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To-go Bag

From the Roman aqueducts to modern-day pipelines, bulk water transportation hasn't changed all that much.

One water transportation technology that doesn't float (yet)

From the Roman aqueducts to modern-day pipelines, bulk water transportation hasn't changed all that much. But as places like Southern California and Melbourne, Australia, get thirstier, forward-looking entrepreneurs have tried to imagine new ways of making money from water transport.One of the stranger ideas involves towing water behind modified tugboats in colossal bags. In 1988 the Canadian engineer Jim Cran started developing what he called medusa bags. Named after the jellyfish, not the gorgon of Greek mythology, Cran's creations were monstrous nonetheless. The largest plastic bag made by Glad for use in your home has a volume of 49 gallons. Multiply that by three million and you'd have a small medusa bag.

It's this incredible capacity that makes medusa bags attractive. A supertanker can only carry about 100 million gallons of water. A medusa bag could, in theory, hold many times that volume-developers estimate a bag's costs would be around 2 percent of those of a ship. Cran's Medusa Corporation created designs for a bag that would hold nearly 400 billion gallons. It would be five and a half football fields long and more than a football field wide. While his practical tests were with much smaller bags, Cran posited that a capacity of 800 million gallons was possible in principle.

The bags themselves were made of woven polyester and coated with plasticized PVC. One would simply fill up the bag at sea from an offshore terminal that connects to a freshwater resource-a river, for example-in a water-rich area. Then, once it's full, just bring in a tugboat, and tow the bag to wherever water is most needed-or commands the highest price.

Medusa bags have already been put to use in perennially drought-stricken areas of the Mediterranean. In the late 1990s, a company called Aquarius Water Transportation began towing water to the Greek islands in 500,000-gallon bags. Nordic Water Supply used bags 10 times that size to transport water from Turkey to Cyprus. That venture ended up costing the company $1.5 million in the first half of 2001, and after a failed attempt to branch into other regions, the company went bankrupt two years later.The use of medusa bags has been proposed in the United States as well. In 2002, Ric Davidge, an Alaskan businessman and the economic developer for the city of Wasilla, tried to gain water rights to rivers near Mendocino County, California, with the idea of bagging the area's fresh water and selling it to San Diego.

Mendocino-area environmentalists, outraged with the idea of Davidge appropriating a local resource and disrupting a local ecosystem for personal profit, mobilized. He eventually changed the name of his company to Aqueous and tried the same pitch in Humboldt County. Local activists stopped him again.

Most recently, MH Waters, an Australian company, has been trying to sell the West Australian government on the idea of importing water to Perth. The proposal is currently being considered, but observers think it's unlikely to go anywhere. But neither are our global water problems. As prices-and potential profits-rise, the crazy may become the practical.

Illustration by Jonathan Park

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