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Sitka, Adak both explore bulk water sales

SITKA and UNALASKA, ALASKA

The presence of freshwater shapes a region’s health and agriculture, and control of this resource can determine who has electrical, and political, power.

Alaska, with its many rivers and glaciers, is positioned to become a major freshwater distributor, and two towns across the state are working to monetize their water supplies.

In Sitka, that water comes from Blue Lake, and the city holds a permit to export 95 billion gallons of it every year. And the idea is to sell the water, in bulk, to overseas customers in regions of the world where fresh water is hard to come by.

“I literally spend probably 3 hours a day dealing with people on bulk water and trying to educate myself more about it, because there’s just so much going on,” said Garry White, director of the Sitka Economic Development Association, and Sitka’s point person on bulk water.

What’s been going on lately is a flood of national publicity, including the cable news network CNBC, which is taping a segment here for a special on water. 

The City of Sitka right now has a contract with True Alaska Bottling. The city is charging a cent per gallon for the water.

If True Alaska takes all the water it’s allowed to take under the contract, it could mean $95 million dollars a year for Sitka.

“Frankly, I don’t think that will ever happen,” White said. “The state only allows us to export 33.6 million gallons per day, because we don’t want to come in here and drop the level of the lake. That’s less than 1 percent of the volume of the lake that can come out of there. By the time you bring one of these big ships in, tie it up, throw your 33.6 in there per day, I don’t think you can realize all the 95 billion gallons unless there’s two loading stations.”

But still, full capacity or not, it’s a lot of money for a city where the annual general fund revenue is about $24 million dollars.

The companies are interested, the water’s available, and the city has every reason in the world to get it going. So what’s the hold up?  Infrastructure. Namely, the tanker ships that would carry the water overseas.

“They draught about 60 to 80 feet of water,” White said. “So we have to have the infrastructure that will allow a ship to come into that depth.”

The plan at the moment is to let the companies build that infrastructure , and then give them a discount on the water. But right now, there’s no way to get the water into a tanker ship. That’s NOT the case in Adak.

Sitka and Adak have little in common. They’re 1,600 miles apart, and where Sitka’s a vibrant fishing center, Adak is almost a ghost town. The island was built to house thousands when its military base was in operation. Today, the population is estimated to be 300.

The Aleut Corporation now owns the former military facilities like reservoirs and a deepwater port, and it wants to put them to use exporting bulk water. Tony Cange, president of corporation’s real estate division, says Adak’s situation is the reverse of Sitka’s.

“We know we’ve got this infrastructure. I’ve got 12-inch pipes that go down to loading docks, several large piers; you could put an aircraft carrier in there, and I’m sure they have at some point” Cange said. “So we can fit 300- to 500-foot vessels in there easily. The infrastructure’s there, it’s coming along. Now it’s just a matter of getting the water rights applications together and being granted the export certificate.”

Though the Aleut Corporation first talked about exporting Adak’s freshwater in 2000, it only applied for bulk removal permits earlier this month. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources now needs to make sure that Adak has enough excess water that things like the fish population won’t be affected by its removal.

While the process take about a year, Cange is hoping that the corporation’s applications can be expedited so it can start exporting water as soon as January.

Some of that freshwater will be sent to India and used for farming, but most will be shipped to China and bottled for sale to its growing middle-class class. Cange thinks that Adak will only be exporting about 40 million to 60 million gallons in its first year.

But in its applications, the corporation has asked to remove up to half a million gallons a day from each of the island’s three reservoirs: lakes Betty, DeMarie, and Bonnie Rose. And that’s still just a fraction of the island’s freshwater runoff, Cange says.

“There’s over 40 million gallons a day in water runoff,” he said. “That’s just water being sent into the ocean, where it could be sent somewhere that could need it.”

It’s not clear whether Adak or Sitka will develop its water supply first. But in the meantime, the demand for bulk water is only growing.

Alexandra Gutierrez reports for KUCB in Unalaska.

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