Stream of cool responses for Alaska water exporters


August 19, 1994|By Hugh Dellios | Hugh Dellios,Chicago Tribune

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- In a land of pipe dreams and pipelines, where ambitions can be as stubborn as glaciers, a few adventurous thinkers believe they have the answer to the problems of faraway deserts.

More than anything else for which it is famous -- crude oil, sockeye salmon, sourdough pancakes, even endless tundra -- Alaska has water. A few areas receive more than 300 inches of rain a year, and rivers pour so much water into the ocean that an Arizonan could cry.

Alaska Gov. Walter J. Hickel's message -- particularly to the parched residents of California and the rest of the Southwest -- has been "Come and get it." Still, only small amounts of glacier melt are leaving Alaska as sparkling-water beverages or as ingredients in products such as shampoo and Japanese perfume.

Alaskan officials have envisioned exporting their water by pipelines, tanker ships and huge nylon tow bags. The bags, which are not fully tested, were discussed by skeptical Southwestern officials at a water summit in Las Vegas in the spring.

But Alaskan officials have yet to prove that water export is good business, and they complain that potential customers -- hung up on images of icebergs for sale -- refuse to take the idea seriously.

"This is more than just some comic strip thing," said Ric Davidge, a state official who spends most of his time trying to peddle Alaskan water.

With Mr. Hickel's encouragement, Mr. Davidge has traveled throughout the Southwest attempting to encourage private business in water export. Despite a steady stream of cool responses, the idea has attracted supporters who see relatively pure Alaskan water as a viable option when growing coastal urban areas expend their water supply alternatives and begin considering the costly process of desalinating ocean water.

By then, Mr. Davidge and others foresee tugboats hauling nylon bags filled with millions of gallons of Alaskan water down to California cities or to thirsty Pacific Rim countries such as Korea, Taiwan and Japan.

"If you step back and look at it conceptually, it's nothing difficult," said Les Stephens, an investment analyst for the Bank of America in San Francisco. "All they're doing is moving a natural resource from a part of the world where it is plentiful to a place where it is scarce. It's something we've done for many years with oil."

The idea of exporting Alaskan water, while not exactly new, picked up steam during the drought that afflicted California and other parts of the West for seven years through 1993. But grand plans by the Hickel administration got off to a shaky start.

Envisioning millions of dollars in new state revenues, Mr. Hickel proposed building an undersea pipeline to transport Alaskan water to the San Francisco Bay area.

Critics of the governor, a former U.S. interior secretary renowned for envisioning ambitious projects, quickly dismissed the idea as "more science fiction than science." The project was dealt a critical blow when the congressional Office of Technology Assessment estimated it could cost $150 billion to build.

In the meantime, several small Alaskan companies began exporting small quantities of water. One firm supplies water to a Japanese perfume company, while another ships water from a glacier-fed reservoir near Anchorage to Washington state, where it is bottled and marketed as "the world's finest water."

The idea of nylon tow bags was developed by Dunlop Rubber of Britain in 1956 based on an invention by Cambridge University Professor William Hawthorne. Companies in Canada, Britain and Scandinavia are working on their own versions of the water bag.

The bags, which have been tested only in a small pilot project four years ago in Israel, must be strong and flexible enough to absorb waves and winds. They sit on the ocean's surface -- freshwater floats atop salt water -- and can be anchored offshore waiting to be emptied.

But even the promise of the new technology has not convinced some state legislators and environmentalists, who warn that Alaska officials are lunging ahead without first assessing the impact of water exports on rivers and on salmon important to the state's economy.

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