TEL AVIV – So I am here to study the world’s leader in water conservation. Who knew that Israel has legitimately earned this distinction?
Indeed, Israel is one of the only countries in the world that has created such an efficient infrastructure of water supply and conservation that it can now function without rain. How is this possible? Desalinization plants – which remove minerals from saline water, making it fit for human consumption or irrigation – are a key piece of the puzzle. Israel’s Sorek desalination plant is not only the largest in the world, but can also produce enough drinking water for 1.5 million people. So far, Israel has enough desalination plants to provide 785 million cubic yards of water each year … and they aren’t stopping there.
Besides planning to build more desal plants, Israel is conserving water through rather extreme rationing, low flow and high public awareness of the value of every drop. Not to mention the fact that a sophisticated network of over 250 storage tanks and large reservoirs exists to provide water during the dry, hot summer months. Many of these infrastructure projects were built with private U.S. funds coming mainly from the Jewish National Fund.
Israel is opening up about its expertise in water management. As I wrote in 2014, in “Squeezing Water from a Rock,“ representatives from many parched countries have visited to study with Israel’s water experts and departed with vast knowledge that they can take back to their own drought-ridden lands. I think many parts of the world could benefit from Israel’s intellectual capital when it comes to water solutions.
Lord knows we could use their help right here in California. Despite October rains, 43 percent of the state is still experiencing drought (ranging from extreme to exception), according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Scientists also warn that California’s ten reservoirs – along with soil moisture levels and ground water aquifers – will take years of above-normal rain to recover from the drought.
READ MORE: How Savvy Women Save Water During a Drought
It seems like easy solutions to California’s water problems will not emerge anytime soon, either. You probably remember a cover story of The New York Times‘ “Science Times” section, which examined the crisis situation in California and the war between farmers in the Central Coast and Central Valley versus 20 million or so residents of the Los Angeles basin who also need water. Not once is the word desalinization mentioned, despite L.A.’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean.
Perhaps this hesitance is related to the convoluted and oftentimes debilitating process faced in planning, funding and receiving approval to build the largest desalinization plant in the Western Hemisphere, the Claude “Bud” Lewis Desalination Plant based in Carlsbad, CA. Owned and operated by Poseidon, this plant took 15 years, start to finish and is now producing 50 million gallons of water per day. The budget far exceeded even the loftiest expectations, reaching $1 billion when all was said and done.
Unlike this example, Israel has been able to develop a national strategy for water management because the state runs the water grid. This is a sharp contrast to our situation at home, where deals must be planned and battled out in the courtroom, county by county, state by state. Meanwhile, waiting 15 years to pursue future desalination plants or other drought management solutions may not be an option.
“The US government projects that 40 of our 50 states will be facing water problems within the next 10 years,” says Jeff Levine, a New York City property developer and President of the Jewish National Fund. “Although California gets nearly all of the news coverage, many other states are already feeling water supply problems. California has entered into an arrangement with Israel to accelerate Israeli engagement in California’s water sector. I’m sure that other states will follow. Israel has so much to teach the world about how to prepare for a drier, more water-limited future.” The Jewish National Fund has been an integral partner in increasing Israel’s water economy by over 12 percent through the treatment, recycling and collection of waste and runoff waters, responsible aquifer drilling and river rehabilitation.
“One major innovation that has helped Israel mitigate its water crisis is drip irrigation, an agricultural irrigation method pioneered in Israel and widely used in agriculture throughout the world,” Levine explains. “In addition to drip irrigation, Israel has led the way in wastewater management and utilization that is largely credited with saving the country’s agricultural industry. With improved treatment techniques and incentives available to farmers to switch to reclaimed sewage water, Israel has become the world’s leader in water reuse — recycling approximately 80% of its water. To put that into context, Spain comes in at a distant second, reusing 17% of its wastewater, and the U.S. at 5%.”
READ MORE: Why the L.A. River Matters
How does Israel reach that stunning 80 percent? One of Israel’s most effective methods is recycling 75 percent of its national sewage. The water is treated to the point to where it can be used for a variety of crops – 50 percent of the water used in Israel’s agriculture originates from treated sewage. While eating crops grown with cleaned waste water may not sound appealing at first, consider this: American grocery shoppers still covet Israel’s Medjool dates, grown using recycled water.
The moral of the story is that Israel was a country faced with extreme water scarcity but turned its struggles into an opportunity using science, technical expertise and, most importantly, long-term planning 50 years ahead. Meanwhile, we go in circles in California about whether the almond farmers will continue to get their huge water allocations while millions of people in L.A. will, at some point, be out of water. Perhaps, we should spend less time pointing fingers at each other and more time adopting water solutions that are available now.
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