California Drought: What Would Israel Do?
May 15, 2015
In a rich cover story in the May 15th issue of San Francisco’s J Weekly, writer Dan Pine examines California’s water crisis and the state’s outreach to Israel for help. Two of Israel’s top hydrologists from Ben-Gurion University’s Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research may be part of the solution. The text below includes excerpts from the feature article.
J Weekly — Israeli know-how in dealing with water shortage, could make a difference in California. With the state’s reservoirs at historic lows — the two biggest, Shasta Lake and Lake Oroville, both down 40 percent — every drop counts.
In January, Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought state of emergency, and in April ordered mandatory 25 percent water reductions in cities and towns. Compliance is low.
Living in a land of permanent water scarcity, Israelis grow up with a credo of water conservation. The country pioneered drip irrigation and wastewater recycling. As California bakes in its fourth year of exceptional drought — the worst stretch in 1,200 years — Israel has much to offer by way of remedies.
With the drought worsening, state water managers have been seeking Israeli expertise. On June 11, Israeli hydrologists and entrepreneurs will meet in Sacramento with state politicians, academics and other water experts for a daylong conference titled “Israel Water Technology: Opportunities for California.” Together they will explore ways to bring Israeli experience and know-how to California.
Eilon Adar, a professor in the Department of Environmental Hydrology and Microbiology and head of the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research at Ben-Gurion University, has met several times with state government and industry, and will return for the water symposium in Sacramento next month. Adar wants to help, but he worries the gulf between the Israeli way of water management and California’s may be too great.
“I know California is looking at Israel in the sense that we are also a semi-arid region that managed to overcome scarcity,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s easy. The main reason: In Israel, water is a national resource.”
He recently met with an aide to Gov. Brown who asked Adar about ways to solve California’s water problems. Adar’s reply: The state has plenty of water but is handicapped by outdated laws.
“In California, if you own the land you own the ground water and can sell your water rights to someone else,” he said. “In Israel, we can’t pump from our private wells. You own the surface rights but not the subsurface rights. This saved our country. Based on this difference, it is very difficult to adopt what we did in Israel to California.”
Israel water experts interviewed for this article generally agree that to achieve water security, the state must invest more in such strategies as desalination, conservation and wastewater recycling.
Israel does all three on a grand scale, leading the world in water reuse. The Global Water Forum estimates the country recycles 75 percent of its wastewater, and will hit 95 percent by 2017. Spain comes in a distant second at 13 percent.
The figure for the United States: 1 percent.
Virtually all sewage and wastewater from Tel Aviv is thoroughly treated before being injected into the ground to recharge aquifers and piped to the Negev Desert for use as irrigation water.
More than 50 percent of water used in agriculture comes from treated sewage, according to the Israel Water Association, and Israeli farmers are only too happy to use it to make the desert bloom.
In addition to water reuse, Israeli agriculture has replaced its thirstiest crops. Remember when Israel was the orange grove to the world? Not anymore.
Now farmers are doing better growing flowers. Israel is exporting bulbs to Holland.
In contrast, critics have accused California’s almond industry, which siphons off 10 percent of the available water, of exploiting water resources. Today every schoolchild learns it takes a gallon of water to grow a single almond.
Israeli desalination has already arrived. But desalination is far from a slam-dunk solution here. Critics cite exorbitant construction costs, the huge energy requirements to run a plant and ecological concerns. And what happens if it starts raining again?
Opponents claim that when rain returns to California, desalination plants will become white elephants. That happened to a $34 million plant near Santa Barbara, built in response to the 1986-1991 drought, opened in 1992 and shuttered only three months later when the rains returned. City leaders are contemplating reopening it.
Then there’s the brine, the leftover salts and other impurities removed during the desalination process. The stuff can be toxic to sea life when dumped back into the ocean, which is standard operating procedure for plants.
Israeli desalination scientists understand the criticisms but believe innovators have solved the problems.
Jack Gilron, chair of the Department of Desalination and Water Treatment at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, has developed membrane technology for desalination and wastewater treatment.
“Some technological firsts have been done here,” Gilron said. “The [IDE sorek] plant has a capacity of 630,000 cubic meters [166,400 gallons] a day. It is the first large-scale plant to operate with vertically mounted pressure vessels, and is the largest in the world, or near the top.”
He said Israeli scientists are working on solving thorny issues related to mechanical stress in desalination plants, such as how to build stronger membranes to tolerate the high pressures at which water is forced through via reverse osmosis.
As for the brine, Gilron said Israeli desalination plants minimize harm by diluting brine with the seawater used to cool the plants before injecting the salty mixture into the sea at discharge points.
“Spread over a large enough area far enough from the coast, [studies] show salinity would drop to normal sea values,” he said. “There was no deleterious effect on natural ecology.”
Drip irrigation was pioneered in Israel back in the 1950s and has been in use for decades. The Israeli company Netafim is one of the largest in the world, with a Fresno office and plenty of California customers. Farmers, growers and winemakers cultivating more than 1 million acres in the state use Netafim systems.
For all their advice, some Israeli water scientists and entrepreneurs question if California will ever have the right stuff to solve its woes. Given the state could produce ample water supplies if decision-makers were willing to invest in the technology, such as wastewater treatment, those experts say the state does not have a water crisis as much as it has a political crisis.
“One of the main problems in California is the lack of global water policy for the state,” said Moshe Gottlieb, a chemical engineering professor at Ben-Gurion University. “It’s more a water management issue rather than lack of water technology.”
Gottlieb’s research centers on water contamination and improving performance of desalination membranes. He’s had a relatively easy time of it in Israel because one national agency, Mekorot, covers everything to do with water, from sewage treatment to moving water from north to south.
“With this global approach,” he said, “we’re very efficient in recycling water. We ship [recycled water] to the Negev, and we moved all the orchards [to the Negev] from central Israel. This is akin to moving the fruit growers from [California’s] Central Valley to the Mojave Desert by cleaning the sewage [wastewater] of L.A. and the Bay Area and shipping the water down.”
Then he added, “The way I hear it, things [in California] are pretty much as they are in Chinatown.”
He didn’t mean the iconic San Francisco neighborhood. He meant the 1974 Roman Polanski movie, a neo-noir mystery that was based on the epic battles over Southern California water rights at the beginning of the 20th century.
That film fictionalized the dirty, high-profit deals made to turn Los Angeles from a quasi-desert to one big orange grove. Gottlieb believes a drought-plagued region like California requires top-down central planning.
“If you’re using drinking water for agricultural purposes and dumping [treated] sewage into the ocean, rather than having a statewide policy dealing with water, it’s a problem,” Gottlieb said. “Don’t waste good drinking water.”
Gottlieb’s and Adar’s view is bolstered by the state’s Department of Water Resources, which in its latest report admits that a “key gap to implementing sustainable groundwater management practices at the local level is the limited authority of some agencies to assess management fees, restrict groundwater extraction, regulate land use in groundwater-short areas and more broadly protect groundwater recharge areas.”
In other words, even in the face of exceptional drought, property rights trump the greater good.