High costs may kill water sales

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – As the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District continues to market its industrial water surplus, it’s finding that the costs of transporting it are higher than what potential customers may be willing to pay.

The district’s Board of Directors held a Sept. 30 study session on water use options and talked about the challenges of finding ways to use the 60 million gallons a day of untreated water surplus created by the closure of the North Bay’s pulp mills.

It’s a pressing issue because the district’s state permit expires in 2029 and if it does not devise its own way to use the surplus, the state can decide how and where to use it. Though the permit expiration is many years away, most water use options involve planning and construction that will take years.

District Boardmember Bruce Rupp summarized the district’s efforts to date, saying that selling water to San Francisco Bay area agencies through seaborne transport is prohibitively expensive, amounting to up to $10,000 per acre foot of water. By comparison, desalination plants would cost outside agencies far less, at $2,500 an acre foot and some agencies are getting water for as cheap as $250 an acre foot, Rupp continued.

A recently-completed feasibility study on pipeline transport of 20 to 40 million gallons a day estimated more viable prices – between $1,800 and $3,000 per acre foot.

Board President Aldaron Laird said those prices are competitive with desalination. He added that if a pipeline is built, the district will need to secure a partner who will pay for the construction and then buy water. He named the Sonoma County Water Agency as a likely option.

Paul Kelly, a Bay area-based consultant, said water availability is in a drought-induced state of flux and more need may emerge. He said the feasibility study answers questions that arose when the district met with water agencies from outside the county – including those in Mendocino, Sonoma and Marin counties – over the last year.

“I think there’s real value now in having this (study) so you do know, generally, what the cost is and how much is available – those are two key questions most of the agencies talked about,” Kelley said.

Rupp said it would be reasonable to set a one-year timeframe for the agencies to indicate whether they are interested in buying water.

Engineer John Winzler evaluated the costs and logistics of a southbound pipeline in the study and was asked for his take on the situation. He said he had hoped that the pipeline transport costs would be lower but he still believes a southern transport route is viable.

“I think you’re doing the right thing, I think we ought to go south if we can encourage those people to be involved,” Winzler said. But he added, “I have a great fear – I think they’re looking at water costs that are significantly lower than what we are going to be able to provide them.”

Boardmembers agreed that the study should be referred to the district’s advisory committee for comments and suggestions. They also agreed that meetings with water agencies, particularly Sonoma County’s, should be reconvened.

Another option the district is exploring is selling water within the county. But District Manager Carol Rische said the district “has not had a single request for such water” from community services districts and other local users due to transport costs.

A third option is to use the water to benefit the Mad River through in-stream flows. There are issues with adding freshwater flows to the river’s estuary, however, and that option would be grant-dependent.

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