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People who live near the muddy banks of the Albion River (Calif.) laughed when they first heard about a plan to pump some of its water into colossal bags and tow them down the coast to thirsty Southern California.
Then they got mad.
"Most people around here said, 'Oh my God. This is going to destroy the river,'" said Rachel Binah, who runs a bed and breakfast on the rugged Northern California coast.
Alaska businessman Ric Davidge calls his proposal an innovative, environmentally friendly way of salvaging much-needed fresh water that would otherwise be lost at sea. "We're taking a small amount of the water that empties into the ocean. There's no effect on water flow," he said.
Davidge, a former aide to Reagan administration Interior Secretary James Watt, proposes to draw up to 6.5 billion gallons of water a year from the Albion and the nearby Gualala River during the rainy season with the idea of supplying at least 40,000 households in San Diego. His application was filed with the state months ago, but word of the project did not start circulating locally until January.
In Albion, a community of around 500 people about 150 miles north of San Francisco, townspeople quickly formed Forget Lifting Our Water (FLOW). Mendocino County supervisors passed a resolution opposing the project.
Gualala residents came up with their own nom de protest, Save Our Rivers and Estuaries (SORE).
Opponents complain that Davidge's plans to sink pipes into the riverbeds would disturb wildlife, including coho salmon and steelhead trout. They say the bagging and towing operation would be unsightly. "People don't come here to look at a big tugboat and listen to pumps all day," said Ursula Jones of SORE.
Opponents also argue that the rivers need all available water to flush out sediment deposited by erosion and logging upstream.
Albion activist Bill Heil calls the river in winter "Chocolate Albion" because of its muddy brown cast. He said he doubts the water Davidge would get would be palatable. Davidge has said filters could take care of that. "We've been fighting for the Albion for years, but it's been timber, it's been logging that we've been fighting," Heil said. "For somebody to want to come and take our chocolate water away it just seems like beyond the beyond."
A public hearing before the State Water Resources Control Board is expected some time this spring.
San Diego water department spokesman Kurt Kidman said Davidge would have to make peace with North Coast residents; San Diego does not want to fight with Northern California. In San Diego, which imported almost 100 percent of its water last year, all sorts of ideas have been floated to local officials, including laying a pipeline from Alaska and towing an iceberg down the Pacific.
Davidge, who plans to meet with North Coast residents to discuss his plan, said that he understands the worries but that they are unfounded.
Davidge is proposing to bury a pipe in the riverbeds with an opening above the point of saltwater intrusion. This means it would be some distance inland from the river mouth. The pipe would be connected to inflatable polyfiber containers, which would be attached to tugboats. The containers would float below the water line and would not be visible. The bag, as Davidge calls it, or bladder, as locals refer to it, is about 100 feet wide and nearly three football fields long.
A similar operation is already being done in Turkey by a partner of Davidge's Anchorage-based Alaska Water Exports company.
Davidge said installation would be timed not to disturb wildlife and would not impede river flow because it would act like a straw in a glass, with water passing through but not being taken out until it met the sea.