Sell it to save it: water district considering mega-pipelines

Note: this story was published in the June 4, 2014 Mad River Union. – Ed.

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

MAD RIVER – Come 2030, a lawn care enthusiast in the suburbs of Los Angeles could have as much right to spray his front yard with Mad River water as an Arcata organic farmer would have to cultivate produce for the Farmers’ Market.

That’s because in 2004, the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District (HBMWD) was granted a 25-year “Water Right” to 75 million gallons per day of the Mad River’s life-giving nectar by the State Water Resources Control Board. That right is in effect until Dec. 31, 2029, and can be renewed – but only if the HBMWD is actually using the water for public benefit.

The closure of the district’s two largest customers – the Samoa pulp mills – literally dried up demand for most of its water, leaving 60 million gallons a day unused. In an era of climate change, with drought gripping the rest of the state, letting Mad water flow out to sea unused is not an option.

To save local control of Mad River water, the district is investigating three options: Increased use for environmental benefit, locating more large customers and piping the water to thirsty areas elsewhere.

The first two options are problematic. Increased water flow in the Mad might help salmon runs, but could harm other species. Adding more high-use industrial customers such as breweries and slaughterhouses would, even in the most optimistic scenarios, only double current use to 20 million gallons per day, still leaving most of the resource unused and the Water Right vulnerable.

Last week, during a special meeting to discuss numerous planned infrastructure projects, the HBMWD Board of Directors accepted a preliminary draft report and heard a presentation from GHD, a civil engineering consulting firm.

At the district’s behest, GHD is looking into possible pipeline routes for exporting untreated Mad River water to points north, east and south, where demand is large and growing.

Seven routes have been identified to carry water away from the district’s Essex Diversion Facility along the Mad River on West End Road. The water could be sent south to Southern Humboldt as well as Mendocino and Sonoma counties, where wine production carries high demand; east to the South Fork of the Trinity River, to potentially offset diversions from Trinity Lake, or directly into that lake, or to the Sacramento River or other state water projects; or north to the Klamath and Trinity River drainages to improve water quality and offset diversions there.

Costs are not insignificant, to say the least. But neither is the potential revenue. The draft report lists costs for 24- and 36-inch pipelines, but in preparing the study, author Pat Kaspari, an engineer with GHD, said the 24-inch option is not cost effective. Detailed engineering studies were not performed, pending initial findings and further direction from the district board.

Construction costs include expenses for land acquisition, building and demolition, culverts, roads, pump stations, stream crossings, rights-of-way, permits, engineering, management and more.

The costliest of the possible pipelines is a 180-mile, 36-inch line sending water to counties to the south, coming in at $505 million. A 125-mile eastbound pipeline is estimated at $310 million.

While costs per acre-foot of water are as high as $2,661 for the south route, the report says that figure is competitive with water costs associated with desalinization plants which are also being discussed.

Before any construction began, customers for the water would be identified and long-term contracts signed. The projects could be funded by a 50-year bond issue, with costs amortized over that period at a 5.5 percent interest rate.

HBMWD boardmembers accepted the report with cautious interest, noting that it is the very beginning of a long planning process.

Director Carol Rische said the possible pipeline plan was on solid legal footing, as it creates a new class of customer for whom a cost structure and water rates could be developed from scratch.

The potentially lucrative exports could fund millions in capital improvement projects and other expenses. “It’s real money for the district,” Rische said.

Director Bruce Rupp said the report represented prudent planning. “I think it’s only a matter of time before water becomes so valuable in California that this is going to make sense,” he said. “I want Humboldt County to benefit from it.”

Director Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap said any pipeline plan must follow a well-defined process. She wanted the project’s carbon footprint calculated and added to future revisions of the report.

Directors were also interested in estimates for 42- and 46-inch versions of the various pipelines, which could carry away up to 40 million gallons of water per day.

Director Aldaron Laird said he wanted to see the other two possible revenue streams – local sales and environmental enhancement – investigated at the same level of detail as the pipeline proposal.

“We need the ‘no stone unturned’ approach,” said Director Sheri Woo.


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  1. Dan said:

    100 years ago San Francisco built windmills on the beach to pump water up onto the dunes.
    Each windmill pumped one million gallons a day upon the dunes- that is what created the spectacularly beautiful Golden Gate Park.

    In Humboldt we sadistically remove vegetation and drain wetlands at the cost of wildlife and stability,
    while millions of gallons of water sit in pipes waiting for a “need,” native trees die and erosion is out of control.

    This isn’t purely ignorance, it is abject neglect mixed with greedy grant-whores killing benevolent plants due to lack of papers.

  2. California Conservative said:

    Time to break away from the state of California, lets form the state of Jefferson and say screw you to the So Cal water hoarders.

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