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Proposal to Ferry Water Is Opposed

Resources: Bill seeks to block a plan to use large bags to tote water from two north coast rivers.

April 05, 2002|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — A proposal to siphon water from two north coast rivers and tug it to San Diego in water bags the size of a World War II battleship is under fire from state lawmakers eager to block the plan.

Assemblywoman Patricia Wiggins (D-Santa Rosa) and other lawmakers representing the rugged northern coastline began pushing legislation this week that would give county elected leaders virtual veto power over such projects.

"This is a clear-cut case of a community that needs to be consulted before its resources are pillaged," said Matt Reilly, Wiggins' chief of staff. "To the people who live there, it's their backyard, and they should have a say."

Wiggins' bill (AB 2924) was denounced by Ric Davidge of Alaska Water Exports, the firm that wants to use 850-foot-long polyfiber bags to tote water from the Gualala and Albion rivers in Mendocino County south to San Diego.

"It's extraordinarily unfortunate that people would introduce legislation to try to stop a project that is clearly the most ecologically benign proposal to date to deal with the problems of water in California," Davidge said.

The proposal by Davidge, a former aide to Reagan Interior Secretary James Watt, has attracted a storm of opposition from a collection of environmentalists, tourist businesses, and farmers in Mendocino and Sonoma counties. Residents ridicule it as a water grab that would wreak environmental damage to the rivers and sully views along the pristine coastline.

More than 300 foes turned out last month to confront Davidge during a forum at Sea Ranch, an exclusive coastal enclave just south of the Gualala River. Later three dozen people took their protest to the river, standing on a bridge and holding up placards saying, "Honk if you like fish" and "No water bags."

Under the plan, a pipeline would be buried up the spine of each river to capture heavy winter flows. The bags, which float below the ocean surface, would be filled via a pump aboard an offshore buoy. Tow boats then would slowly tug the massive bags south to San Diego, where 40,000 customers could be supplied by the 20,000 acre-feet of water reaped each year.

Wiggins' bill, supported by state Sen. Wesley Chesbro (D-Arcata), would block state water officials from allowing the export of water from California's north coast rivers unless local county supervisors granted permission.

The water bag proposal is under review by the state Water Resources Control Board, which might hold hearings in the next few months. The Coastal Commission also has asked to review Davidge's plans.

While sure to win support among Democratic lawmakers from Northern California, Wiggins' bill could potentially run into some opposition from Southern California lawmakers uneasy about setting a precedent that could complicate other efforts to boost water exports from the north.

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