How One Country Nailed the Solution to Its Drought

June 21st 2015

Israel is a cultural hub with a population of 8.2 million people, known as the land of "milk and honey" for its rich history and its role as a main exporter of citrus fruits. Just like arid California, Israel's terrain has long been desert (60 percent of its land mass).

In its 65 years of modern establishment, Israel intermittently deals with the ebb and flow of drought. Instead of having a water shortage or depending on water imports, Israel decided to take matters into its own hands. With a collective mindset that every drop counts, Israel continues investing in evolving technologies to provide for the present and future fight for water sustainability.

Israel's important drought lessons

While Jerusalem is more than a 14-hour flight away from Los Angeles, the Golden State has much to learn from the Middle East nation.

California is drying up and cracking under the pressure of a fourth year of drought with 2014 as the warmest year and winter on record. Measurements by the National Drought Mitigation Center on June 9, 2015 read that 71 percent of the state was categorized as a D3-D4 intensity (extreme drought to exceptional drought, respectively). More that 98 percent of the state is defined as being in a drought.

In January, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) issued a state of emergency declaration and instituted a “strict” conservation statewide plan. However, there is little reprieve despite “Brown is the new Green” campaigns, #droughtshaming, demolished swimming pools, astonishingly thin herds of cattle, withered acres and the startling sight of the dry, cracked former site of Lake Mendocino; there is no puddle jumping in sight.

California’s drought affects far beyond its own shores to touch the U.S. economy, food prices, and unemployment rate. Central California farmers, formerly the gatekeepers for harvesting about half of America's produce—everything from cantaloupes to almonds— no longer grow as much as they could before the drought. High water rates are making farming less profitable. Less growing means agricultural layoffs are rampant; in 2014, 17,000 farming jobs were lost and an estimated $2.2 billion in agricultural losses accrued.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 has been put in place issuing a number of regional sustainable groundwater agencies to be created by 2017. Each is to have a 20-year achievable sustainability plan by 2022. But, seven years from now, there may be little to no ground water left to sustain, especially with an increased reliance on groundwater (an estimated unprecedented 85-90 percent usage rate according to Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a professor at UC Irvine). In April, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) issued an executive order, calling for the state to reduce water usage by 25 percent through a number of tactics—replacing lawns with drought-tolerant landscapes, a ban on ornamental lawn area watering and required reporting from local water agencies. While considering solutions it is important to keep in mind that California agriculture accounts for 80 percent of water use; urban water usage accounts for 10 percent.

Israel sought drought solutions

California and Israel are located in different parts of the world, with different land areas (8,019 square miles in Israel compared to 423,970 square miles in California), but similar situations and climates can offer Californians some valuable lessons in the preceding ecological crisis.

In March 2014 Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement on Bloomberg Television regarding the West Coast state.

“California, I hear, has a big water problem,” Netanyahu said. “We in Israel don’t have a water problem. We use technology to solve it, in recycling, in desalination, in deep drip irrigation and so on. And these technologies could be used by the state of California to eliminate its chronic drought problem.”

Before the modern installation and operation of water sustainable technologies, the National Water Carrier was established in 1964 to transport water from Lake Kinneret (AKA Sea of Galilee and Israel’s largest fresh water reservoir) in the north and transports it to the barren south. It connected with two other major pipelines to form the central artery for useable water in Israel.

Solution One: Separate the Salt

Desalination, the process of converting seawater to drinking water, began in the 1970s and was heavily embraced in the 1990s after a bad drought. Jerusalem's first reverse osmosis plant opened in 1997 in Eilat. Salt water (and brackish well water) is first brought in through a long pipe, which screens out pathogens and sea life. The water is then pressure-forced through plastic membrane rolls, which separate the salt out through a thermodynamic process. About half of the seawater filtered through desalination is transformed into useable water and accounts for about 25 percent of Israel’s water supply; 40 percent of Israel’s drinking water comes from the process and is estimated to rise to 70 percent by 2050.

Potential issues with desalination come from the post-process product of thick brine that if dumped back into the ocean can sink and threaten sea creatures at the ocean floor. Damage is mitigated through diluting the leftover salt and then releasing the brine in spaced out sections further out into the ocean, so careless quantities are not dumped in one area.

Size is to be taken into consideration as well. Israel is equated to the size of New Jersey. Pumping that desalinated water across as much land as California is an entirely different issue. However it could be a piece of the solution.

Consequently IDE Technologies, Israel’s largest desalination company, is heading a desalination plant north of San Diego in Carlsbad. Projections estimate an output of 50 million gallons a day of fresh water for 300,000 Californians; it will join a proposed plant in Monterey and an idled plant in Santa Barbara.

Solution Two: Recycle the Flush

Israel holds the world title for the highest recycling rate of sewage. In comparison, the U.S. recycles less than 10 percent of sewage. More than half of water used in agriculture comes from this treated sewage. Facilities break down the organic waste and extract contaminants in the sewage down to the level set by the Health Ministry before sending the water to farmers for irrigation.

Potential struggles with implementation of sewage recycling come from safety and ensuring that endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs) and other contaminants are adequately removed. If not, the class of chemicals can affect human reproductive systems and development. EDCs occur naturally in the environment but increased exposure to these, especially through drinking water, can add to health issues. Proper oversight, testing, standardization and regulation can help to combat this—as Israel continues to do—while still implementing this portion of the drought puzzle.

Solution Three: Less Thirst

Israel made a public relations point of ensuring people understood the gravity of drought and water conservation. The Israel Water Authority set a quota for every citizen and farmer. Anyone who used above that quota had a higher taxed rate. Farmers then shifted crop growth to plants that required less water and invested in water-saving techniques.

Ads—like this one featuring the drying, cracked skin of celebrities and models due to lack of moisture—served as a powerful metaphor for civilian water reduction. Various organizations sponsor programs, like the Jewish National Fund’s Green Horizons Rainwater Harvesting Program, to target citizens of all ages to understand the importance of conservation and practice techniques. In school, kids are taught to practice basic techniques and then pass this along to the rest of the family. Information about conservation thus reaches citizens through multiple avenues.

Solution Four: Patch the Pipes

Pipes are built and then pipes age. They get old, leaky and result in huge longitudinal water loss as well as water main breaks. Astonishingly, according to the World Bank, 32 billion cubic meters of urban water are lost annually around the world due to drips and leaks. The result: a loss of 25-30 percent of urban drinking water at a global cost of $14 billion.

Israel uses sensors to identify leaks and keep water loss to a minimum. Technologies like CuraPipe Systems deploy a system called Trenchless Automated Leakage Repair. Within the process, two, bullet-like foam swabs are released to fix urban water pipes, allowing a viscous curing substance to be released over the leak when detected. Upstart TaKaDu designed software to analyze data collected from smart sensors within the water system. The sensors monitor rate of flow, water quality and pressure to identify where issues in the infrastructure lie so that they can be fixed in a timely and appropriate manner.

Small improvements in California's drought

Recent reports such as the 13.5 percent drop in water use in April, compared to April 2013 are encouraging but a small step toward overall sustainable success (despite celebrities like Kanye West failing to help the effort). Improvements to the water system in California will not be easy or affordable but they will be worthy. Taking a tip or two from the pages of Israel’s guide to living with perpetual drought is a great starting point.

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