Israel’s revolutionary water management methods aren’t going to be enough to solve California’s devastating drought

California and most of the southwestern US is mired in a devastating drought that has dragged on for more than four years. The dry spell has forced the state to resort to water rationing, raised the specter of ecological disaster, and imperiled the economic vitality of the region.

In recent months the Golden State has turned to a controversial technological process that’s helped pull Israel out of its own long-running drought.

But experts warn that the methods Israel used may not do California any good, and may even harm the state’s fragile environment.

Harnessing the ocean?

A nearly $1 billion ocean-desalination plant is currently under construction north of San Diego. Upon completion it will become the largest such facility in the Western Hemisphere, The New York Times reported in early April.

The plant will not be the first in the US, or in California. But the scale and expense of the project is unprecedented in the US. And desalination of ocean water appears to be a palatable option for the western states in the face of diminishing freshwater resources — and after Israel overcame chronic water shortages in just a few years using similar technology.

In 2009, at the crest of a seven-year drought, the severity of Israel’s water scarcity problems prompted the government to pass strict measures clamping down on water use — going so far as to tell citizens to decrease the length of their showers — and to invest in new technology to expand water stocks.

“We were in a situation where we were very, very close to someone opening a tap somewhere in the country and no water would come out,” Uri Schor, spokesman and education director for the Israeli Water Authority, told The Times last month.

National efforts to desalinate seawater and recycle wastewater have enabled the Mediterranean country, which is more than half desert, to satisfy its water needs even in times of drought — though that new water costs more. As The Times notes, more than half of the freshwater consumed by Israeli homes, agriculture, and industries is currently produced artificially.

Desalination has been central to the government’s efforts. The country’s fifth plant will likely come online this year, bringing total production to over 130 billion gallons of drinkable water per year.

Israel also established a centralized water authority to cut through bureaucratic red tape and made steep cuts in agricultural water subsidies, raising the price of water for farmers and encouraging lesser use. Recycling and conservation also figures heavily into the Israeli water scheme: 86% of domestic wastewater is recycled for agricultural use and household use has been cut by almost one-fifth, according to The Times. In contrast, California recycles just 13% of its municipal wastewater — although this puts it well ahead of the US as a whole, which recycles just 1%.

Desalination doubts

The expansion of Israel’s desalination capabilities gained attention around the world, and now California is partnering with companies and experts from the Middle Eastern country to increase its own freshwater-production capacity.

The plant under construction in Carlsbad, near San Diego, is being developed by an Israeli company, IDE Technologies, in partnership with the US firm Poseidon Resources Corp, according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz. In addition to collaborating on construction, the Israeli firm signed a deal with Poseidon for operation and maintenance of the facility for 30 years.

According to Peter MacLaggan, VP at Poseidon, each of the three IDE plants in Israel produce an output of about double what is expected from the Carlsbad plant. “This is the one supply that San Diego County is investing in that is truly drought-proof,” MacLaggan told Haaretz.

Cooperation between Israel and California to confront the Golden State’s water woes has grown after Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and California governor Jerry Brown signed an agreement to share technology and expand economic cooperation last year.

The measure specified cooperation on water conservation and management and included visits from experts from Israel’s Ben Gurion University of the Negev, known for its water recycling and desalination research.

But many have not welcomed the renewed push for desalination.

“Our position is that seawater desalination should be the option of last resort,” and not taken up until sustainable supplies are exhausted, California Coastkeeper Alliance lawyer Sean Bothwell told the The Times. Water policy experts in California have echoed his sentiment — as have desalination critics in Israel.

For some, expense is an issue. Desalinated water may cost twice as much as conventional freshwater (though it still comes in at less than a penny per gallon). In San Diego County the new plant may drive monthly water bills up by about $5 — all in exchange for an amount roughly equal to 7% to 8% of the entire locality’s consumption, according to The Times.

And then there are the environmental concerns. According to The Times, the reverse-osmosis process used to treat ocean water requires a massive amount of energy — though energy input has been cut in half over the last two decades and new filtration technology promises further declines. Even so, this energy use would increase carbon dioxide emissions, which are linked to global warming and climate change.

Ironically, this possible response to the effects of climate change may also contribute to its underlying factors. But some have cited climate change as a reason to support desalination: As geographer Eric Swyngedouw noted in a recent paper, dwindling rainfall and reservoir levels, coupled with population growth, will likely make extracting potable water from the sea more appealing. This appeal may also be bolstered by decades-long megadroughts predicted to afflict the American west in the future.

Disposing of the salt left over from treated ocean water has also presented an environmental challenge to planners.

If, as science reporter Daniel Potter noted on PBS Newshour, the salt is “dumped back in [to the ocean] all at once, it’s much denser than the sea water, and so it just sinks and can hurt sea life on the bottom.” Others have argued that the plants’ water-intake methods may also harm sea life.

There’s no silver bullet for the Golden State

The salt issue is just one of many problems that have to be overcome in California. Yoram Cohen, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at UCLA, has encouraged cooperation but cautioned that the Israeli model is not replicable in California.

Israel has about 8 million citizens and is roughly 8,000 square miles in size, dwarfed by California’s nearly 39 million residents and 163,600 square miles. Israel’s ability to pipe water throughout nearly the entirety of its populated territory can’t be duplicated in California, Cohen says.

Additionally, California is not currently able to centrally dictate usage and pricing standards the way Israel can. “In California, water prices vary from location to location and district to district. Last I heard, Los Angeles had over 100 different water suppliers,” Cohen told USA Today.

Cohen stressed that in California, only 10% of water goes to urban consumption while 80% goes to agriculture. That means that the most salient lesson from Israel’s experience has to do with optimizing water use on farms and figuring out how to steer scarce freshwater away from water-intensive crops.

Such state-mandated picking and choosing could be impossible in California. As Daniel Potter noted, water policies and apportionment are complex and politically fraught in the state, and Israeli-style policies would need a degree of centralized policymaking that California would have huge difficulty achieving.

In a vast and heavily populated state like California, Israel’s integrated and top-down approach to water management could be impossible to adopt.

California will have to forge its own model. The alternative to finding a way out of the state’s water crisis is dire to contemplate. Without a new model of water management or a natural end to the drought at some unknowable point in the future, there could be indefinite cuts in water usage, a drop in agricultural capacity, and Dust Bowl-style ecological collapse in America’s most populous state.

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