clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

CALIFORNIA DREAMIN' UP PLENTY OF WILD IDEAS TO FULFILL WATER NEEDS

In drought-parched California, no plan to bring more water to the state is too big, too expensive or too strange.

The Alaska-to-California "garden hose" may still be a long shot. Yet cloud seeders that were once dismissed by a lawmaker as "voodoo machines" have come to Los Angeles, desalination plants are in the works around the state and Santa Barbara forgot fears of L.A.-style sprawl and finally agreed to hook up to an aqueduct.The California water rush is on, with several companies and Alaska's governor offering to help quench the state's thirst - for a price.

But Californians are looking at anything these days. Despite a rainy March, the state's drought has officially turned 5 years old, the longest and - by many estimates - most severe drought in state record books.

"It is that bad," said Lynn Sakamoto, spokeswoman for Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn. "The worst-case scenario is if our major industries and agriculture are really crippled, there's a possibility the state could go bankrupt."

Hahn, among five supervisors who govern the nation's most populous county, backs one of the more unusual and certainly one of the most expensive water plans. It is a 1,400-mile plastic pipeline under the Pacific Ocean to ship water from Alaska to California.

Gov. Walter Hickel, whose state stands to make $10 million a year by selling the water, has been working closely with Hahn on the proposed project. The pair meet again in Alaska on June 17.

Opponents dismiss the pipeline as an engineering nightmare and economic impossibility. An engineering firm's preliminary study estimates the construction cost at $150 billion.

But Hickel says the giant garden hose, as he calls it, is no pipe dream.

"You have to think big to make something work," Hickel said during a visit to Los Angeles last April to pump the pipeline. "Somehow, some way, someone has to be patient and try to solve this problem. That's what civilization is all about."

A University of Alaska oceanographer, however, warns that the pipeline could disrupt the Gulf of Alaska's ecosystem. Tom Royer believes much more study is needed on the environmental consequences of the plan, which would pump 12 trillion gallons of water a year to California.

Of course there are other ideas being floated that could bring more water. Ten generators from Utah-based North American Weather Consultants have been set up in the San Gabriel Mountains' foothills to spew a stream of rain-inducing microscopic particles of silver iodide.

The clouds were seeded once before the rainy season ended, and it'll be unclear until more seedings take place if the plan works. The Los Angeles cloud seeding operation is one of about two dozen rain-making programs in California, officials said.

Foreign companies, too, have joined the California water rush.

A Canadian entrepreneur announced plans to siphon water off British Columbia's North Thompson River and send it by pipeline to California. Bill Clancey of Vancouver estimated the project's cost at $3.8 billion.

Clancey says his proposal is more environmentally sound than other ideas on the table, but the idea would face enormous political obstacles from water conscious Canadians.

"Certainly as a Canadian citizen I would be concerned about river diversion on that scale and its effect on the ecosystem," said Fred Paley, co-owner of Snowcap Waters Ltd. of Union Bay, British Columbia.

Paley's interest is that his company wants to load tankers with water from British Columbia's Tzela Creek and ship it to Santa Barbara, one of the cities hit hardest by drought.

Santa Barbara, where watering prohibitions had some residents painting their yards green, ultimately voted against the tanker plan as too expensive. It opted instead for building a plant to take the salt out of seawater.

The $30 million desalination plant is expected to start in February 1992 and provide the city with about a third of its water on a five-year contract. Other big desalination plants are being planned in Los Angeles and Marin counties.

Santa Barbara also voted to build a pipeline to connect the region with the state aqueduct. Voters had long resisted state water out of fear that it would spur too much growth in the scenic region.

"We've had droughts before, but I think what changed is the severity of (this) drought," said Lisa Weeks, Santa Barbara's water information officer. "I don't think in the history of Santa Barbara has there been a worst drought, that people have had to make such drastic sacrifices."