Is This Guy All Wet, or Could His Plan Work?
The world looks at drought in California while 100 inches of rain falls on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula and asks, why?
Terry Spragg looks at the water in Washington, and he looks at a big rubber bag that could hold the water, and he looks at a barge towing a floating train of water bags 1,100 miles through the Pacific Ocean to Los Angeles, and he asks, why not?
Amazingly simple! Delicious in its ingenuity! Take the water out of a region that is often wet up to its elbows and deliver it to the arid Southwest. Or, barge the stuff out of Turkey to the Palestinians in the arid Gaza Strip. Better yet, have Israel and the Palestinians share the water. There you have it! Peace in the Middle East!
These are Spragg’s damp ambitions, the project upon which he has dumped his fortune and staked his future. If only the rest of the world would catch up.
Spragg has been on the verge of floating his proposal for the past five years. Each time, something went slightly wrong. During the first test run in 1990, the barge took a sharp turn going through Washington’s Puget Sound. One of the bag connections got pinched and, as Spragg ruefully recounts it, “went splooof” in a very big way.
Undaunted, Spragg includes the mishap in his promotional video. “I could have edited that part out and made it all smooth, but the only way to succeed is if you expect failure,” he says. “In the video, I turn like this"--he puts a sincere hand over his heart, and speaks solemnly--"and I say, ‘No longer was it: In the Bag with Spragg.’ ” He grins hopefully.
With Spragg, hope literally springs eternal and, after two years of delays, the new and improved Spragg Bags are ready for their first trial run, a maiden voyage in Puget Sound sometime next month that will prove, to all those who doubted, that the Manhattan Beach ski filmmaker turned commercial real estate broker turned water importer has finally made good.
A lot of water has gone under the bridge since the ill-fated test run in 1990, and Spragg’s experts--who include designers and consultants from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and several respected engineering firms--have come up with a new zip-lock system of fasteners that will allow a barge of water bags as big as a freight train to be towed through the sea without a leak.
“It all started out when I was sitting and talking to a guy at the Rand Corp. and he said, ‘You know, there’s a report about towing icebergs for water,’ and I said, ‘I know some people in Saudi Arabia: We can do something.’ I take ideas, and I try to make them come to fruition,” Spragg says.
The iceberg idea (it involved hauling icebergs into the South Pacific and letting them melt and then towing them up to L.A.) didn’t work. Too complicated to explain why.
Meanwhile, an engineer at MIT had designed a bag capable of holding and transporting large volumes of water. Spragg thought: Why not just skip the iceberg part and start with water that was already melted, like from a river or something?
“There’s plenty of water,” he says of the concept. “There’s enough water on the face of the earth to take care of us. It’s just not in the right place, pure and simple.”
Spragg patented the high-strength zipper connection that would allow a series of bags to be connected, doing away with the problem of a bag so big it became a menace to itself and its handlers on the high seas. These new generation bags are 4.5 million gallons each, 500 feet long, 50 feet in diameter, and designed to float just below the surface of the ocean.
Spragg has a plan to take 400,000 acre feet a year of fresh water gathered from the outfall of a power plant on the Olympic Peninsula, water that ordinarily would flow unused into Puget Sound, and haul it down to Northern California, where it would be connected by pipeline to the California Aqueduct.
After the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California rebuffed him, Spragg approached Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Spragg proposes, could build the short pipeline needed in Northern California, and the water would be pumped to Los Angeles. Then Las Vegas would draw an equivalent amount of water from Southern California’s Colorado River supplies.
Larry Brown of the Southern Nevada Water Authority says Spragg’s is one of a number of options being proposed to solve booming Las Vegas’ impending water crunch.
“It’s not on the top of our priority list,” he says, citing the myriad legal problems involved in arranging a water trade with Los Angeles.
Jay Malinowski of the MWD admitted that a water trade-off with Las Vegas would be “technically possible.” But for Southern California, Malinowski says, “We don’t view it today as any solution to long-term water demands. It is unproven, it remains more expensive than other local options, and in terms of just sheer amount of water, it’s not likely that this process could really meet any large-scale demand on our part, though it would appear that it might have some possibilities during a severe drought.”
MWD officials say the water bags might well prove useful for small coastal California cities like Santa Barbara as an alternative to the costly desalination process.
Spragg is also holding out hope for an international market.
The World Bank has expressed interest in Spragg’s proposal to deliver water from the Manavgat River in Turkey, where a 406-acre-feet-a-day water loading facility is already under construction, across the Mediterranean to Israel and especially the Gaza Strip, where the new Palestinian Authority faces a critical water shortage.
In fact, says Peter Gleick, a Middle East water expert with the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security in Oakland, it’s not a bad idea, at least not the technical part.
“I believe that as unusual a person as Terry Spragg is, he’s on to something,” Gleick says. “He’s an eccentric visionary, but he has a vision for trying to solve some of the world’s very severe water problems that, frankly, in the long term, I think has a good chance of being used and useful.”
Gleick says the most obvious market for the bags would be delivering water in emergency situations--disasters like the Kobe, Japan, earthquake and droughts--as a cheaper, cleaner alternative to tankers.
U.S. Rep. Norman D. Dicks (D-Washington) is taking Spragg’s proposal to the U.S. State Department to see if the federal government should promote it in the Middle East.
“Certainly, in the Middle East area, it solves everybody’s problem and it is more economical than the tankers they’re talking about between Turkey and Israel,” says Dicks staffer George Behan. “I hate to say it, but the damn thing makes sense.”
Seizing on the peace idea, Spragg is seeking corporate sponsorship for his upcoming demonstration voyages, one from Washington to California, one from Turkey to Haifa, Israel, by painting a peace symbol on each bag surrounded by corporate sponsor logos.
Spragg figures if he can get the money together for the demonstrations, everything else will fall into place. People will start believing him. "[Los Angeles] Mayor [Richard] Riordan knows I exist. Shimon Peres [the Israeli prime minister] knows I exist. King Fahd [of Saudi Arabia] knows I exist. [Turkish President Suleyman] Demeril has seen the video. They all know I’m coming, and at this point, everybody’s waiting for me to show up.”
He paints a mental picture of the Spragg Bags sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge, then pauses to let the effect sink in. “Give the man a chance! If it works, you’ve brought water for peace in the Middle East, and the U.S. is behind it. We’ll have a source for every place on the Earth to use our system. We’ve looked ‘em up on satellites, and I’ve got people set up to move.”
At his new site on the World Wide Web, Spragg has a simple message: “Coming to a coastline near you: the Spragg Bag!”
He beams in delight.