JUNEAU — East of downtown Sitka, a lone pipe juts out of the ground amid a waterfront industrial park, waiting for the tankers that may someday come and take pure water from Alaska to parched countries around the world.
But other than plans and a pipe, Sitka has little to show for its five-year effort to export billions of gallons of its fresh water to countries in need of clean drinking water. Developers say the plan is viable, but the markets and logistics for the operation still need to be worked out before Sitka can tap this source of income.
“With shortages around the globe, we feel we have an asset here,” said Garry White, executive director of the Sitka Economic Development Organization.
The water pipe is designed to take water from Blue Lake, located in the mountains above the town, onto a tanker ship that would pull into the harbor and take on 50 to 60 million gallons of water, said Terry Trapp, chief executive officer of True Alaska Bottling, a firm that is working with the town on the export project.
When completed in June 2007, the pipe cost $1.64 million, according to the city’s Public Works Department, and White said the city has allocated 9.5 billion gallons of water from Blue Lake for annual export.
Trapp said several things are required before the pipe can become operational: there’s still no facility to fill the boats with fresh water, no place for the boats to moor while filling, and no boats yet available to transport the water.
“It’s a daunting task in front of us,” Trapp said.
Sitka doesn’t have the money for this construction, so White said the city would rely on a private corporation or maybe a bond to build any additional water export facilities.
A remote community in southeast Alaska accessible only by air or water, Sitka is frequented by cruise tourists for its natural splendor and Native traditions.
In some ways, Trapp said, the city is ahead of the game. He said countries like China and India that are in need of clean drinking water don’t have the port infrastructure necessary to offload and store the water, so even if Sitka’s export facility was ready, its customers are not.
Parched nations have also been increasingly turning to desalinization plants for their water needs, but White said imported water is superior in terms of taste and quality to the desalinated liquid.
White also said Sitka wanted to sell its water for one cent a gallon, which may be cheaper than desalinated water in countries where energy is expensive. It also could be bottled and sold overseas, as one firm is already doing in the town, White said.
But he also acknowledged that transport and other costs for the export —which are yet to be determined— may drive the price up.
“One cent a gallon is the rate (the city) wants to get,” White said. “Whether that’s achievable or not is an unknown.”
The uncertainty about cost may be what dooms Sitka’s bulk export project, said Peter Gleick President of the Pacific Institute, a non-partisan research organization.
Additional costs associated with transport, storage and treatment at the destination would make long-distance water transport economically unfeasible, he said.
“It’s a perfectly normal thought, but the idea runs against fundamental economics, not to mention political concerns,” Gleick said of the project.
He also doubted whether a country would want to rely on a distant water source that could be disrupted by bad weather or changes in policy.
White said the city stands behind the concept, and the assembly in January renewed its contract with True Alaska for another 2 years, although with a $75,000 penalty if the company does not ship 50 million gallons of water by December 8, 2012.
The first contract was signed in 2006, and White said the city has faith in the company since it has continuously asked for extensions on the contract even though no water has yet been exported.
“We’re hoping they’ll start any day now,” White said of his hopes for True Alaska’s exports. But White also said Sitka’s water is open to others who think they can turn a profit. “If some entrepreneur can figure out how to get water overseas, then we’ll sell it.”