SAN DIEGO — Born thirsty and raised during times of drought, this city is endlessly on the prowl for drinkable water.
Now the civic search for potable sufficiency may even lead to the use of converted oil tankers, which would import water from the Pacific Northwest. That idea comes in the wake of a recently rejected attempt to clean waste water thoroughly enough that it could be used for washing and drinking.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday January 12, 1999 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Water plan--A story in Monday's Times about a plan to use converted oil tankers to deliver water from the Pacific Northwest to San Diego incorrectly stated the capacity of the tankers. A large tanker can carry about 450 acre-feet of water, enough to meet the needs of 3,600 people for a year.
If both plans sound farfetched, it helps to understand local history and local fears.
Name the scheme for getting more water and San Diego, which has scant ground water to call its own, has tried it. The first canal was built in 1792, the first dam in 1807.
"The early history of San Diego County is virtually synonymous with the quest for water supplies," wrote historian Philip Pryde.
The more recent history, too.
In 1915, the city hired a self-described "moisture accelerator" to seed the clouds, a tale of small-town folly captured by Hollywood in the Burt Lancaster-Katharine Hepburn movie "The Rainmaker." The Great Depression crushed San Diego's dream of building an aqueduct from the Colorado River.
In the 1990s, under the banner of the County Water Authority, San Diego has battled the mighty Metropolitan Water District of Southern California--the region's water wholesaler. The goal is to bypass the MWD and buy water directly from the irrigation-soaked Imperial Valley.
Rare is the week in San Diego when several water ideas are not floated.
Take last week. A report from City Hall confirmed that a scientifically innovative but politically explosive plan to purify sewer water and recycle it for drinking has been put on hold indefinitely.
After spending $15 million, officials concluded that the "toilet-to-tap" plan lacked sufficient public support to justify spending more than $100 million for a treatment plant. The idea was catching flak as too costly, too experimental and too yucky.
But this being San Diego, as one water idea is sinking, another is riding high.
A former Sea World executive turned energy analyst and aqua entrepreneur will meet with city officials this week to discuss his proposal to use converted oil tankers to bring water to San Diego from British Columbia and Alaska.
John Barbieri, president of the Los Angeles-based Natural Resources Corp., made a presentation in October to a City Council committee. San Diegans all, the committee members were immediately intrigued by the promise of a new supply of clean, reasonably priced water.
At first glance, the plan is beguilingly simple: San Diego wants to buy water, the Pacific Northwest has plenty of water to sell, and there are lots of aging but sturdy oil tankers available. The concept is not new.
"I call it my 'back to the future plan,' " Barbieri said.
During the Gulf War, the Department of Defense quickly converted an oil tanker into a water supply ship, with the water pumped into holding tanks ashore. Before it finished its Hetch Hetchy aqueduct to the Sierra Nevada in 1934, San Francisco brought water by boat from Marin County.
Several companies, including Barbieri's, would love to open up the immense Asian market to water from Canada or the Great Lakes. At present, no California city buys water from tanker ships, although Santa Barbara flirted with the idea during the drought of the 1980s.
No less a water visionary than Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Sr., father of the State Water Project, was long interested in the notion of using oceangoing water tankers to cut the north-south rivalry that is the Gordian knot of California water politics.
In its most recent five-year update of the state's water strategy, the Department of Water Resources rated tankers as the most realistic of the "supply augmentation options" to get water from the Northwest to California. Other options include towing immense bags of water along the coast or building a long underground pipeline.
"As far as being able to do it, the idea of tankers seems very doable," said Paul Hutton, program manager of statewide planning for the state water department and lead author of the recent update. "The big question is cost."
The economic balance could be tipped by the fact that oil tankers may soon be available at a reduced cost. A bill passed by Congress in response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill mandates that single-hull oil tankers either be phased out or converted to double-hull.
Barbieri and others are betting that tanker owners will conclude that it makes more sense to lease or sell their tankers rather than pay the cost of double-hull retrofitting necessary to stay in the oil business.
A tanker in the ultra-large crude carrier class has a capacity of about 450,000 acre-feet of water. A single tanker could stop at various coastal sites, letting cities offload enough water to meet their needs--a modern update of the milkman making his rounds.