Globalization comes to Gualala ... in water bags
PRESS DEMOCRAT December 8, 2002

With all the focus on Iraq and national security, it may be easy to overlook a different type of national security issue which has come to town in the form of water bags.

Alaska Water Exports' plan to fill giant bags the size of three football fields with North Coast river water to sell to San Diego has been a source of dark humor among environmentalists ever since they first heard of the plan earlier this year.

Despite the passage of legislation mandating that the proposal be studied before it proceeds (AB 858 by Assemblywoman Pat Wiggins), Alaska Water Exports continues to pursue its proposal to take 15,000 acre feet of "excess water" from the Gualala and Albion rivers.

In response, the Friends of the Gualala River, a watershed protection organization, has been traveling up and down the coast helping people fill out official protest forms. At a public forum in Sebastopol in late October, participants discussed some of the issues raised by the water bags.

First, Southern California's water supply is a Northern California issue. We need to outline more effective conservation measures to reduce growing demands on northern water sources. Southern California's population outnumbers Northern California's, and water politics is majority rule.

Second, there are public trust implications. Who owns the Gualala River? Are North Coast rivers just another resource that taxpayers give away to corporations for private profit, as with logging in our national forests and mining on public lands?

Third, there is a troubling international component to the water bags. Though this particular proposal involves shipping water from one California location to another, minor changes to the proposal would make Alaska Water Exports an international water exporter.

Some people have said that Alaska Water Exports' ultimate goal is to invoke World Trade Organization (WTO) provisions to obtain large scale water rights for corporations throughout the entire state and perhaps across the globe. If the state Water Board grants the rights to this "excess" water to an international company, there could be a question of WTO involvement. Once that door is opened, California's rivers could be susceptible to the demands and vulnerabilities of a growing international water market and subject to the jurisdiction of an unelected body which arguably favors corporations over citizens.

Finally, water privatization can carry billion dollar consequences. The WTO and NAFTA have viewed water as a commodity instead of a human right. Those trade agreements attempt to override community-based efforts to maintain local jurisdiction of water. For example, in Cochabamba, Bolivia, officials privatized the country's water supply, resulting in a tripling of their normal rates.

There is a wide range of appropriate community responses based in public trust doctrine. Among those are:

Contact your elected representatives and let them know how you feel about the water bags.

Read up on public trust issues, including an important new book called "Who Owns the Sky?" by Peter Barnes. Barnes argues that we need new institutions such as a "Sky Trust" and "Watershed Trust" which would protect the public's ownership from private pollution.

With community involvement, we can turn the Gualala and Albion river water bags into a wake-up call to action, and we can look back on it as a time when we began to make sustainable choices to actively protect what we hold precious, in this case, our North Coast rivers. It is in the interest of our national security.

Mike Sandler is program coordinator of the Community Clean Water Institute. Toben Dilworth is program manager of the Town Hall Coalition, Both non-profit groups are based in Occidental.

A community forum, "Stop Corporate Water Theft," eill be held at 7 p.m. Monday in the Forum Room at the Sonoma County Public Library, Third and E streets, Santa Rosa. For more information, call 874-9110.

The California Coastal Commission will hold a public hearing on the water bag plan at 9 a.m. Friday at the Hyatt Regency-Embarcadero Center in San Francisco. Call (415) 904-2500 for details.


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