Plan to Bag Gualala, Albion Rivers Could Exploit Free Trade Laws

Luxembourg-based World Water SA has become the first multinational to seek water rights to northern California rivers, setting up a key test of local sovereignty in the face of international trade agreements, say public interest advocates.
World Water SA, through its partner Alaska Water Exports, wants to take up to 20-30 gallons per minute from the Albion and Gualala rivers during the wet season, filling 1.7-million-cubic-foot polyfiber bags to tow and sell to San Diego.
In its July application before the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), the company proposes to take up to 10,000 and 20,000 annual acre-feet from spots about 1.5 miles upstream of the mouths of the Albion and Gualala, respectively. It’s the first application of its kind, said a board spokesperson.
According to environmentalists, the plan could disturb the habitat of endangered coho salmon and steelhead trout, with suction pumps diminishing current and stirring up sediment.
“There is no water to be given,” says Friends of the Gualala River’s Ursula Jones, noting that both rivers have already been degraded by logging and other industries in Mendocino and Sonoma Counties.
Near the Gualala River’s mouth, a naturally occurring sandbar creates an important nursery habitat for young fish. Winter storms break the sandbar open, allowing the previous years’ smolt to leave and spawners to enter the river system. But those storm flows are targeted by the proposal. On the Albion, the water grab would also deplete floods that maintain a delicate estuary system.
If his permit is approved, Alaska Water Exports owner Ric Davidge could use global trade agreements to “say that [any] restrictions on the amount of water he could take control his ability to make a profit,” said Nancy Price of the Waltham, Massachusetts–based Alliance for Democracy. Under Chapter 11 of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) [see Terrain, Fall 2001], US Sunbelt Water has sued Canada for $220 million, saying it “lost” profits when the country blocked its sale of Canadian water to the US, said Price.
Davidge’s permit request specifies San Diego as the place of use. But under Chapter 11, and pending Free Trade Agreement of the Americas statutes, Davidge could challenge the water board’s power to restrict water sales to San Diego over, say, Mexico, as “discriminatory,” says Price.
By as early as August, the SWRCB was expected to announce a public comment period on the plan.

Comments are closed.