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Water Sale Idea Resurfaces

More than a year in the making, an advisory plan for using the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District’s water surplus includes an option that was torpedoed when it was proposed a few years ago — shipping water out of the county, to another municipality.

A report by a 15-member Water Resource Planning Advisory Committee was presented to the District’s Board of Directors at its August 12 meeting. A product of numerous public meetings, it divides proposals for use of the District’s 60 million gallon per day industrial water surplus into two categories: those that would hap­pen within the District’s boundaries and those outside of them.

In the latter category, the idea of selling the surplus water to another municipality was deemed as one that should be “pursued immediately.” Advisory Committee Member Michelle Fuller, the tribal environmental direc­tor for the Blue Lake Rancheria, read from the report and said an outside sale would protect the District’s water rights, generate revenue for infrastructure and provide “ratepayer relief.”

Potential risks include litigation or legislation that could force the District to supply water beyond the terms of any contract that it enters, Fuller reported. “It could put the District in a vulnerable position if the customer’s legal and political capacity is greater than the District’s and they want to take control of the water rights,” she said.

Transport of the water would happen via pipelines, barges or water bags. “This option could also feed urban growth and unsustainability at the receiving end,” Fuller continued. She noted that “working with an agency closer to home might be more politically viable.”

The concept of selling water was floated a few years ago, when a company proposed barging it to southern and central California in what was described as giant “water bags.” The idea was roundly opposed and the proposal sank like a rock.

But now the District is highlighting the laws that gov­ern water use — and non-use. The state has a “use or lose it” clause and if the District doesn’t find ways to use its surplus within its 20-year state permit, control of the water could be lost.

In an interview after the meeting, Carol Rische, the District’s general manager, said the difference in public response to the water sale idea is the result of increased education and better communication.

“We really reached out to stakeholder groups, includ­ing some of the environmental groups that really came out opposed to this, and the public,” she said.

Loss of revenues, “huge cost shifts” to municipal cus­tomers, increased water rates and the shuttering of the Evergreen pulp mill might have made the District’s dilemma “more real or understandable to the public,” Rische continued.

“And we didn’t do a good job last time of educating people that if we don’t use that water, we will lose it,” she said.

Rische also credited the Committee for its outreach work.

Something else was different this time around — peo­ple weren’t responding to a proposal for a specific water sale plan. “I think that did help,” Rische said. “(Board) President Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap did mention sometimes, that it would be better to talk about this issue and address it when there’s not a proposal on the table and you have to react to something and groups are mobi­lizing in opposition.”

Other preferred options listed in the Committee report are attracting companies that would use the water, expanding district boundaries and using the water to enhance Mad River wildlife habitat.

Developing aquaculture uses, creating a recreational lake in Blue Lake and developing “micro-hydropower” are among the proposals that are recommended to be “passively pursued.”

The only proposal that split committee members is one that calls for development of a pipeline along the North Coast Railroad Authority corridor to Lake Mendo­cino, a reservoir for Mendocino and Sonoma counties. Some committee members opposed the idea and others thought it should be immediately pursued.

The Board voted to accept the report and it will be dis­cussed in detail at a study session this fall.

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