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for people who care about the West

In California, no water project is too big

 

In a state like California, where half the population relies on water that has been pumped hundreds of miles across deserts or thousands of feet over mountains, you might think it difficult to devise a plan nutty enough to draw jeers.

Yet an Alaska company has managed to do just that.

At first blush, I admit the plan sounds rather strange. Alaska Water Exports has applied for rights to winter flows in the Gualala and Albion rivers - modest California waterways that enter the Pacific Ocean about 100 miles north of San Francisco. Here's the innovative part: In a year, they'd pump from the rivers as much as 30,000 acre-feet - nearly 10 billion gallons - into huge bladders offshore.

Tugboats would drag the floating bags of water about 400 miles south along the coast for sale to San Diego. The city now imports virtually every drop it consumes and is always looking for new supplies. The state Department of Water Resources has invited public comment on the application.

A Mendocino County supervisor, no doubt echoing the thoughts of many of his constituents, dubbed the proposal "ludicrous." A more circumspect state water official labeled it "creative." Local residents immediately vowed to fight it.

Outrage came from farmers, environmentalists and politicians of every stripe, suggesting that even if it accomplishes nothing else, the scheme has already managed a minor miracle in prompting so many traditional adversaries to unite.

Yet there is nothing particularly absurd about the company's proposal, when considered against the backdrop of audacious water-supply strategies Californians take for granted.

Towing water in seagoing sacks is probably not the most cost-efficient method of transferring this precious resource from places that have it to places that need it. Yet the loudest objections so far seem to have more to do with traditional north-south rivalry in California than with economic, technological or environmental issues.

What could be more ludicrous, for example, than building a dam in a national park, thereby flooding one of the most beautiful valleys in California, and shipping water from that reservoir halfway across the state? That's what San Francisco did when it created Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite and built an aqueduct 155 miles long.

What could be more preposterous than forcing a huge man-made river to flow nearly 2,000 feet uphill to cross the Tehachapi Mountains and deliver snowmelt to Los Angeles? A state water project managed that feat.

Or how about gathering the flows of trout streams from the eastern Sierra Nevada Range and sending the water 338 miles across some of the hottest, driest terrain in North America? William Mulholland and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power were hailed as visionaries, not nuts, for accomplishing that diversion.

What about the Metropolitan Water District's Colorado River Aqueduct, which slurps water from deep in a canyon and sends it 242 miles - under mountains and across perpetually moving sand dunes - to the coastal Southern California metropolis?

Compared to these harebrained schemes, which cost billions of dollars and made possible the California we know today, hauling a bag or two of water through the ocean seems a model of technological restraint.

What's more, the Alaska Exports proposal would divert water during flood season, when the North Coast rivers send an untapped abundance into the sea. It would not pump from rivers year-round, as existing water projects do, to the detriment of fish and wildlife.

California's fundamental water problem has always been one of distribution, not quantity. There's enough water to go around, but it is almost never where people want it to be. With existing distribution systems tapped to capacity and the state's population continuing to balloon, creativity will be required to match supply and demand.

In the long run, it will probably be easier and cheaper than towing water sacks to shift modest amounts of water to cities from farms. Farms now consume more than 80 percent of California's developed supply. With the proper safeguards, diverting water to urban areas can be done without driving farms out of business or causing further ecological damage.

But that's not a reason to reflexively dismiss the occasional goofball proposal. When it comes to water, history reveals that even crazy ideas look practical in hindsight.

John Krist is a senior reporter and columnist for the Star in Ventura, California (krist@insidevc.com).

Copyright © 2002 HCN and John Krist