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Plan to Bag Rivers May Not Float

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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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“They’ve come to the wrong place,” grumbled Bernie Macdonald, Mendocino’s Green Party secretary and a veteran of environmental fights. “We’re prepared to go as far as we have to go.”

Some inveterate activists are already talking up “monkey wrenching,” puncturing water bags as a form of pro-environment sabotage.

Linda Perkins, Albion’s Sierra Club liaison, hears people around Albion’s tiny center--a grocery store, a post office--pose the telling question, “with a wink, wink” at the end. “Everyone asks: ‘So, how thick are those bags anyway?’ It may be bravado, but people are thinking about it.”

Davidge, 54, who grew up in Mission Hills, seems unfazed. He weathered political battles alongside Watt, whose federal tenure remains a bitter memory for western environmentalists. A self-styled environmentalist, the bearded Davidge says he was considered “the greenie” in Reagan’s Interior Department. He later was Alaska’s top water official before setting out as a water entrepreneur.

He also has served as an aide to U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). In the private sector, Davidge has worked on projects ranging from port development to the cleanup of the Exxon Valdez spill. He is also a man of culture, operating an Anchorage professional theater company that produces the work of Alaskan playwrights.

Davidge makes a practice of writing endlessly about water issues. One paper, about the potential for exporting water from Alaska, prompted investors to recruit him to run World Water, the Luxembourg-registered firm that is pushing the bag proposal. Davidge’s partners in World Water are the Japanese shipping firm NYK Line; Mizutech, an investment subsidiary of the Saudi-based AJL Group; and Nordic Water Supply, a Norwegian venture company.

The group is working to cobble together deals in other water-starved locales, from the Middle East to North Africa.

“You’re talking about a guy who has been doggedly, tenaciously pursuing the bulk water business for years,” said Gil Serrano, who himself gave up on it to start a bottled water firm, Alaska Glacier Refreshments. “Ric won’t give up easy. You’ll have to use a silver bullet to kill him.”

Davidge considers San Diego the key to winning acceptance of the big bags.

For several years, the arid border metropolis has been requesting proposals for new ways to ease its heavy reliance on imported water for its 1.25 million residents.

While eyeing Davidge’s proposal, “we’re strictly on the sidelines right now,” said Kurt Kidman, a San Diego Water Department spokesman. Davidge and company will not only have to beat the $444 per acre-foot that San Diego now pays, but also do it without ruffling feathers in Mendocino or elsewhere, Kidman said. “We’re not out to steal anyone’s water.”

Value of Idea Escapes Many

Other water officials won’t give Davidge the time of day. At the Metropolitan Water District, the giant umbrella agency that provides Southern California’s water, Davidge’s proposal prompts groans. Tim Quinn, the district’s vice president for state water projects, said “silly ideas like this” only serve to inflame “north-south passions needlessly.”

Davidge rues being pulled into old fights. But he suggests that the Southern California economy could falter without new water sources. In the world according to Davidge, North Coast residents need to embrace their symbiotic ties with the Southland.

After surveying 15 coastal tributaries, Davidge said his team narrowed its search to the Albion and Gualala because their water is unpolluted and neither hosts an ecological reserve.

Davidge wants to bury a 24-inch pipeline from an offshore buoy up the spine of each river, hundreds of yards inland to where tidal saltwater isn’t a factor. Water would be pumped to the offshore station and into the oceangoing bags. A tugboat would slowly make the trip down the coast with the hulking cargo, more than 850 feet long and 100 feet wide, with a draft of about 24 feet.

With sunny promotional zeal, Davidge has answers for most every perceived pitfall.

Worried about construction messing up the rivers?

It would be performed during low water months without harming the environment, he says.

Frosty over robbed water messing up river hydrology?

Davidge vows to take water only during the huge flows of winter months, when, he says, there is plenty to spare.

Irked over the prospect of views made icky by bags lolling like whales belly-up?

The giant sacks ride out of view, beneath the waves, the promoter insists.

Peppered with hundreds of negative e-mails, Davidge says he answers them all. Naysayers, he insists, will be swayed once they learn about the project’s technological promise. He even plans a public meeting on the North Coast in the coming weeks.

Expect the Albion Nation to turn out in force.

Perkins of the Sierra Club says the water project would harm the endangered coho salmon and steelhead trout of the coastal rivers, and trample the eelgrass beds that harbor the juvenile smolts.

“We see this as the foot in the door,” said Perkins, who believes her “little Podunk river” was selected because communities of the Mendocino coast are small and lack clout.

Down the coast in Gualala, population 585, the sentiments are just as sharp. Around a big table at a local coffeehouse, foes gathered one recent morning over steaming mugs to share fears.

Business People Raise Concerns

The Gualala was once the fishing playground of Jack London, actor Fred MacMurray and former California Gov. and U.S. Chief Justice Earl Warren. Craig Bell, a fishing guide, knows every deep-water spot: Switchfail, Snag, Miner’s Hole. A water pipe, he said, would wreak havoc.

Karen Scott, manager of a real estate office, worries that tourists will be turned off by views of tugboats and jumbo-sized bags. “He’s saying his project will bring jobs,” Scott said. “But how many will we lose?”

Davidge may contend that the sacks absorb the energy of waves while parked offshore, but “that bag isn’t just going to sit there when 20-foot swells start hitting,” insists Jim Koogle, a carpenter. “It’ll be on the beach.”

Others grumble that Davidge is fueling Southern California’s “unsustainable addiction” to imported water. They talk of their rivers becoming a poker chip in international trade. They fret that the sacks might impede gray whales rollicking in the river mouth.

Wayne Harris, who runs a kayak rental business, considers this fight part of the California continuum, the state’s tangled saga on water. “Bigger areas than ours,” he grumbled, “have been wiped out.”

With the battle joined, listen to the wisdom of Alan Graham, known in Albion by his nom-de-guerre, Captain Fathom.

“This whole thing is a preposterous joke,” Graham said. “They want to get us laughing so hard we’ll be too out of breath to fight when they try something serious.”

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Times staff writer Tony Perry contributed to this report from San Diego.


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