AUGUST 6, 1999

FULL OF HOLES, OR IN THE BAG?
By, Michael McCabe, Chronicle Staff Water

Got water?

Sometime during the next 60 days, if all goes according to plan, a tugboat will haul two huge polyethylene bags, each filled with 770,000 gallons of water, from Humboldt Bay all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge.

Then entrepreneur Terry Spragg fully expects his "Spragg's Bags" to get the world's attention he feels they richly deserve.  The demonstration aims to show there is an economically and environmentally sensible way to get lots of water from surplus areas to needy areas.

If all goes according to plan.

In this case, Spragg is trying got impress state and local authorities struggling to solve the Monterey Peninsula's water troubles.  For years, the region has been trying to figure out a way to find and store water without wreaking environmental havoc.

Spragg, 57, has patented zippers with teeth more than an inch long that allow the massive water bags to be linked together like boxcars and transported down the coast.  The demo bags would be half the length of the 500-foot-long bags he would use in a real operation, but each would still be longer than a Goodyear Blimp.

Spragg expects to be able to get permits from the Humboldt Bay Water District to pump water into the bags from Mad River.  Because fresh water floats on salt water, Spragg said, they would be barely visible, floating no more than 4 inches above the surface.

In a demonstration of the low tech bags in Puget Sound in 1996, news photographers showed Spragg walking on the bags as if on water.

"And I plan to invite Mayor Willie Brown to walk on water with me when my bags float under the Golden Gate Bridge," Spragg said.  "I think he might go for it."

He's been treated like a "nut case" for years, the Manhattan beach businessman said, but there are signs now that some decision makers are ready to listen.  In May, a state Public Utilities Commission administrative law judge granted Spragg's motion to intervene in a controversial petition to build a dam on the Carmel River.

That means Spragg will have an opportunity to make a detailed case for his bags to the PUC as an alternative to building a dam and a new reservoir.  Other alternatives include constructing a desalination plant, recharging aquifers, or a combination of both.

The Monterey Peninsula Water Management District needs a lot of water, nearly 11,000 acre-feet, or about 800 of Spragg's bags a year.  One acre-foot is the amount of water the average family of four uses in a year.

In 1995, the state Water Resources Board declared that more than 60 percent of the peninsula's water supply was being taken from the Carmel River illegally by the California American Water Co. (Cal-Am), the major water supplier in the county.  The state ordered Cal-Am to reduce the amount by 20 percent in the near term, and by 60 percent eventually.  Cal-Am's solution is to build a 24,000-acre-foot dam, an idea many environmentalist hate.

Spragg says his bags are a way out.  They would cost $700 to $800 an acre-foot, which he said is at least $300 less than the current cost of water on the Monterey Peninsula.

The uses, he insists, go beyond just Monterey.  The bags could be considered as sort of a "Fabric Peripheral Canal" for the entire state, as well as a way to promote peace in the Middle East by helping to supply water from places such as Turkey to Israel.

His demo project, including the grandiose stunt of touring the bay before heading down to Monterey, obviously is an attempt to gain publicity, and more important, credibility.  Skeptics abound, especially on the Monterey Peninsula, but there are a few strong supporters, and many willing to take a wait-and-see attitude.

"As bizarre as it sounds, it should not be dismissed," said George Behan, an aide to U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, Wash., a friend of Spragg's who has written President Clinton extolling his bags.  "At a time when we are going through a drought here on the East Coast, and there are perennial water problems in the Middle East, this is something we should consider very seriously."

For those fighting the dam idea, almost any alternative is worth looking at.

"It sounds like if you ship water over the ocean it is not like shipping oil," said Gillian Taylor, chair of the Ventana Chapter of the Sierra Club.  "We should at least take a look at it.  Dams are the old way of thinking.  I don't think his bags should be rejected just because they are new."

Others have more doubts.  For starters, there are questions about marine hazards to shipping, off-loading problems and whether Spragg can secure permits from many agencies, including the United States Coast Guard, the Coastal Commission and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

"The biggest drawback is whether we believe it is feasible," says Henrietta Stern, project manager for the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District.  "We know that these water bags are used other areas of the world to transport water, but they are much smaller.  The only information we have from Mr. Spraggs is a videotape."

Translation:  Show me the money, in the form of a demonstration.  Spragg is working hard to raise $300,000 needed to finance the important demo.  He hopes to attract the attention of big names with deep pockets such as Ted Turner or a Rupert Murdoch, or hot Silicon Valley companies intrigued with a prospect of getting their company's logo on the tops of the water bags, a kind of environmental billboard.

Although it may sound the most far-fetched, the water bag idea is not the only plan being pushed by eager entrepreneurs.  John Barbieri, president of the Los Angeles-based Natural Resources Corp., has suggested using converted oil tankers to transport water from the Northwest.  Water-starved San Diego has already signed on for an extensive demonstration project.

But Spragg sounds serenely confident his ship -- or bag -- is about to come in.

"The worst-case scenario is a bag breaks.  You haul the sucker out of the water and haul it home.  I don't think anything like that is going to happen but if it does, hey, it might give the surfers a little boost."

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