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COLUMN ONE

Plan to Bag Rivers May Not Float

An entrepreneur's bid to tug giant sacks of fresh North Coast water to San Diego stirs up anger amid the skepticism.

March 02, 2002|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ALBION, Calif. — It boasts an audacious history, this business of water in the West. From dams the size of mountains to aqueducts across the desert, the landscape has been re-plumbed in ways Mother Nature never pondered. Water percolates through some of the best fiction and most of the best fights.

Even dreamy schemes to capture icebergs or run transcontinental pipelines bubble up from time to time, which is why folks here on the scenic North Coast are keeping a close eye on a plan they brand a classic Southern California water grab--"Chinatown" in a giant Baggie.

The man with the bag is Ric Davidge.

A water entrepreneur from Alaska, Davidge is an industrious fellow whose Reagan administration resume seems to eco-warriors clear proof of villainy.

His company wants to suck fresh water from two North Coast rivers, stow it in massive poly-fiber bags the length of a World War II battleship, and tow the floating sacks hundreds of miles south--dodging oil tankers and migrating whales--to slake San Diego's thirst.

But first, Davidge will have to convert regulators, politicians and often-feisty residents--in this case, the denizens of Mendocino County, where locals consider coastal protection a birthright.

Rachel Binah, a coastal innkeeper and ardent environmentalist, said the idea initially seemed "harebrained, goofy, ridiculous, ludicrous, absurd."

But with Davidge plowing forward with a formal proposal to a state water agency, the snickers are subsiding and concern is growing, Binah says. "It could potentially be very, very dangerous."

Davidge wants to use his oceangoing bags to tote 20,000 acre-feet of water each year from the Albion and Gualala (pronounced wa-LA-la) rivers--enough for 40,000 households.

He brings to the brawl some well-heeled backers, among them a large Japanese shipping line and a Saudi Arabian company that boasts a variety of multibillion-dollar international ventures, including the largest independent Toyota distributorship on the globe. As a deputy to former Interior Secretary James Watt, a man environmentalists loved to hate, Davidge knows how to work a room full of angry people.

His scheme has whipped up distrust reminiscent of past north-south water wars. Mendocino County supervisors are on record opposing the project. The California Coastal Commission has begun to grumble. Sen. Wes Chesbro (D-Arcata) is lobbying state water officials in opposition.

The most vocal opponents are the region's axis of latter-day hippies, environmentally minded urban refugees and nature-loving merchants of tourism.

They are a battle-tested bunch. In the 1960s, North Coast activists beat back a nuclear power plant. They defeated offshore oil in the 1980s and fought to save the redwoods in the 1990s.

On the banks of the Albion, a vortex of the back-to-the-land movement, they've coined a whimsical sovereign status: The "Albion Nation," they call themselves.

And they're itching for a tussle.

"We've had a lot of practice," mused Bill Heil, who came to Albion three decades ago to join a commune and has been here ever since. "I don't think the project will fly, but we'll have a good time fighting it."

Big bags are not a new notion in the West Coast water wars. Manhattan Beach inventor Terry Spragg has been trying without success for a decade to pitch his "Spragg Bags" for runs along the coast.

But the bag technology floated by Davidge's Anchorage-based Alaska Water Exports is already at work in the real world, on a run between Turkey and Cyprus operated by Nordic Water Supply, a partner in the Mendocino proposal.

So far, that operation has been a money loser. Nature has caused unexpected complications. In December 2000, Nordic lost a bag in stormy seas off Cyprus before recovering it unscathed. Another bag had torn open and spilled during an earlier trip.

Davidge says tougher fabrics and seamless technology used in the bags, which are stitched by mammoth looms, will prevent such mishaps. Coastal regulators remain skeptical.

"There's the potential for these bags breaking loose, entangling in habitat. How do you get them out?" wondered Peter Douglas, executive director of the Coastal Commission. "There's just a whole range of issues raised by this proposal that are very serious."

Approval of 2 Panels Required

The plan requires approval of the Coastal Commission as well as the State Water Resources Control Board. As long a shot as the scheme seems, Chesbro recently wrote the board's chairman that it threatens to reignite the state's epic water wars and set "a troubling precedent" for rivers on the coast.

Out here, amid the sweeping surf and stately redwoods, every bend in the road offers another breathtaking view, another chance to embrace one of nature's masterpieces. With grassy bluffs and foam-washed coves, the Mendocino coast has a ready-made constituency of stewards and protectors.

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