Alaska Thirsts To Sell Water To The Dry Southwest
ANCHORAGE - In a land of pipe dreams and pipelines, where ambitions can be as stubborn as glaciers, a few adventurous thinkers believe they have the answer to the problems of faraway deserts.
More than anything else for which it is famous - crude oil, sockeye salmon, sourdough pancakes, even endless tundra - Alaska has water. A few areas receive more than 300 inches of rain a year, and rivers pour so much water into the ocean that an Arizonan could cry.
Alaska Gov. Walter Hickel's message, particularly to the residents of Southern California and the rest of the parched Southwest, has been "Come and get it." Still, only small amounts of glacier melt are leaving Alaska as sparkling-water beverages or as ingredients in products such as shampoo and Japanese perfume.
Alaskan officials have envisioned exporting their water via pipelines, tanker ships and huge nylon tow bags. The bags, which are not fully tested, were discussed by skeptical Southwestern officials at a water summit in Las Vegas last spring.
But Alaskan officials have yet to prove water export is good business, and they complain that potential customers, hung up on images of icebergs for sale, refuse to take the idea seriously.
"This is more than just some comic-strip thing," said Ric Davidge, a state official who spends most of his time trying to peddle Alaskan water.
With Hickel's encouragement, Davidge has traveled throughout the Southwest attempting to encourage businesses in water export. Despite a steady stream of cool responses, the idea has attracted supporters who see relatively pure Alaskan water as a viable option when growing coastal urban areas expend their water-supply alternatives and begin considering the costly process of desalinating ocean water.
By then, Davidge and others foresee tugboats hauling nylon bags filled with millions of gallons of Alaskan water down to California cities or to thirsty Pacific Rim countries such as South Korea, Taiwan and Japan.
"If you step back and look at it conceptually, it's nothing difficult," said Les Stephens, an investment analyst for Bank of America in San Francisco. "All they're doing is moving a natural resource from a part of the world where it is plentiful to a place where it is scarce. It's something we've done for many years with oil."
The idea of exporting Alaskan water, although not exactly new, picked up steam during the drought that afflicted California and other parts of the West for seven years through 1993. But grand plans by the Hickel administration got off to a shaky start.
Envisioning millions of dollars in new state revenues, Hickel proposed building an undersea pipeline to transport Alaskan water to the San Francisco Bay Area.
Critics of the governor, a former U.S. interior secretary renowned for envisioning ambitious projects, quickly dismissed the idea as "more science fiction than science." The project was dealt a critical blow when the congressional Office of Technology Assessment estimated it could cost $150 billion to build.
In the meantime, several small Alaskan companies began exporting small quantities of water. One firm supplies water to a Japanese perfume company, while another ships water from a glacier-fed reservoir near Anchorage to Washington state, where it is bottled and marketed as "the world's finest water."
When Saudi Arabian entrepreneurs approached Alaska Glacier Beverages Inc., the company began thinking bigger.
It planned to ship water to be bottled and sold in the Middle East. After several years of talks, the Saudis have yet to build facilities to offload the water.
"It's a very big project getting into bulk water shipment," said George LaMoureaux, Glacier Beverage president. "The project's not dead, but nobody can really receive (the water) at this point."
In 1991, Alaska came the closest to exporting its water for municipal drinking needs when a California-based company explored the idea of sending tanker ships of Alaskan water to drought-stricken Goleta, Calif., a community of 70,000 near Santa Barbara.
Bank of America was poised to help finance the construction of docking facilities, according to Stephens. But unusually heavy rains in March 1991 replenished the water supply, and Goleta officials backed away from the scheme.
The idea of nylon tow bags was developed by Dunlop Rubber of Britain in 1956 based on an invention by Cambridge University Professor William Hawthorne. Companies in Canada, Britain and Scandinavia are working on their own versions of the water bag.
The bags, which have been tested only in a small pilot project four years ago in Israel, must be strong and flexible enough to absorb waves and winds. They sit on the ocean's surface - fresh water floats atop salt water - and can be anchored offshore waiting to be emptied.
Each bag would have to hold 1 million tons of water to make the process economically feasible, said James Cran, a Calgary, Alberta, businessman who has designed a water bag. He said the cost of the water would be cheaper than desalination.
But even the promise of the new technology has not convinced some state legislators and environmentalists, who warn that Alaska officials are lunging ahead without first assessing the impact of water exports on rivers and on salmon important to the state's economy.
Mike Doogan, a columnist for the Anchorage Daily News, had other concerns.
Dismissing the bagged-water plan as a waste of money, he warned that customers could open the sacks only to find Alaska's monster mosquitoes had bred in transit.
Officials from Las Vegas, where a skyrocketing population will soon outstrip water supplies, reviewed the proposal after the water summit but filed it away with dozens of others.
And the response was just as cool from California officials.
"We never reject any offer of water out of hand," said Robert Gomperz, spokesman for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
"But I'd say importing water from Alaska is pushing the envelope a bit at this point."
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