Could Israeli Ingenuity (and Seawater) Help California Slake Its Thirst?

By Steven Cuevas | October 5, 2015

Along a picture-postcard stretch of coast in Carlsbad near San Diego, fishermen cast their lines into an emerald seawater lagoon.

In a few short weeks, the lagoon will also be feeding a steady supply of water into what will be the largest operating desalination facility in North America.

“I’m a kayak fisherman, this is our recreational area for those of us who live here, and of course we want it to be the best project it can be,” says Mark Lambert.

Lambert runs the American branch of IDE, an Israeli company hired by the San Diego County Water Authority to design and operate the plant. It’s just one of hundreds designed by IDE around the world.

“Four hundred facilities globally in 40 different countries,” says Lambert, sitting at a long conference table inside the Carlsbad offices of Poseidon Water, a firm working with IDE on the project.

When up and running, the Carlsbad plant will pipe around 50 million gallons of water a day to households across the San Diego area. That’s about 7 percent of the region’s overall usage.

That’s a modest amount compared to Israel, where about 40 percent of the nation’s potable water flows directly from a network of seawater desalination plants.

Lambert says the desalination business starting booming in Israel in the late 1990s in the midst of a historic drought not unlike California’s.

“Israel is probably the most well known for developing the technology to the state of the art,” says Lambert.

A couple of hours east in the sweltering Coachella Valley, an Israeli date farmer named Moshe Kirat is watering date trees from a laptop.

“If I want to stop the water for example, you see the meter running,” says Kirat scrolling around a virtual control panel lined with columns of numbers and percentages.

Kirat left his own farm in Israel a couple of years ago to run day-to-day operations at Kohl Ranch, a sprawling date farm east of Palm Springs.

He installed a high-tech drip irrigation system that precisely monitors water flow. It’s a way of farming that’s alien to many Coachella Valley farmers, who still rely on more water-intensive flood irrigation.

But Kirat says that kind of irrigation is wasteful and potentially harmful.

He pulls up a picture that shows a flood-irrigated field after the water has receded. Kirat points to the salty residue the water left behind — salt that can seep into a tree’s root system.

“And when I saw this I was in shock. I didn’t understand,” says Kirat, his voice rising. “You come to a field and you’ll see this! You don’t think to improve something or to change something?”

An Israeli grower pays around $2,800 for one acre-foot of water. That’s about 326,000 gallons — enough water to flood a football field to a depth of 12 inches or supply two California households for a year.

Farmers in the Coachella Valley, who get most of their water from the Colorado River under a 1947 agreement with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, pay about $30 an acre-foot.

While down in San Diego County, where Mauricio Tapia used to grow avocados, it’s about $1,500 for that same acre-foot.

Seven months ago, Tapia walked away from those avocado trees and took a job at Kohl Ranch assisting Kirat.

“This situation we have here in California today, it’s going to be more difficult to get water to irrigate (what) we have planted today,” says Tapia referring to the drought.

“Technology like (Kirat) is applying and Israeli people are applying are going to help us,” he says.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said pretty much the same thing last year when he inked an agreement with Gov. Jerry Brown to encourage Israel and California to work together on water issues.

“California doesn’t need to have a water problem. By coming together we can overcome this,” said Netanyahu.

Last month Los Angeles County cemented its own water knowledge exchange program with Israel.

Other cities, like Santa Barbara and Huntington Beach, are working on ocean desalination projects of their own with Israeli firm IBE.

But what’s the incentive for transitioning to a big, expensive drip irrigation system if water in some places is still so cheap? Or,  wonders Richard Atwater of the Southern California Water Committee, for building a billion-dollar ocean desalination plant that can only serve a small part of California?

“I don’t think there’s any water planner who thinks we’re going to take desalted seawater from down on the coast and pipe it up to downtown LA or the San Fernando Valley,” says Atwater.

“It would be really, really expensive. We have better solutions than that,” he says.

Atwater points to wastewater recycling that he and other supporters believe California has yet to fully take advantage of. He’s also quick to point out that Israelis don’t have the love affair with lush green lawns and golf courses that we do in California.

“One of the big differences between Israel and California is in the cities, and the desire to have lush green landscapes,” says Atwater. “Half of our water use is outdoor water use.”

Back at Kohl Ranch, Moshe Kirat and Mauricio Tapia are clearing weeds so they can get a better look at the flow from a drip irrigation line.

The weeds and the soil are bone dry. But the dates are tender to the touch.

Kirat plucks a handful and offers them to me, saying that Israelis believe you should eat seven dates a day to insure good health.

Thanks to the drip irrigation system, says Tapia, the trees drink up just what they need and nothing more.

I ask Tapia what he thinks it’ll take for other farmers here and in other parts of California to adopt this kind of high-tech drip irrigation.

More expensive water perhaps?

“That’s the key,” says Tapia.

Then he pauses.

“And more politics, more population.”

And, he says, more drought.

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