceberg project has been studied by state experts but quickly discarded.

"People have looked at that in just about every drought we've had, but they haven't been able to show that it's economically feasible or even more reasonable than other alternatives.

Besides, he said, transporting icebergs would create a serious logistical problem: "Once you get those things started, how do you stop them?"

Even in Alaska, where ice abounds and rainfall is no problem, the idea of being the iceberg supplier to Ventura arouses little enthusiasm.

"That's a wild, wild scheme," said Ron Crawford, chairman of the geography department at the University of Alaska at Anchorage. "The Japanese buy some glacial water to use it in cocktail parties as kind of a luxury item, but that's about it. There's lots of ice here, but if you want my opinion, trying to send it down to Southern California is a silly idea."

Back home, Francis, who voted against funding the study, said he can hardly believe that the city is spending money studying icebergs.

"It's an absurd waste of money," he said. "The Saudis have been studying it for years and they have so much money they don't even know what to do with it. You're talking about essentially dragging a swimming pool full of water with a chunk of ice on top of it."

Vice Mayor Don Villeneuve, who is also a member of the water subcommittee, says he still thinks it's worth a look.

"If all the iceberg studies have been done, then fine," he said. "It will only take our consultant a day, or even a few hours, to look into it and discard it as an alternative. I don't see the harm in making sure that we take a look at every possible alternative."

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