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The State

Davis Signs Bill Declaring Rivers as Recreational

The measure would prevent companies from damming, diverting or exporting water from designated areas of the Albion and Gualala.

July 30, 2003|Kathleen Flynn | Times Staff Writer

After a long battle between conservationists and developers over two Northern California rivers, Gov. Gray Davis signed a bill to preserve the rivers from being altered.

The bill, signed Monday, designated the rivers as recreational under state law, which stops companies from damming, diverting or exporting the water from certain areas of the rivers that connect to the Pacific Ocean.

The Albion and Gualala rivers -- which run to the Sonoma and Mendocino county coastlines -- are known for their scenic beauty, wildlife and the small tourist-driven towns that dot the banks.

"These rivers are paradises; they are absolutely beautiful," said Assemblywoman Patty Berg (D-Eureka), who pushed the legislation. "They support threatened salmon and steelhead. The communities around the rivers depend on them for tourism."

In 2002, a similar bill stopped a water-exporting company from tapping into the rivers and delivering their water in gigantic plastic bags to depleted San Diego reservoirs.

Alaskan Water Exports dropped the attempt after that bill required the company to pay $2 million in fees for environmental impact studies before going forward with their plans.

Under the measure approved this week, exporting water out of the North Coast region using the two rivers is banned.

For the residents who live near the rivers, the bill ends a three-year fight to keep their water. "It is really a unique story about how a proposal for a huge water-bagging scheme [was blocked because of] so much community support for protection of [the] rivers," said Steve Evans, the conservation director of Friends of the River. "Local business, land owners, all the legislators for the area gave the bill phenomenal support."

The rivers wind through redwood forests and harbor more than 30 types of fish including salmon and steelhead, while providing a sanctuary for birds, Berg said.

Ric Davidge, president of Alaska Water Exports, said the company had planned to use 100-foot-by-850-foot poly-fiber bags to capture fresh water as it flowed out to the ocean and drag the water through the Pacific Ocean to Southern California.

Conservationists argued that the process could harm wildlife by moving fish and disrupting the migration of whales.

But Davidge said that if the counties did more research on their rivers, they would see his company's method of extracting water would not harm the environment.

"You can't continue to make decisions based on emotion instead of science," Davidge said.

Davidge said accusations that his company's method of tapping water is dangerous to the environment are "completely untrue."

But Bob Whitney, chairman of the Gualala River Watershed Council, remembers the fish kill of the Klamath River.

Last year, the water level in that river, which had been diverted into the California Aqueduct, got too low, which resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of salmon.

"There is tremendous pressure from other Southern California areas to take any water from anywhere," Whitney said.

"There are plenty more rivers with so-called surplus water going out into the ocean which also need protection."

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