Alliance Helps Defeat Water-Grab

Alliance Chapters Fight Northern California Water-Grab

Toni Rizzo, Co-hair, Mendocino Coast Chapter

"It is the mission of World Water, SA to identify viable bulk water markets around the globe, acquire sufficient water resources in each market area, and enter into long term take-or-pay bulk water contracts, with public or private buyers, to meet delivery contracts while securing an appropriate profit." —World Water, SA

Northern California Alliance chapters have joined watershed protection groups to fight a local water grab that could have statewide, and possibly nationwide or global, consequences if it is successful. Alaska Water Exports (AWE), a partner of World Water SA, has set its sights on pumping northern California river water into giant baggies for transport and sale to thirsty San Diego. At first laughed at by incredulous local residents, it soon became clear that Ric Davidge, owner and president of AWE and president and chairman of World Water, SA, is quite serious about implementing this precedent-setting scheme. Like other corporate opportunists, Davidge recognizes the value of "blue gold" — what remains of the world's precious freshwater resources. Fortune recently stated that in the 21st century water will be "the precious commodity that determines the wealth of nations."

Large corporations like Davidge's are rushing to capitalize on the tragic reality that over 1 billion people worldwide have no access to fresh water. Instead of considering water a human right, they view it as a good for sale to the highest bidder, no matter that those who cannot pay will die as a result. Indeed, every eight seconds a child dies from drinking contaminated water. These numbers will only increase as taps are turned off by greedy corporations thirsting for ever higher profits.

The Scheme

Here on California's isolated north coast we're well aware of the ripple effect of global issues on our local communities. Even so, we were caught by surprise when the world water crisis crashed like a rogue wave into our backyards last January. This wake-up call mobilized diverse segments of our community, including watershed groups, loggers, fishers, activists, business people, and local governments, to oppose Davidge's waterbag scheme.

AWE filed applications with the California State Water Resources Control Board to take 8,600 acre-feet of water from the Gualala River and 6,200 acre-feet from the Albion River every year during the rainy season. The company plans to sink a cistern into the river bed at a point above the saltwater intrusion zone. Water drawn into the cistern will be carried by pipe buried in the river bed two to three miles to mooring stations offshore, where it will be pumped into huge bags 800 feet long, 250 feet wide, and 25 feet deep. Each bag will hold approximately 40 acre-feet of water. The full waterbags will be towed by tugboats from the rivers to San Diego.

Protecting Our Rivers

The attempted taking of our rivers' water, our lifeblood, hit a raw nerve in all of us who love our rivers and the life they nourish. One of the biggest fights looming across the Earth is the commodification of water by corporations, and outraged coastal residents joined the fray as soon as news of Davidge's application hit the press. As we studied the issue we began to realize the enormous environmental, political, and social consequences that could result from giving a corporation title to this water. The Friends of the Gualala River (FoGR), the FLOW project of the Albion River Watershed Protection Association (ARWPA), and Alliance for Democracy held community meetings and hosted radio shows aimed at educating themselves and the community on these potential consequences. The Mendocino and Sonoma County Boards of Supervisors passed resolutions opposing the waterbag scheme, the California Democratic Party added it to their election platform, and the Green Party is expected to do the same.

The state noticed the public of AWE's applications on September 13, beginning a 60-day public protest period. Davidge's applications may be protested under certain categories, including: Environmental, Public Interest, and Public Trust. This protest period is a critical time and local groups are working to deluge the Water Resources Control Board with carefully completed protest forms.

Alliance Chapters Unite

Aware of the potential consequences of our river water becoming a commodity subject to World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, the Mendocino Coast and Redwood Coast Alliance chapters met to plan strategies for working with other local groups. FoGR and FLOW were already researching and publicizing the environmental consequences of removing so much water from these rivers. With advice from Nancy Price, we decided to focus on the Public Trust protest category. With her and others' input, I researched and wrote a document explaining the Public Trust doctrine and how giving AWE title to the water puts state water at risk under WTO regulations. This and a bullet list of protest points are now a part of the protest instructions put together by the watershed groups.

Joined now by the Sonoma County Alliance chapter, our chapters are working with the watershed groups to publicize the issue and organize meetings of the public and different groups to fill out and submit protest forms to the state. Below are explanations of the issues and at the end of this article are resources for more information and to access protest forms and instructions.

Environmental and Public Interest Issues

AWE selected the Albion and Gualala Rivers after studying all the water outflows in the western United States. According to Davidge, these rivers were the only two studied "that could reasonably withstand a take of water, that would not interfere with the ecosystem…" He likens the water collection system to a straw stuck in the river bed. Locals agree that it is the last straw for these already impaired rivers. According to river hydrologist Fred Euphrat, Davidge will need to fill 111 waterbags, pumping one bag per day to take 5,000 acre-feet of water from the Albion River. At this rate, more than the average yearly river flow will be removed for seven months of the year. Further, during winter storms, the water will be turbid—full of clay that can't be filtered out—and unusable. In order to get functional water, Euphrat says Davidge will have to "pump the heck out of the river for about 50 days of the year because it won't be functional 150 days because of too little water and 100 days when the water is too dirty."

The environmental consequences are frightening, especially in rivers already impaired from logging. Euphrat and Linda Perkins of FLOW pointed out that in addition to the amount of water flowing from the river, salinity and temperature will be altered, potentially affecting already endangered Coho salmon and other species. Whale migration routes may be affected by the offshore operations. And, of course, large diesel tugs continuously towing enormous waterbags down the coast will not enhance the beauty of our coastline, the tourism our economy increasingly depends on, or local property values.

The Public Trust and International Trade Agreements

According to Public Trust Doctrine principles, certain types of property, such as navigable waterways, are of high public value and private right of ownership of these properties should be limited. By the late 19th century, the Federal Supreme Court confirmed that the Public Trust Doctrine imposes specific obligations on the states. The concept of the Public Trust Doctrine can be used to challenge whether Federal and State governments are meeting their public trust obligations regarding vital resources that are the common heritage of all people in the U.S. Furthermore, the California state constitution holds public trust properties as sovereign for the benefit of all citizens and limits the creation of private rights in public trust properties. Historically, the public trust doctrine has been applied to navigable waterways, which has been upheld in California courts. Therefore, the state is obligated to protect the Albion and Gualala rivers, both certified as navigable waterways, as a valuable resource owned in common by the people of California.

Giving AWE title to Albion River and Gualala River water would violate the public trust by allowing the water to potentially fall under WTO rules. Should this happen the state of California, local governments, and the public could lose control of this and other water sources in California. Once this happens, a precedent would be set and we would not be able to restrict the taking and selling of other waters in our state.

Although AWE is a domestic corporation, it is backed by Japanese, Norwegian, and Saudi interests, all World Water SA partners. One partner, Nordic Water Supply (NWS), is already exporting water from Turkey to Cyprus in waterbags. In its 2001 Board of Directors report NWS states that a memorandum of agreement has been signed with Mexico to deliver fresh water to Mexico's west coast. This memorandum only hints at the possible long-term motives behind this attempted water-grab.

If AWE acquires the right to this water, it would only require an administrative change to transfer title to one of it's foreign partners. If this is done, the water then would fall under World Trade Organization (WTO) provisions, specifically the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT). If the title is sold to a foreign north American corporation, North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) regulations will apply. Under these agreements, once the water is taken, local governments lose the right to restrict the taking of the water, regardless of environmental or social consequences if such a restriction could be deemed to deprive a company of its future profits. For example, under NAFTA, U.S. based Sun Belt Water Inc. sued Canada for $10 billion because a Canadian province interfered with its plans to export water to California. Sun Belt claimed that the ban on exporting the water expropriated its future profits.

Even more ominous are the provisions of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), enacted in 1994. The GATS applies WTO rules to services as well as products. Currently, bulk water is not included as a service under GATS but the European Union and the U.S. are pushing strongly for the inclusion of water services. Two GATS provisions put local control of our waters at risk:

GATS Article XVII National Treatment Rule: Requires that governments extend the best treatment given to domestic services or service providers to like foreign services or service providers.

GATS Article II Most Favored Nation Treatment: Requires that the best treatment given to any foreign service or service provider must be extended to all like foreign services and service providers.

Under these provisions, if bulk water becomes a service under the GATS, and AWE gains title to the water, the state might be required to allow a corporation from another WTO member country access to an equal amount of water from the state or be fined for expropriating future profits. This would be true regardless of whether title to the water remains with a domestic corporation (National Treatment Rule) or is transferred to a foreign corporation (Most Favored Nation Treatment).

Water is Life

The attempted water-grab from our local rivers is just one of the many water battles being fought across the nation and the globe. We must stop the commodification and privatization of water, a precious resource we all depend on, a resource that should be equally available to all on the planet. Water is not just another product. A threat to our water is a threat to our very humanity, our lives, our Earth. As Mendocino Coast activist Linda Perkins put it:

This project will degrade the cultural and spiritual value that we put on this water. Water is life. It can't be bought with dollars. To all of us who live in these watersheds, the trees, the animals, the fish…that water flows through ourselves. We've come to love these rivers. The river going out to the ocean calls the Coho back. It recalls to us the virtue of having that water in our living selves. We are called to defend and guard the river.Linda Perkins, FLOW

What you can do:

To join our chapters in this campaign or for more information, contact Toni Rizzo at

For detailed information, protest forms and instructions on filling them out, go to Also check out

For detailed information on water and international trade agreements, download the publications "Thirst for Control" at and "Facing the Facts: A Guide to the GATS Debate" at