Alaskan Entrepreneur Wants to Sell Bulk Water Shipments to Drought-Stricken California
An entrepreneur attempting to pioneer the shipment of large volumes of water from an Alaskan town to thirsty global markets claims his company is a step closer after signing a contract to deliver 10 million gallons per month to a buyer in dry California.
Terry Trapp, chief executive of Alaska Bulk Water Inc., announced the deal in a March 25 letter to officials in Sitka, an island town of 9,000 people, which has offered to sell surplus water from a reservoir also used for hydroelectric power generation. Alaska Bulk Water’s goal is to ship water by tanker or barge by July, according to the letter.
After working with the company and its predecessors for nearly a decade and seeing numerous delays, cancellations, and contracts that were not fulfilled, Sitka officials are both skeptical and hopeful that the deal comes to fruition.
“They have told us for years that they have contracts signed, but that does not mean we’ve shipped any water,” Garry White told Circle of Blue. White is the executive director of Gary Paxton Industrial Park, which manages Sitka’s bulk water agreements. “Moving water is the true test of whether this happens,” he added.
Trapp would not discuss the details of the contract or the business operation with Circle of Blue, saying only that the company is working out the economics and logistics of the water trade.
“We’re trying to haul water from Alaska to California, and we’re looking for the most cost-efficient way to get that done,” Trapp said.
Economics Drives the Market
Cost has always been a primary obstacle for bulk water. Premium products such as the angular bottles from Fiji sell for hundreds of times the price of tap water. But bulk water is sold in large volumes, not in single-serving bottles.
Sitka is offering water from Blue Lake for one penny per gallon, which is much higher than what municipal water costs in most American cities. Nestle Waters North America, for instance pays Sacramento, California, one-tenth of a cent per gallon for its 50-million-gallon-per-year bottling plant. Alaska Bulk Water must pay Sitka for the raw product, then add the dollars needed to lease a tanker ship, plus the cost of fuel and loading facilities. The price quickly becomes uncompetitive.
These are not normal times in California, however. With the state in the fourth year of a drought emergency, a stop-gap solution such as tankers full of water might be attractive for a desperately dry coastal town. The Catalonia region of Spain, for instance, purchased tankers of water from France during a drought in 2008 as an interim measure until a desalination plant came online. That same year, Cyprus bought water from Greece and ferried it across the Mediterranean Sea.
Ten million gallons in the California contract could be a significant source of water for a small community. It equals one-quarter of the monthly summer use of Morro Bay, California, a coastal town of 10,000 people.
But without more details about the Alaska Bulk Water contract, it is difficult to assess the likelihood of a deal being completed. Neither White nor Mark Gorman, Sitka’s municipal administrator, has seen the contract that Trapp announced in his letter, they told Circle of Blue.
Gorman, nonetheless, sees evidence that Alaska Bulk Water is serious about breaking open this market. The company will lose a $1 million down payment if it does not move at least 50 million gallons by December 8. Before any shipments take place, the company must connect a 36-inch-diameter pipeline from Blue Lake to a tanker-loading facility in the middle of the harbor. The pipeline currently ends at the shore. White said that he has seen Alaska Bulk Water’s construction permit that was issued by the Army Corps of Engineers for a floating mooring system.
“Alaska Bulk Water is putting real money in the game now, so that is an indication that the deal will go through,” Gorman told Circle of Blue.
City officials are eager for the results. “It would be great for us,” White said about selling water to the world. “We’re up here in the middle of nowhere with a limited ability to earn revenue. Water is one resource we have in abundance that we can leverage to fund the city government.”
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When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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