14 Feb 2009

Persistance -- and Baggs

Last Sunday, I met Terry Spragg for the first time in person.

For those of you who have not heard of Terry, he's the inventor and promoter of an alternative means of transporting water via VERY LARGE water bags -- or Spragg Bags. Here's a full write up [PDF].

Here's a video of the bags in the water on Spragg's demonstration voyage:

Spragg's key ideas are that:
  1. Water and people are not always in the same places
  2. Getting water to people requires infrastructure, which can be expensive.
  3. The bags can "move water" at low cost, in variable quantities, on short notice.
The trouble is that NOBODY will adopt them. Even worse, nobody will pay for a trial to confirm/deny their suspicion that bags will not "work." [There was one trial, but water managers elsewhere claim that their situation is "different." Right.]

Without trial evidence, it's just one man's idea against a LOT of institutional inertia, and that struggle is rarely won by the guy with the good idea -- a phenomenon I have a lot of experience with.

Is Terry's 20+ year struggle to get bags into service a mistake, a waste of time, a fantasy? I don't know. I suspect that it's probably going to work out but keeping hope in the face of such odds is tough, and for that, I admire Terry.

I am trying to do the same thing with something that practically every economist on the planet understands and supports (raise prices when demand exceeds supply), but I still get depressed when water managers ignore this harm-reducing advice and turn to tried and true means of failure: rationing.

Bottom Line: Some water utility should put up $1 million to test these bags. If When the Delta levees fail, they will be handsomely rewarded for a proactive investigation of alternatives, rather than flogged for a reactive struggle to keep failure from turning into disaster (e.g., Katrina).


Ray Walker said...

700,000 gallons equals a bit less than 2 acre feet.

CA is not the least bit interested in the investigation of a a million acre feet a year fresh water Source that is legally available, economically feasible and the development will not harm the environment or the water rights of others. The "bag" for the million acre feet already is bought and paid for and 60% empty. The bag of Lake Mead can also generate 1800 megawatts of renewable energy each year and doesn't needed "towed".

WaterSource waterrdw@yahoo.com

Anonymous said...

Desal plants (including capital costs) can operate in the $1000/AF range, once they get the enviro problems worked out. If Mr. Spragg could put together a proposal that showed that his project is cost effective AND it could get past the enviro hurdles it would probably be looked at. The southern urban water districts are looking at every and any feasible source of water.

Philip said...

Unless the bags are US made, I don't believe they will qualify for any inter-US marine trade. They could be used to haul water from Canada or Mexico. I don't think the SoCal people want to drink Mexican water (even if such were readily available). It's an awfully long haul from, say Portland to LA.
A tug capable of hauling these would probably cost $5-$10K per day, and use considerable diesel in the process. I have no doubt the bags are cheaper to construct than a conventional lined tank barge. It might be a fine idea, but in a market economy I am always a bit suspicious of someone with a truly great idea claiming to be shut out for no good reason.

David Zetland said...

@Ray -- upto 50 bags can be towed at once.

@Anon -- Spragg's costs CAN be lower that $1k/AF, but he needs the $4 to run a trial to confirm the spreadsheet.

@Philip -- Spragg wants to run water from Washington to CA. Read the PDF to see tug costs...

The barrier is that there is NO MARKET for more water suppliers. They can afford to ignore the idea b/c they face no competition from other agencies that might not ignore the idea...

Anonymous said...


Spragg should be able to generate a feasiblity study for $100K. That seems to be the going rate for feasibilty studies for water supply projects.

Water agencies are roaming the state looking for water supplies. If that idea was reasonably feasible, the MWDSC would have looked into it. So would San Diego, just so MWDSC couldn't have it.

On your water chats, have you discussed Spragg's concept with any of the water districts? What was their reaction?

Ray Walker said...

David Zetland,

OK so 50 bags can be towed weighing in at 7# to the gallon with 325,900 gallons per acre foot X 50. Lots of luck towing that kind of weight and length in the open sea let alone the amount of energy needed.

To Anonymous:

I challenge you to find me a SINGLE CA entity that is willing to look at ANY NEW WATER SUPPLY and put it in writing.


With a fresh water Source of a million acre feet for CA & NV ( and to keep Lake Mead FULL ! )

David Zetland said...

@Anon -- I don't need to mention the idea to them, since Terry's been around for longer than me.

The feasibility study will cost more b/c it requires fabricating multiple bags. Probably more than $100k, but less than $1 million...

@Ray -- ships pull heavy cargo all the time. Read the PDF and then decide if it's "too heavy"

Anonymous said...


Dept of Water Resources is trying to operate a Drought Water Bank to coordinate water transfers for many water districts (both ag and urban). Whether is will actually work given the enviro restrictions and high commodity prices is an open question right now.

I don't know if that counts as a source of new supply.

@David, from what I understand of the Spragg proposal, the water right application called for water to be withdrawn from the river in the winter. This poised numerous issues....1) water demand is diminished during this time of the year so the potential buyers were less inclined to purchase it then; 2) Inclement weather, particularly in the ocean during the winter generated significant concern about the potential for the bags to rip apart and basically litter the North Coast. Ray, jump in any time and correct me if I make a mistake.

Ships transport heavy cargo all the time. It takes diesel, which costs money. How often do they pull a daisy chain of water filled bags thru high seas?

Ray Walker said...


The CA Department of Water Resources attorney promised more than a month ago to get back regarding the utilization of the million acre foot Source as it might relate to their drought water bank. He was going to speak with his superiors. Calls & Emails now go unanswered ...

Anonymous said...


I said DWR was TRYING to operate a water bank. If the water doesn't have to travel thru the Delta, DWR doesn't need to be involved.

If your water source is above the Delta, there are water districts in that area desparate for water. You might try talking to the Tehama Colusa Canal Authority.

If your water source is below the Delta, try Westlands, the Delta-Mendota Canal Authority, the Met.

What is the cost of this water? Is this a million acre feet over some time frame, or a million AF this year?

Philip said...

I have a tough time understanding Mr. Spragg's transportation figures (using the example of Australia) in relation to what is taking place on the west coast of the US. From what I can determine (and I am far from an authority on the subject) hauling the big trains of bags will require a line-haul tug on the order of a Crowley Invader class (www.crowley.com) which charter for about $10K per day (including crew, fuel, etc.). These tugs, and similar ones operated by some similar companies, haul large oil barges and container barges, as well as similar heavy cargoes worldwide. The entire population of such vessels which can operate legally in the US is actually pretty small, because of the specialized trades in which they operate and the very important but hard to meet regulatory requirements for marine safety. The figures cited in the pdf *seem* to indicate a far lower transport cost; but, again, I can't say that with great assurance.

Assuming the water will be gathered and transported during the wet season on the West Coast, the operation must be configured with foul weather in mind. This dictates high horsepower tugs, and considerable time and energy spent sea-keeping. The cargo is not hazardous, but the wreckage of holed "sprag-bags" will require some remediation. I also wonder what the Coast Guard has to say about the operation of such an unwieldy cargo in places like Long Beach or San Diego. They might require a second tug attached or nearby for a short period around loading and unloading; yet more money. I'm not trying to shoot the idea down, I'm just curious.

DW said...

Principle problem with Spragg's bags is that they bring water into a region at the bottom of the water system, which is for the most part
gravity flow based. So you'd have to find a way to pump all that water up to the top of a local system, which would eat up a lot
of energy and money. But if things got desperate enough, I guess someone might be interested.

Anonymous said...

So many good reasons why this has been rejected! The idea was floated (sorry) here on the Mendo coast a couple years ago, and after everyone got done laughing, they quickly torpedoed it on technical, environmental, and regulatory grounds - before even getting to the economics.

It's not as crazy as many projects that have already been built, I'll grant that. But it's way crazier than just wasting less water.

Anonymous said...

Dear David
Many thanks for promoting this discussion. The barriers are political rather than technical, essentially reflecting government cowardice and incompetence. Two further excellent analyses are available on the web at http://www.internationalwaterlaw.org/blog/?p=171 - the International Water Law Project
A shorter version of this article has been published as the cover story in the August 2009 issue of Water Engineering Australia.

Desalination costs over $2000 per acre foot, especially with the environmental remediation for brine pollution, and not counting possible carbon tax. We can over-engineer the Spragg Bag and still come in way below this number. Some one with money or power just needs to take the initiative.

Robert Tulip

Anonymous said...

Albionwood (comment 13) says waterbags were 'torpedoed' in Northern California 'on technical, environmental, and regulatory grounds - before even getting to the economics.' The critics should look at the economics which show waterbags could deliver new water at a fraction of the price of desalination, with benign environmental impact, and with major potential to export US ingenuity. The 'environmental, regulatory and technical grounds', to my knowledge have never been actually specified. Albionwood's comment reads like a vested interest.

Robert Tulip

Anonymous said...

@Robert Tulip - I'm not a vested interest, but a resident of coastal Mendocino County. The proposal to take water from the Albion River was a half-baked attempt to grab water rights. There wasn't even enough information in the proposal to fairly evaluate the potential effects.

The problems with this idea might be solvable, but the proponents appear to be more interested in obtaining water rights than with demonstrating technical feasibility. Why should water be granted to someone on the basis of a bright idea?

While towing bags through the wintry sea has its own feasibility questions, the real problems are at either end. Proponents talk as if this water were just lying around free for the taking, which it's not. Pick any river, there will be a fight over taking that water. As the fight over the Albion showed, there isn't enough substance to the proposal to win those fights.

Bottom line: It looks more like a water-rights grab than a water-transfer scheme.

Anonymous said...

Yes, this is great if we are moving water from Alaska to California.

But what about draining the Great Lakes, and filling these bags, and towing across the Pacific to China.

I am not one for conspiracy theorists, but there is too much water consolidation and privatization of municipal water going on.

Once Privatized, these large multinational corporations can export our water.

Check it out yourself:
Tru TV,
Jesse Ventura, Great Lakes/Blue Gold Conspiracy.

Alex Jones

I have no issue with people making money as capitalists off of a commodity, but remember the oil speculation when Oil went to $147/barrel?

There needs to be some oversight.

And although the planet has mostly water, only about 2-5% is drinkable in current condition.

Why would we let someone export our water?

Hence the Great Lakes are getting sucked dry, and so has Lake Mead.

Apparently Nestle has been sucking dry 90,000,000 gallons of water a day for the past ten years in Michigan. Paid off a former governor, and only pay $100 a year for the water.

T Boone Pickens has tied up about 90,000 acres over a huge aquifer in the Texas Panhandle.

Just perform your own research.

Make your own opinion.

Great idea on these bags.

But no export of our water offshore!

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