Israel to California: Here’s how to save water

YATIR FOREST, Israel — As Californians struggle with an ever-worsening water shortage caused by a historic drought, they might look east for a solution — to the Middle East.

Israel, subject to intermittent droughts for decades, has pioneered a number of water-saving techniques. It long ago figured out how to grow crops in the desert and for decades has advised the developing world on how to manage scarce water resources.

Now, Israel is eager to share its latest know-how with drought-ridden states like California. These helpful techniques include water quotas, desalination plants and the reuse of household wastewater.

Six years ago when Israel was in the grips of its own dire drought, the government actually considered shipping in water from Turkey — more than 1,000 nautical miles away. Instead, the country embarked on a coordinated effort of recycling used water, desalination and education.

“Israel no longer has a water shortage,” said Uri Shani, a Hebrew University professor and former director of the Israel Water Authority.

Israel and California have cooperated on water issues for years, but mostly “on a grass-roots level,” said Yoram Cohen, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at UCLA-Los Angeles. “Now it’s time to collaborate on commercial water technology projects that can benefit both countries.”

An Israeli company, IDE Technologies, is designing a desalination plant in Carlsbad, Calif., 35 miles north of San Diego, that would provide 300,000 Californians with 50 million gallons per day of drinking-quality water. Desalination plants remove salt and chemicals from seawater.

But to truly save water, Israel “first had to convince people that water is a commodity and not unlimited,” Shani explained.

Under his watch, the Israel Water Authority set an affordable water quota for every individual and farmer, and taxed excess use at a much higher rate. The amount of water allocated to farmers was cut in half, forcing them to grow less thirsty crops and adopt water-saving technology.

Municipalities were ordered to fix their pipes. Today, less than 8% of urban water in Israel is lost through leakage.

Desalination plant construction along Israel’s Mediterranean coast was stepped up. About 40% of Israel’s drinking water comes from desalination, and that could rise to 70% by 2050.

In addition, Israel purifies 85% of all household wastewater. “The water is at the level where, if someone accidentally drinks it, it’s OK,” Shani said. He said the recycled wastewater is utilized by farmers, mostly for drip irrigation — a pinpoint delivery system invented in Israel in the 1960s.

“At first the farmers were afraid to use recycled wastewater. It took time to convince them,” said Joseph Schreiber, director of the engineering and development division of the Jewish National Fund-KKL, which has planted nearly 250 million trees since the early 1900s and built 180 reservoirs and dams.

At the Yatir Forest, a man-made greenbelt on the edge of the Negev Desert in southern Israel, foresters have developed ways to keep millions of pine trees alive on less than 4 inches of rainfall a year.

The forest’s fruit trees, cared for by local farmers, require irrigation to survive.

Now that the drought that began in 2009 has eased, the forest’s annual rainfall is 9-10 inches, close to Sacramento’s annual rainfall of 10.3 inches, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

A few years ago the forest received just 2.75 inches of rain. Runoff channels sculpted into the soil gave the tree roots another inch-and-a-half of water. That coupled with a system that allows roots to breathe and cuts away water-hungry undergrowth was enough for them to survive, said Amir Mazor, regional forest director for the Jewish National Fund, while kneeling by a towering pine tree.

During the worst droughts, foresters soaked the trees once a year with 26 gallons of water sprayed from trucks, Mazor said.

UCLA’s Cohen, said Israel’s model, as good as it is, cannot be duplicated in the Golden State.

Israel is only about the size of New Jersey, “a fraction of the size of California,” he said. So it’s relatively simple for Israel to pipe recycled and desalinated water to any point in the country. That won’t work in California, given the distances and terrain, Cohen said.

And Israel’s water policy and pricing are set for the whole country. “In California, water prices vary from location to location and district to district. Last I heard, Los Angeles had over 100 different water suppliers,” he added.

Unlike Israel, where permits for desalination plants have been accelerated, California has a long process because of environmental concerns. “You can’t just build a plant,” Cohen said.

What California can learn from Israel is how to optimize the water that is available by steering away from crops that use the most water, Cohen said. The state can also try to greatly reduce water use in the urban areas.

But California’s urban water consumption accounts for just 10% of the state’s water use, while agriculture accounts for 80%, Cohen pointed out.

“If people cut their water use in half, that’s only 5% of our total water supply,” he said. “What we need is a comprehensive strategy to use water.”

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