How Israel’s water solutions can save California

By Jared Sichel | September 30, 2015

On a 6-acre site north of San Diego overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the Western Hemisphere’s largest desalination plant is set to begin operating this month. And on the plant’s grounds, amid the buzzing generators and whooshing sounds of water, there’s Hebrew in the air — lots of it.

The $1 billion plant in Carlsbad was built and designed by Poseidon Water and IDE Technologies, an Israeli desalination company owned by Delek and Israel Chemicals that sent some of its engineers and designers to Carlsbad to bring the plant online. The San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) entered into a water purchase agreement with Poseidon in 2012 so that desalinated seawater could become a component of the county’s mix of water sources, one that will provide extremely reliable (if expensive) insurance against water scarcity (because ocean water will always be available for treatment, while other sources rely upon rain or recycled water). The desalinated water is expected to provide about 7 percent of San Diego County’s water needs, which include its current sourcing from the Colorado River, Northern California, recycled water and elsewhere.

During a recent tour of the new Carlsbad plant, Israeli engineers and plant designers for IDE were working hand in hand with American engineers and deck hands as IDE and Poseidon prepared for an October launch, at which point the plant is expected to provide 50 million gallons per day of clean drinking water to SDCWA’s service area of 3.2 million people.

Miriam Faigon, director of IDE’s Solutions Department, told the Journal on Sept. 21 that the plant is undergoing “final testings and approvals.” Getting to this point is a particularly big deal, considering it took Poseidon and IDE six years to overcome environmental lawsuits and permitting delays, according to Mark Lambert, CEO of IDE Americas. And even though by 2009 lawsuits had been settled and permitting was completed, it wasn’t until 2012 that Poseidon finalized a water purchase and financing agreement with the SDCWA. Construction finally began in 2012 — a decade after the start of the permitting process, longer than it took Israel to build all of its coastal desalination plants, according to Seth M. Siegel, author of “Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World.”

Desalinated seawater costs more than $2,000 per acre-foot (326,000 gallons), two times as expensive as imported water, which costs less than $1,000 per acre-foot. Desalinated water is also significantly more costly than water pumped from underground aquifers or captured and stored when it falls from the sky, according to SDCWA Water Resources Manager Dana Friehauf. But with Southern California in its fourth consecutive year of a severe drought, relying on traditional sources of water — primarily rain and snow from the Sierra Nevada mountain range — is no longer enough for a population of nearly 23 million.

“[Desalination] is an excellent drought-proof supply,” Friehauf said. “It doesn’t depend on whether it rains or snows up in the Sierra Nevada.”

The Carlsbad project’s originators appear particularly prescient today, given that officials there began discussing the possibility of a desalination plant as early as the late 1990s. Just this past June, as a response to the state’s severe drought, Gov. Jerry Brown mandated a statewide, 25 percent reduction in water use compared with the same period in 2013. Cities in the state reached those targets this summer, cutting water use by a combined 27 percent in June and 31 percent in July. State officials are authorized to fine water authorities that don’t meet Brown’s targets between $500 and $10,000 per day.

Thanks to IDE and to Israel’s decades-long culture of innovative water conservation and purification technology, Israel’s handprint is all over Carlsbad’s desalination technology, which is gaining more and more supporters in California amid the ongoing drought. The plant’s recent tour, which coincided with an International Desalination Association conference in San Diego, was led by an Israeli project manager named Ziv Shor, who showed off the inner workings of the plant, including intake valves, high-pressure pumps, 8,000-horsepower motors, flocculation chambers, booster pumps, micronic filters and the membranes used in the plant’s reverse-osmosis process. Shor said it takes seawater about 45 minutes to become purified once it enters the Carlsbad plant’s system from the discharge valves of the adjacent Encina Power Station.

Israel currently relies on its four desalination plants for one-quarter of the nation’s freshwater needs; in the late 1990s, after experiencing a particularly brutal drought, it decided to build its first five seawater desalination plants along the Mediterranean coast, the fifth of which is set to open this year. Eilat’s municipal water authority relies entirely on desalinated water — some of it from the sea, some of it brackish water that is cleaner than seawater and significantly less expensive to purify.

IDE built and manages three of Israel’s desalination plants, including one in Sorek, south of Tel Aviv, which is the world’s largest, most technologically advanced desalination plant, producing 165 million gallons of freshwater every day.

Since 2014, while IDE has been applying Israel’s desalination expertise in Carlsbad, multiple state and local governments in California have established task forces and signed agreements — at this point still wholly symbolic — with Israel. In 2014, during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to California, Brown signed an economic cooperation agreement with the prime minister that encourages California and Israel to share water conservation technology.

In October 2014, the Los Angeles-Eilat Cooperation and Innovation Task Force held its first meeting, at Los Angeles City Hall, focusing on Israel’s water conservation, reuse and purification technology, particularly desalination. Professor Eilon Adar, director of the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, told the L.A. City Council, “If we managed to overcome this problem in Israel, in the Middle East, it can be done almost anywhere else in the world.”

On Sept. 1, Los Angeles County’s Board of Supervisors and Beverly Hills’ City Council passed unanimous resolutions to encourage L.A. County and Beverly Hills to work with Israel on solving California’s water shortage.

Orange County has a massive wastewater purification system, created in 2008 and capable of producing up to 100 million gallons of freshwater a day. Los Angeles’ West Basin Municipal Water District has provided purified wastewater to 17 coastal cities in the county, and as San Diego opens its desalination plant, it’s clear that Southern California’s cities are looking for alternatives to relying upon annual snowfall as a primary water source.

But is desalination, which has been so successful in Israel, a viable, or likely, alternative here?

“The [desalination] technology itself is great technology, and it’s the same technology we talk about for recycled water and brackish, brown water,” said Mark Gold, director of UCLA’s Coastal Center at the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, cautioning, though, that seawater desalination is currently too expensive for widespread use. “Ocean desalination needs to get a lot more energy efficient, which many people are working on.” He added that further improvements to desalination technology are needed on the environmental impact end, so that water intake is done “below the ocean floor, rather than in the ocean itself, so you’re not literally sucking the life out of the ocean.”

Mehul Patel, director of water production at the Orange County Water District (OCWD), said Poseidon, which is constructing a 50-million-gallon-per-day desalination facility in Huntington Beach, has approached the
OCWD’s board about signing a water-purchase agreement, and that he and other officials are in the “exploratory phase” and discussing costs with Poseidon.

He added that if the OCWD included desalinated seawater in its water mix, it would raise water prices across the board for the 2.5 million people the water district serves. “Are they willing to pay more for a more reliable source?” Patel asked, rhetorically. “You have to have consensus across your entire service area that you want to do this for reasons of water scarcity.”

Andy Lipkis, founder and president of the nonprofit TreePeople, which is based in Los Angeles, has for decades pioneered research on stormwater capture. He believes seawater desalination is not the way to go because it’s the most expensive option and uses similar technology — reverse osmosis — as less expensive options, such as wastewater purification.

“It takes a completely unsustainable amount of energy to power [seawater] desalination, but not for wastewater,” Lipkis said. “We have a lot of contaminated groundwater in the San Fernando Valley that must be treated and served.”

Right now, more than 85 percent of L.A.’s water needs use water sources that are hundreds of miles away, as pointed out in the Los Angeles Department of  Water and Power’s Stormwater Capture Master Plan, which was completed in June in partnership with TreePeople. One of the conclusions of that study is that Los Angeles can and should embark on projects to increase its stormwater capture capacity from about 29,000 acre-feet per year to between 68,000 and 114,000 acre-feet per year by 2035.

Lipkis hopes that installing, retrofitting and subsidizing rainwater capture technology at homes and buildings in Los Angeles, as has been done successfully in some dry Australian coastal cities, will reduce Los Angeles County’s per capita water consumption below its already impressive 130 gallons per day.

Lipkis pointed to the rainstorm on Sept. 15, saying that just the water that fell on his roof filled his 1,000-gallon test cistern. “It’s nice to have a full tank at home right now,” he said, “And [it] will be especially nice if we don’t get much more rain.”

And whether Los Angeles moves in the direction of seawater desalination, as San Diego has, wastewater treatment, as Orange County has, stormwater capture, as Lipkis recommends, or an all-of-the-above solution, California’s drought is forcing Los Angeles to rethink its dependence on faraway water sources. And Israel is likely to continue to be a part of that conversation.

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