California Could Learn a Lot About Combatting Drought from Israel

AP Photo/Gregory Bull
AP Photo/Gregory Bull

California is mired in the fourth year of the worst drought in state history.

Early last month, Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order mandating a 25% statewide cutback in urban water use. The State Water Resources Control Board has been busy writing and implementing the plan, which will affect all of California’s roughly 400 water agencies.

Conservation is key in combatting the drought; letting lawns turn brown is probably the easiest way to help save water, even if landscaping only accounts for a small percentage of the state’s overall water use.

Less attention has been focused on innovation as a solution to California’s water problems. Water storage and efficiency projects have stalled for decades as the state’s environmental interests have used the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to file frivolous lawsuits against contruction firms. And of course, desalination remains prohibitively expensive, although a few plants are scheduled to come online next year.

California could learn a lot about managing a water crisis from Israel. According to MIT’s Technology Review, Israel has five desalination plants, with at least four more expected to come online in the next few years. The country is also home to the largest desalination facility in the world, Sorek, built by an Israeli firm for $500 million in 2013. Desalinated water currently accounts for 20 percent of all water used in Israeli households, and by the time the new plants are up and running, that number could jump to 50 percent.

Amer Sweity, a Jordanian desalination expert and the first foreign national from any Arab country to receive a PhD in Israel, moved to the tiny country in 2006 to study its unique water situation: in a country dominated by desert weather conditions and frequent drought, Israel has more than enough water for its eight million citizens.

“Five desalination plants were built in Israel and that shifted everything for Israel in terms of water,” Sweity told the Times of Israel this week.

In Sweity’s former hometown of Amman, Jordan, water only flows through the taps once a week. According to the World Health Organization, Jordan has one of the lowest levels of water resource availability per capita in the world. Roughly one million Syrian and Iraqi refugees, fleeing to Jordan from war-torn Syria, are only compounding the country’s water shortage problem.

Sweity hopes to take the knowledge he’s gained in Israel and use it to help solve the water crisis in his home country.

“I want to do something for the coming generations in all the countries in the region,” he told the Times of Israel. “Science doesn’t stop at borders.”

Indeed it doesn’t. And California could stand to learn a thing or two from the way Israel has confronted its water problems, and the way Jordan has not.

While the state has begun building desalination plants up and down the coast, including what is expected to be the largest such facility in the Western Hemisphere when it opens next year in Carlsbad, the costs of the facilities, both financially and environmentally, are still too great. The Carlsbad plant will cost an estimated $1 billion when it is completed, and will supply about 7% of San Diego’s water needs.

What California needs to borrow from Israel is the country’s innovative spirit. While the Sorek desalination plant cost $500 million to build, innovations in engineering and the facility’s reverse osmosis process will allow it to turn a profit by selling water to the Israeli water authority for just 58 cents per 1,000 liters, enough water for an Israeli for one week.

“This is indeed the cheapest water from seawater desalination produced in the world,” Israel Institute of Technology desalination expert Raphael Semiat told Technology Review. “We don’t have to fight over water like we did in the past.”

California has roughly 38 million residents, far more than Israel’s eight million. And many have suggested that desalination is not the answer to the state’s water woes. For one, it is expensive, and state bureaucracies and panels delay construction of the plants for years. The Carlsbad plant reportedly waited seven years to begin construction due to a drawn-out battle to secure permits from local city governments. Poseidon Water, which is building the Carlsbad plant, hopes to have another facility up and running in Huntington Beach by 2018.

But there is a risk that by the time the desalination plants are built, the drought will be over. That exact scenario happened to Santa Barbara when it built a $34 million facility during a drought in the late 1980s. When the plant was completed in 1992, the drought was over; now, the city will have to spend $40 million to recommission it.

So desalination is not the answer or, at least not the whole answer.

But California can learn, too, from Jordan’s mismanaged water system. According to Mercy Corps., enough water for 2.6 million people, or roughly one-third of the country’s population, literally leaks out of Jordan’s faulty pipes every year.

California doesn’t have the exact same problem, although a few of Los Angeles’ century-old water mains burst recently, sending hundreds of thousands of gallons 50 feet in the air and into the streets. What California needs is water storage and dam systems, to protect against near-certain future drought. But the state is fighting the drought with one hand tied behind its back, a hand tied over the past thirty years by politically powerful environmental groups.

At the first Water Technology and Funding Summit in Pasadena this month, a group of entrepreneurs, attorneys, engineers, water experts, and policymakers came together to discuss innovations that could end the drought.

“There is no silver bullet,” Maria Mehranian, CFO of engineering firm Cordoba Corporation said while discussing methods that could help end the drought.

Indeed, there is no silver bullet. But if California is going to survive what could be the beginning of a much longer and more dangerous water shortage, it will have to learn all it can from its fellow water-deficient friends in the Middle East.


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