Long-anticipated bulk water exports from Sitka to start this summer, businessman says

Decades ago, Gov. Wally Hickel was ridiculed for his idea of an ocean pipeline carrying fresh Alaska water to parched California. Now entrepreneurs are hoping that they can make good on his general concept by selling clear water from Southeast Alaska's rainforest to users in the dry south.

A company that once operated a Sitka bottled-water plant but switched its focus to bulk exports says it has confirmed customers in drought-stricken California.

"The shipment of bulk water from Sitka will become reality this summer," Alaska Bulk Water CEO Terry Trapp said in an email. "Our company has obtained contracts for the shipment of bulk water."

While initial shipments will be to California, markets could expand, he said in the email. "The company has been in discussion with many of the water-stressed countries around the world and expects to begin international shipments in the near future as well," he said.

Details about how the water would be delivered are yet unclear, but one option involves a combination of large, flexible bags and cargo-shipping containers.

If deliveries do happen, they would fulfill a longstanding aspiration for big-volume sales of Sitka water to thirsty southern markets.

Sitka's present status as a potential bulk water provider stems from its former status as home to one of the two huge, water-gulping mills that for decades ground Tongass National Forest trees into commercial pulp. When Alaska Pulp Corp. shut down in 1993, the City and Borough of Sitka took over the site and its assets, including state-issued rights to the massive amounts of water used by mill operations.

The water comes from Blue Lake, a 6-mile-long body of water that also provides hydropower and drinking water to Sitka. The water is so abundant that household use is not metered, and so "clean in its natural state" that filtration is not required, according to the Sitka public works department's drinking water quality report. The local government has been working for years to commercialize that liquid asset.

Alaska Bulk Water got its start as True Alaska Bottling Co., one of the bottled-water companies that operated at a former pulp mill site, now a city-owned industrial park. The company shifted from bottled water to bulk water and made a corresponding name change a couple of years ago.

Well before the name change, the company was working on the bulk-shipment concept. In 2006 it signed a contract with the city-borough that gave it water-export rights. Original contract terms provide for exports of up to 3.25 billion gallons a year, but ultimately, Trapp said, the company has rights to export 9 billion gallons annually.

Over the years, performance deadlines were missed, but the city-borough renewed the contract four times, said Garry White, executive director of Sitka Economic Development Association, which operates the industrial park. In December 2012, Alaska Bulk Water paid a nonrefundable $1 million fee for water credits – giving the company a big stake in follow-through on its plans. "They paid $1 million. The check cleared," White said.

The current contract requires Alaska Bulk Water to ship 50 million gallons by Dec. 8, White said.

Other companies, meanwhile, are seeking to revive the moribund local bottled-water trade.

The business is challenging in Sitka, a city of about 9,000 people that is far from major markets, White said. Sitka bottled water would likely have to be sold as something special to compensate for high transportation costs, he said.

"We've got some of the best water in the world," he said. "We need to market it as a premium product."

As for bulk shipments of Alaska water to California and elsewhere, plans have come and gone over the years.

There was Hickel's giant "garden hose to California," as former Anchorage Daily News columnist and state lawmaker Mike Doogan dubbed it. Hickel, who was famous for his exuberant promotion of unconventional ideas, continued to tout the water-pipeline concept long after he left office.

"Californians already pay twice as much for Evian water as they do for gasoline. Someday they'll get the picture," he said in a 2007 guest column in the Anchorage Daily News.

A new analysis published by Wired magazine in February, however, gave the pipeline a thumbs-down. The verdict? "Unfortunately: Still crazy."

A variation on the water pipeline was promoted by Ric Davidge, who was Hickel's water director in the early 1990s. Davidge and others proposed vessel tows of floating, water-filled bags or bladders from Alaska down the Pacific coast.

Other export ideas included a 2010 proposal by the Alaska Native-owned Aleut Corp. to ship water from lakes on Adak Island in the Aleutians to Asian markets by tanker.

None of those ideas came to pass. But with California and other areas gripped in prolonged severe drought, economics now look brighter for bulk Alaska water shipments, Trapp maintains.

To carry out the initial shipments to California, his company plans to build a bulk-water loading station in Sitka and has the necessary permits, he said.

The main logistical hurdles are on the receiving end, where there is a lack of infrastructure to take water from vessels into tanks or storage facilities, he said. For a temporary solution, Alaska Bulk Water is considering a new twist on the old bladder idea.

"An immediate solution would be to load water in containers with special bags," Trapp said in his email. "The whole world knows how to transport and deliver containers."

More than a century ago, some Alaska water actually was shipped to California -- in frozen form.

The Russian-American Co. exported Alaska ice to San Francisco from 1857 to 1859. The ice was cut in Kodiak and Sitka and hauled by the Kad'yak, a Russian-American Co. ship that also carried furs, timber and fish. The Kad'yak's trade ended when it hit a rock near Kodiak and sank.

The ice cargo served a purpose until the end, historians say. For three days after the grounding, the ice kept the punctured ship afloat.

Ice shipments from Alaska to California continued for several years afterward; California merchants even established a business called the Sitka Ice Co. to bring in ice from the north, according to the Donner Summit Historical Society.