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What California Can Learn From Israel About Water

Could Israel’s innovative use of water provide the answer for California and other water-strapped areas of the world? Seth Siegel, author of “Let There Be Water,” believes so. Here’s a look at his findings.

Written by Alastair Bland Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Workers climb stairs at the Sorek desalination plant in Rishon Letzion, Israel, in 2014. Israel's aggressive desalination program has transformed this perennially parched country into perhaps the best hydrated in the region.Dan Balilty, AP

With the formation of Israel in 1948, and a postwar exodus that drove up population in the region, Israel deepened its focus on water.

The new nation had to. Its population exploded, placing extreme demand on land and water resources. For the production of food, especially, efficient use of water, and producing more where resources lagged, were essential. Author Seth Siegel’s 2015 book “Let There Be Water” chronicles Israel’s role as a developer of water technology and innovation. He suggests that other arid economies look at Israel as a model and follow the young nation’s path toward water security.

In the realm of water, Israel was disadvantaged from the start. Its climate is dry – similar to that of California. However, whereas large rivers run through the arid regions of America’s most populous state, Israel’s surface water supply is scant. On top of that, its human population has boomed. Israel was home to about 800,000 people in 1948. Today, its population is 8 million. That’s roughly a quarter the population of California crammed into a land area one-twentieth California’s size. Moreover, Israel’s “annual rainfall – not generous to begin with – has dropped by more than half” in the past several decades, according to “Let There Be Water.”

So, as Siegel discusses, Israeli leaders were forced to make almost immediate innovations. The nation employed scientists and engineers to design ways to reduce its demand for water, increase efficiency and create more usable water. In the 1950s, as parts of the developed world began cautiously discussing the novel idea of treating sewage water before discarding it, Israel was already contemplating treating and reusing its sewage water for irrigation. Today, 95 percent of its sewage water is treated to high levels of purity, and 85 percent is reused.

In Israel agriculture consumes the majority of fresh water – as in California. The country has streamlined its farming systems. For one thing, plant breeders have developed salt-tolerant varieties of staple crops, including melons that can grow in saline soils irrigated with undrinkable water.

An Israeli invented drip irrigation, too. The concept – using a tiny hose and a minute stream of water to feed a tree or other plant only the moisture it can immediately consume – seems to have been born in the 1930s and was first tested in the 1950s. Today, Siegel tells us, not a single farm in Israel uses flood irrigation – still standard practice in much of California, even though it is widely viewed as inefficient and wasteful. Instead, nearly every Israeli farm uses drip. The practice has since spread around the world and is considered state-of-the-art nearly anywhere that water supplies are not fully reliable.

Desalination, perhaps more than any other technology, has created autonomy for Israel from its neighbor nations. In the span of a decade, Israel went from using no desalinated water to treating enough to make up 94 percent of household water use, according to Siegel. Israel doesn’t only desalinate seawater but also reduces or eliminates salinity in brackish groundwater in agricultural regions. Siegel explains that the ability to produce huge volumes of desalinated water has buffered Israel against the unexpected and sometimes brutal whims of nature.

In comparison to Israel, California has lagged in its advancement of desalination projects. Siegel tells us that Israel has built its five desalination plants “in less time than it took California to overcome legal issues just in building the Carlsbad plant [in San Diego County].”

However, desalination – though it seems a miracle – is not in itself a solution to a nation’s water woes.

This desalination plant in Hadera, Israel, was dedicated in 2010. The plant, on the Mediterranean coast south of the port city of Haifa, was the third of five planned desalination facilities built to provide two-thirds of Israel's drinking water. (Ariel Schalit, AP)

This desalination plant in Hadera, Israel, was dedicated in 2010. The plant, on the Mediterranean coast south of the port city of Haifa, was the third of five planned desalination facilities built to provide two-thirds of Israel’s drinking water. (Ariel Schalit, AP)

“Desalination may be the most valuable part of the mix [of methods used to address water shortages], but it cannot succeed standing alone,” Siegel writes. “It is too expensive, and the security risk too great, to allow it to become the only or even majority source of Israel’s water.”

Desalination is also an extremely energy-intensive process, and one that perhaps cannot – or should not, anyway – be sustained. David Zetland, a water policy writer and the author of “Living with Water Scarcity,” told Water Deeply last year that desalination plants may cause more problems than they solve by burning energy and contributing to global climate change-related drought.

Indeed, the reader of “Let There Be Water” may wonder at the discussion of desalination as a solution to water shortages when, on the same pages, the California lifestyle is described as including Jacuzzis, swimming pools and “frequently washed cars.” In San Diego County, supported by desalination, per capita water use is about triple that of the San Francisco Bay Area. Should water use be curbed before energy-intensive methods are used to manage the water supply?

Changing water demand is just as important as supply, as Israel has also shown.

“While Israel has invented many of the solutions that have changed the world of water, what sets the country apart isn’t the technology – all of which is known and available to all – but rather the extent to which it has adopted these techniques,” Siegel writes. “Throughout Israel, one can find posters exhorting citizens and visitors to make every drop count. It is that mindset that may be the most important solution of all for a water-starved world.”

The parallels between Israel and California are well worth considering as water security emerges as a threat to the environment and the global economy. Israel and California are both agricultural powerhouses. Each is on the coast with, in theory, all the water it could ever want at hand. Each has large arid areas. Each has experienced a massive population boom over a brief span of time. The chief difference, perhaps, is that California, thanks to its unique geography of high mountains and large rivers, has had the liberty to wait on innovating advanced water-supply solutions.

But, as Siegel writes in respect to global circumstances, “With a water crisis at hand, the time to act is now. Israel has shown how.”

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