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Tuesday, January 15 , 2019, 11:03 pm | Mostly Cloudy 53º


Inventor Pitches Waterbag Technology to Import Water to Santa Barbara Coast During Drought

Terry Spragg sets his sights on the Montecito Water District as a pilot client for his patented 'SpraggBag,' flexible fabric barges towed by drone boats

A television crew stands on the SpraggBag during the 1996 demonstration towing the bags along the coast of Washington. Inventor Terry Spragg believes the waterbag technology could be a viable way to import potable water for California’s Central Coast and beyond.
A television crew stands on the SpraggBag during the 1996 demonstration towing the bags along the coast of Washington. Inventor Terry Spragg believes the waterbag technology could be a viable way to import potable water for California’s Central Coast and beyond. (Terry Spragg courtesy photo)

Santa Barbara and Montecito are looking to the ocean for relief and Terry Spragg agrees with that, but he thinks leaders should be using his waterbag technology instead of seawater-to-potable desalination facilities.

People have proposed all sorts of things in the desperation to appease California’s drought, including hauling icebergs down the coast. Spragg and his patented “SpraggBag” technology seems more feasible, with flexible fabric barges filled with potable water and towed down the coast by diesel-powered drones to their destination.

Spragg, who lives and works in Manhattan Beach as head of Terry Spragg and Associates, has been trying to get traction with his idea since the 1990s when his company towed a 770,000-gallon waterbag between Port Angeles and Seattle in Washington as a demonstration of the technology.

His technology is poised to be an easier and more inexpensive way to transport water across long distances, by towing the buoyant million-gallon bags through the ocean, Spragg said.

“The key to this system is, there’s enough water in the world, it’s just not in the right place and it’s too expensive to transport,” he said.

He set his sights on the Montecito Water District as the perfect pilot client, since the district has no groundwater resources and is relying on purchased water to get through the next two years. After that, it looks to desalination, which has a high upfront capital cost and operating cost.

Clifford Goudy has worked on this technology with Spragg for at least 20 years, working on the initial design and testing the waterbag while he worked at MIT. Goudy, who lives in Massachusetts, now works on offshore renewable energy projects, including wind power and wave power.

California’s drought brings more urgency to this idea, Goudy says.

“Obviously California can always use more water, but the idea of pitching it during the drought — it’s hard, everyone thinks you’re a snake oil salesman,” he said.

The original idea, linking the million-gallon waterbags together like railroad boxcars with a massive zipper and towing the chain with a tugboat, wouldn’t be cost effective without hauling hundreds at once, very slowly, Goudy said.

Instead, they have their sights set on using diesel-powered drone boats that would tow one bag at a time and be remotely controlled, low-powered and slow-moving.

“Obviously that’s a very trendy topic, whether it’s self-driving cars, drone aircraft, there are unmanned vessels already operating, mostly for research purposes, but the technology is already there so there’s nothing magic that needs to be developed in order to do this,” Goudy said.

Thinking farther ahead, Spragg and Goudy are thinking about installing flexible solar panels to the wide tops of the bags and store energy in a battery system.

“Eventually, you know — you want to hear a crazy scientist — eventually you’ll have bags being towed by satellite, monitored by satellite and powered by solar energy,” Spragg said. “It’s new technology but all the pieces have been invented.”

For the pitch to Montecito, Spragg’s group calculated the costs to deliver 3,000 acre-feet per year, which works out for an average of 3 million-gallon bag deliveries per day. There would be a contract guaranteeing delivery of an amount of water per month or per year, maybe, so there’s flexibility to work around weather issues and avoid storms, Goudy said.

They claim they can deliver water for about $1,000 per acre-foot, which is about 326,000 gallons.  

“If it starts to rain, we can take those bags and operate somewhere else in the world — you can’t do that with a desalination plant,” Goudy said.

Waterbag Technology for Montecito

The Montecito Water District isn’t convinced. The district recently purchased 5,300 acre-feet of water, which could last up to two years, and plans to either build a desalination plant or join Santa Barbara’s facility after that, general manager Tom Mosby said.

Santa Barbara has said the facility isn’t going to be regional, and serve only city customers, but Montecito leaders refuse to rule it out.

Mosby argues that the city’s facility, if operating at the full permitted 10,000 acre-feet per year, could have enough capacity to supply Montecito as well as the city.

“When you look at it and weigh the options, that makes the most sense versus bringing bags down, three acre-feet or even 10 acre feet,” Mosby said. “We’re still selling, even under rationing, 300 acre-feet a month, so we need something that’s much more robust in terms of water supply than importing.”

A Demonstration for the 21st Century

Spragg hasn’t delivered any water to this point, but orchestrated the 100-mile demonstration hauling bags from Port Angeles, Wash., to Seattle on April 28-30 in 1996.

For his next demonstration, he plans to haul bags south from Humboldt Bay, an area that has water for sale since two pulp mills shut down recently, down to San Francisco Bay and then down the coast with stops in the Santa Barbara/Montecito area. They may use a tugboat, with several bags linked together like railroad cars, or a drone for that demonstration.

After that — which they’re still pursuing investors for — he’s hoping to get some delivery contracts.

“I have to prove the reality and reliability of waterbag technology and the economics,” Spragg said. “Water agencies down here, and correctly so, say, ‘We’ve never seen any water bags of our coast; how do we know you can deliver them?’ We know we can demonstrate it and that’s the next step.”

Mosby has doubts about the SpraggBag technology’s ability to deliver at all, and to deliver the volume needed to meet demand.

One million-gallon bag is three acre-feet, and Montecito is still using 10 acre-feet every day, Mosby said.

“Can you imagine the cost of that? It’d just be enormous. They wouldn’t stop. They’d be transporting water 24/7 to satisfy demand if the drought continues in the current level,” he said. “I just can’t imagine that option working for Montecito. It’s not that dire of a situation where we’re looking at 1 million gallons a day. We’re looking at 10 acre-feet a day.”

The Logistics of Delivering Water to Montecito

There is nothing legally prohibiting the waterbag drone-towing test, since the drone and bag, which is 250 to 300 feet long, would have all the U.S. Coast Guard-required lighting and markings, Goudy said.

“The biggest problem I think is because they float so low in the water they’re not easily visible,” he said.

It would have radar, video and communications systems, operate on pre-planned routes and have manual take-over abilities for evasive maneuvers and guiding it into port for offloading, Goudy said.

The loading and offloading systems wouldn’t require any new technology, just pipes to get the water pumped out of the bags and into whatever storage or distribution system being used, according to Spragg. 

Because of the water-tight bags and coating, the water quality is unchanged by the sea journey so treatment could theoretically be done at the loading or the offloading, according to Goudy. 

With small, car-sized drones pulling one bag, it would take six or seven days for it to travel from Humboldt Bay (their proposed water source) to Morro Bay or Montecito.

Morro Bay is connected to the Central Coast Water Authority’s State Water Project pipelines so water could be delivered at that port and then transported south to Lake Cachuma and, eventually, Montecito, Spragg says.

Central Coast Water Authority executive director Ray Stokes said Morro Bay wouldn’t work for offloading.

“The pipeline can run both ways. If they pumped water into the pipeline, Morro Bay wouldn’t be able to take state water,” Stokes said.

The water would have to be treated before arrival because CCWA water is treated at the plant in northern San Luis Obispo County, he said.

Spragg argues that waterbag technology will be cheaper than desalination with lower capital, operating and energy costs.

In the calculations to bring water to Montecito, delivering 3,000 acre-feet per year could be done for $1,124 per acre-foot with one bag towed per drone and 1,062 per acre-foot with two bags per drone.

That number assumes a low gas price, at $2.85 per gallon, and low water cost, at $100 per acre-foot. It also assumes it would take a fleet of 37 drones, at $100,000 per drone, to handle the load of one bag per drone.

Those drones have been invented and designed, but building a prototype is waiting on funding, Goudy said.

Santa Barbara’s City Council has funded more than $55 million in design and construction contracts to get the desalination plant running again and Spragg says his company wants a level playing field with desalination as an alternative water source.

“All you need to see is two waterbags sitting off the coast of Santa Barbara and it adds credibility to the process,” he said.

Spragg has been pursuing this idea for more than 20 years and truly believes his technology could help alleviate the drought in California and around the world.

“I don’t want to profit off misery but people should have taken us seriously 10 years ago,” Spragg said. “We’re persistent if nothing else.”

Noozhawk news editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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