San Diego It's very easy to take water for granted. Even here, in arid San Diego, when you turn on the tap, water always issues. But the fact is, only about 5 percent of the water in the tub during your last bath fell to the ground as rain within San Diego County. "We import almost all of our water," says Kurt Kidman, spokesman for the City of San Diego Water Department. "It has been well over 90 percent the last few years."
About half of the water imported into San Diego comes from the Colorado River. The other half comes from Northern California. But growing demand on both sources from other population centers and federal restrictions on the Colorado River threaten to leave San Diego dependent on water that is no longer available. That dire prospect, coupled with an ongoing drought in the early part of the last decade, spurred the water department, in 1994, to issue an open call for solutions to America's finest water conundrum. "We figured it was a good idea to put out a general request -- in city speak it is called an RFP, which is a request for proposals -- for ideas on how to move water into San Diego."
Specifically, the request was for a way to deliver 20,000 acre-feet of water -- enough for 40,000 households for a year -- by the year 2004, and to do it at a cost to the water department at or lower than $440 per acre-foot, the current rate they pay for water. "Since then, we've had lots of different ideas expressed to us," Kidman says. "We've had desalinization-technology ideas, we've had people who want to lay water lines along the ocean floor, we've had people who want to tow icebergs down here. We've had people who want to take old single-hull oil tankers and fill them with water and bring them down here. We always listen to these proposals, and we always work with the people up to a certain point because it would be irresponsible for us not to."
But none of those proposals has ever progressed past the idea stage. Now, a new idea has surfaced that shares something in common with all the others Kidman lists: getting the water here via the Pacific Ocean. An international consortium of companies has proposed transporting water from two Northern California Rivers to San Diego in polyfiber bags, 100 feet in diameter and over 800 feet long, towed behind oceangoing tugboats.
Four large companies compose the consortium known as World Water SA: Muzutech, a Saudi investment firm interested in developing technology; NYK Lines, a Japanese firm with the distinction of being the largest shipping company in the world; Nordic Water Supply, a Norwegian bulk shipping company already using water-transport bags to haul fresh water between Turkey and the island of Cyprus; and Alaska Water Exports. The last was founded by Ric Davidge, a former subcabinet member in the Reagan administration's Department of the Interior. He has also served as director of water and chief of hydrologic survey for the State of Alaska. Davidge is president of World Water SA. "I'm not a Johnny-come-lately to this business," Davidge says. "I've been studying the whole problem of water scarcity and the notion of transoceanic importation of water for well over ten years."
In the early 1990s, while water chief for the State of Alaska, Davidge "wrote a paper exploring all aspects of this industry, including the financial, ecological, international commerce, etc. I put that paper on the Internet, and it became sort of the seed that began a number of industries internationally looking at this concept. After I left the state, I was contacted by a number of companies from around the world to continue to work on this industry. And in 1999, World Water SA was formed, and I was asked to serve as president for the purpose of looking at specific possible projects."
He adds, "San Diego is one project I predicted in that paper would be one of the biggest and most important [oceanic water transportation] projects. It's not necessarily because the amount of water would be great (20,000 acre-feet is a lot of water, but in comparison with some other markets it is not) but because of its strategic location. And so when World Water SA was formed, we made a proposal to the City of San Diego saying we believed that we can adapt a bag technology, called water-transport bags, to deliver that amount."
Kidman says, of Davidge's proposal, "This is certainly the most serious attempt by somebody to find an alternate source of water in this way, absolutely. Now, with this technology, this gentleman has certainly created more of a stir and has certainly gotten further along than anybody else. Usually, what happens is we hear from somebody, we talk to him two or three times, and we don't hear from him again. But [Davidge] is making a sincere effort to make something work. He's asked us for materials, he's kept us updated on his process, and so we are working with him to a certain extent; if he needs information or something like that, we try to help him out. But he's got a tremendous amount of work to do on his end, before anything happens."
As with any water project, the first step was to decide where to collect or divert fresh water from its natural path to the Pacific Ocean. "We conducted an extensive study," Davidge explains, "on all the outflows in California, Oregon, and Washington, that we determined were environmentally developable and cost developable. After that we looked at things like upstream contamination with agriculture and industrial uses. We looked at historic flow rates both seasonally and annually. We looked at the cost of engineering to get the water from the little river to the bag offshore. We looked at saltwater intrusion distance; that is, how far upriver does the saltwater go when the tide is high and the [river] water is low, because obviously you can't take the water in that area because of the contamination of the saltwater."