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COLUMN ONE : A Deluge of Drought Solutions : Ideas for saving or procuring water always sprout during a dry spell. Some sound crazy, but public agencies often check them out.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Southern California is caught in another drought, and the mail trays and message pads inside public water agency offices once again are bulging with piles of small ideas and great notions.

A caller to the Metropolitan Water District in Los Angeles wants the agency to build underground storage tanks to collect irrigation water runoff from every household.

An Orange County retiree suggests an elaborate underground network of liquid propane pipes to route water in from other parts of the country.

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Residents could save water, a Los Angeles man writes, if only they would relieve themselves in sinks instead of toilets.

There is nothing quite like a drought to send Southern California’s thinkers, tinkerers and dreamers into frenzies of creative thought. Each new dry spell renews an obsession that has haunted corporate and government planning rooms for decades--how to develop a permanent method of replenishing the region’s transient water supply.

“If history has taught us anything,” says Idaho state Sen. Brian Donesley, a former Angeleno, “it is that when Californians get thirsty, they will use cash, the law, raw political power and, if necessary, the point of a gun barrel to satisfy their thirst.”

It’s a time for big thinkers. Consultants and entrepreneurs are making the usual rounds of water agencies and government boardrooms with grand designs ridiculed during past droughts. Some want to tow huge icebergs from Antarctica. Others favor shipping massive quantities of fresh water in the cargo holds of supertankers. Last month, Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn raised the “very serious” possibility of channeling Columbia River water here--an old idea that prompted Donesley to call him a “crackpot.”

And in an office tower in Pasadena, Nathan W. Snyder, director of technology for one of the world’s largest engineering firms, quietly holds out hope for the grandest water plan of them all--a 30-year-old quest to harness the rivers of Canada and Alaska and build a $400-billion water system to slake the thirst of the entire North American continent.

Few of these ideas will survive beyond the first unsympathetic rejection letters; this is an era of small-scale water management programs and government conservation projects constrained by environmental concerns and budget cuts.

But a century ago Southern California’s first water prophets laid plans to divert Colorado River water through miles of desert toward Los Angeles, and ever since, the prospects of making a fortune and leaving a mark on history have remained heady incentives. When water tables start to sink, no pipe dream seems too remote.

“These ideas may sound just as loony to us now as the idea of building an aqueduct system out in the desert did in the 1880s or a constructing a huge system of federal dams did in the 1920s,” said California historian Kevin Starr. “But 30 years from now, some of these people may be thought of as visionaries.”

Then again, they may get the reception that Belgian engineer Werner Schuster received when he informed state officials of his idea to induce rainfall along the Pacific coast with a giant steam-emitting greenhouse.

For more than a year during 1986 and 1987, Schuster papered the state Department of Water Resources with book-length plans to build his solar greenhouse--6.7 miles in diameter--that would heat tanks of saltwater, sending up pockets of hot, moist air into the atmosphere. Moist air, Schuster reasoned, would form rain-filled cumulus clouds capable of regularly dumping an inch of potable water back on Southern California each day.

In his official reply, Maurice Roos, the department’s top water specialist, tried to be kind: “I have finally reviewed your proposal to create artificial shower clouds,” Roos wrote. “My opinion is that your proposal would work, but probably not as well as you describe. However, the costs are prohibitive.”

Construction alone would have cost an astronomical $30.5 billion. Acquiring miles of coastal real estate would be at best difficult. The greenhouse, which would require 16,000 acres of glass, could easily collapse in shards during an earthquake. There was no certainty that the superheated clouds could be a reliable source of rainfall. Even if they were, one stiff breeze could make collection of rainwater a maddening task.

“It was a nice try,” Roos recalls.

He has not heard from Schuster again.

As the funding, engineering and management arms for government-supported water projects, agencies such as the Water Resources Department, the Metropolitan Water District and the dam-building U.S. Bureau of Reclamation usually are the first--and often last--stops for nostrums ranging from the serious to the ridiculous.

Over his 30-year career as state hydrologist, Roos has examined the feasibility of some of the most serious plans to bolster California’s central water systems. He also has studied--and rejected--schemes to drill into volcanoes to produce rain-inducing steam, lay miles of plastic foam blocks on top of reservoirs to prevent evaporation and haul tons of snow from the Midwest in railroad cars.

“If we think they’re totally out in left field, they just get a nice acknowledgement,” Roos said. “But as long as the engineering is sound and the idea might have some merit, we look into them. We don’t want to discourage people because you never know--we could be turning away that one idea that is really revolutionary.”

When a desert driller claimed to be able to obtain water from fractured rock, the department dispatched a geologist to check the claim. When an enthusiastic inventor claimed to have built a working desalination machine in his garage, the department sent a hydrologist.

“We wrote our reports and sent them back to Sacramento, where they usually died,” said former Water Resources official Jack Coe. “Hell of a way to make a living.”

Water proposals often reflect the tenor and technology of their times. In the 1880s, Southern California settlers could hardly be expected to imagine any source of fresh water more tempting than the Colorado River. It was only natural, according to historian Starr, for the state’s first water-seekers--physician Oliver Wozencraft and geologist William P. Blake--to propose canals leading to the Colorado for a steady supply of irrigation water.

A century later, a series of court rulings have placed the Colorado off-limits to diversion projects. And legislators in Northwestern states, tired of decades of fighting off similar plans to channel Columbia River water to Southern California, persuaded federal courts in the 1970s to ban all further study of the matter.

These days, few California officials are prepared to argue.

“We are boxed in by environmental constraints and the water rights of other states,” said Warren Cole, a state Water Resources official. “We have to satisfy Environmental Protection Agency permits, fish and game agreements, water-rights conditions, public trust doctrines. . . .”

If those obstacles seem formidable, consider the odds against a $400-billion plan that might dam some of Canada’s largest rivers, erase dozens of towns from existence, uproot hundreds of thousands of people and carve a 500-mile-long reservoir into the earth from Vancouver to Montana.

Inside the concrete headquarters of the Ralph M. Parsons engineering firm in Pasadena, officials still keep the faith for their 30-year-old North American Water and Power Alliance. The fabled project, which envisioned the creation of a man-made water system that would forever alter the continent’s rivers and lakes, never gathered enough political support in the United States or Canada for serious consideration.

But just last spring, 25 years after the plan’s only Senate hearing, the firm’s recently retired chairman, William Leonard, flew to Washington to quietly lobby legislators for a new federal study of the project.

In its heyday, the Water Plan--as Parsons employees call it--boasted a full-time manager, staff analysts, a private foundation to lobby for its passage and a research budget that eventually passed $1 million.

These days, all that formally remains of the project are the fertile mind of Nathan Snyder and four desk drawers filled with documents. Snyder, 65, a rumpled eminence, speaks wistfully of the Water Plan as if it were his own personal mission. He introduces it to new generations of engineers at conferences, sends brochures about it to inquiring college students and constantly revises its old figures.

There is much to update. In the early 1960s, Parsons officials said the plan would take 30 years to complete, use 70 million tons of steel--as much as was exported from the United States in 1987--and cost $100 billion.

“Now, we’re almost certainly in the $400-billion range,” Snyder acknowledges.

When Snyder is asked to discuss the Water Plan with visitors, company workers sometimes haul out a visual aid--a six-foot-high electric map of North America. The map itself is a miniature feat of engineering, with rivers and reservoirs that light up and a pulsating three-dimensional image of rushing water.

The Water Plan, Snyder explains in front of the map’s winking rivers, was designed to supply far more than Southern California’s water needs, building a continental system that would supply water “for at least the next hundred years.”

But the plan’s originator, Donald M. Baker, was steeped in Southern California water issues as an engineer with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. And the project, which envisions turning the Panamint Desert near Death Valley into a giant reservoir, is projected ultimately to raise the state’s annual fresh water supply by more than 40%.

“It would immensely increase this state’s capacity to produce agriculture,” Snyder concludes modestly.

Terry G. Spragg is careful never to get that specific when he talks up the benefits of his Antarctic Iceberg Transport Pilot Project.

“You never know who’s out there just itching to use your technology,” he says.

For 15 years, Spragg, a Manhattan Beach businessman who produces volleyball films, has put his faith in an idea that has floated around since the 1950s, the concept of delivering fresh water in the form of icebergs from Antarctica.

Spragg came upon the theory after two RAND Corp. researchers published an 83-page report in 1973 suggesting that massive ice chunks could be hauled across the ocean in 12-mile-long “trains.” According to researchers John Hult and Neill Ostrander, the trains would be driven by electric propellers, nudged by ice-breaking ships and escorted by a floating nuclear power plant.

“It was one of those ideas that looked perfectly good on paper once you got over the initial stupidity of it,” said former RAND researcher John Farquhar.

Where others saw ridicule, Spragg saw possibilities.

He has made pitches to the Metropolitan Water District and the governor’s office. He has offered to serve as host of an international iceberg conference. When Santa Barbara city officials sought new solutions to their water shortage last month, Spragg showed up at council meetings to lobby for the concept.

In 1978, at the tail end of the last drought, Spragg enjoyed his finest moment. He persuaded the state Senate to pass a resolution endorsing iceberg-towing. The resolution urged “all federal agencies with approval responsibilities to support a pilot program . . . promising a water supply from imported Antarctic icebergs for California.”

After his victory, Spragg told those who cared to listen that Prince Mohammed Al Faisal, nephew of the late King Khalid of Saudi Arabia, would make money available for iceberg research. A congressional hearing, he insisted, was in the offing.

Somehow, the moment passed. Twelve years later, with Southern California gripped by another drought, Spragg seems at low ebb. The Santa Barbara City Council rejected his offer of assistance. Water agency officials are not quick to return his calls. Newspaper editorials poke fun at his venture.

Shoeless in his beachfront office, Spragg vents his frustration with water agencies, civil engineers, Santa Barbara City Council members and his mocking skeptics.

There is still a drought on, he is reminded. In droughts, perhaps, there are still dreams.

Apparently not.

“Frankly,” Spragg says glumly, “I think it will rain next year.”

WATER FROM THE FAR NORTH

The North American Water and Power Alliance, a 30-year-old engineering plan, would create an interconnecting network of rivers, canals and reservoirs, carving out dozens of new major waterways in Canada and the United States. A system of dams in Alaska and British Columbia--some as tall as 1,700 feet--would control river flow and provide power to pump 400 million acre-feet of water uphill into the 500-mile-long Rocky Mountain Trench, the world’s second-largest natural reservoir. About 13.9 million acre-feet of water would flow each year into California, boosting its current supply by about 40%, according to estimates by the Ralph W. Parsons Co., the Pasadena engineering firm that came up with the plan. Most of Southern California’s allotment would be stored in a reservoir built in the Panamint Valley. The system would require 30 years to build and cost more than $400 billion.


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