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Blue State Blues: Israel Solves the Water Puzzle

The news from Israel is sensational this week: more Palestinians stabbing Israelis, the release of spy Jonathan Pollard from a U.S. prison, and so on. In the day-to-day of news events, it’s easy to overlook long-term developments that are sometimes even more dramatic. One of those is Israel’s steady and successful struggle to solve the water puzzle.

Water is scarce in the region, and Israel suffers periodic droughts that make it very difficult to meet the daily needs of eight million people and a growing economy.

I have on my desk a glossy newsletter from the Jewish National Fund (JNF), the charity that has raised money to buy land and plant trees since well before Israel declared independence in 1948. Typically, I skim through or ignore these bulky publications. But this one is different. It is a celebration of Israel’s success in overcoming chronic water scarcity through desalination, recycling, conservation, infrastructure, and innovation. The opening letter from JNF chairman Ronald S. Lauder is worth quoting at length:

Nearly two decades ago, I surveyed the Kinneret–the Sea of Galilee–and I was in shock: the only freshwater reservoir in the land of Israel was running dry. I vowed that Israel’s drought and water issue would be solved. We at JNF were going to make a difference…

Prior to 1995 there were only three reservoirs in Israel. Working with Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (KKL), JNF built 200 reservoirs between 1996 and 2005. These reservoirs were desperately needed to store recycled water and rainwater, which would then be utilized by Israeli farmers to bring food to the markets during the country’s dry season.

We started to recycle water for reuse. Everybody told us desalinization was the only solution; however, we knew that desalinization alone was not only too costly, but also years away from coming to fruition. We needed a stopgap solution. We built recycling plants and reservoirs, and began seeing a difference every day…

As recently highlighted in the New York Times, Israel now re-uses 85% of its water. Today, over 250 reservoirs store more than 350 million cubic meters of water for the land and people of Israel. And, in addition, more than 50 million cubic meters of water, stored in JNF reservoirs, is made available to Jordan as part of the peace agreement.

The New York Times article Lauder quotes is also worth visiting–lest his report seem like typical non-profit boasting to donors:

“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,” said Uri Schor, the spokesman and public education director of the government’s Water Authority.

But that was about six years ago. Today, there is plenty of water in Israel. A lighter version of an old “Israel is drying up” campaign has been dusted off to advertise baby diapers. “The fear has gone,” said Mr. Zvieli, whose customers have gone back to planting flowers.

As California and other western areas of the United States grapple with an extreme drought, a revolution has taken place here. A major national effort to desalinate Mediterranean seawater and to recycle wastewater has provided the country with enough water for all its needs, even during severe droughts. More than 50 percent of the water for Israeli households, agriculture and industry is now artificially produced.

Lauder notes that Israel is sharing technology across the globe–including here in California, where Israeli companies are building desalination plants and water filtration systems. Israel still needs more water to be totally secure, Lauder says, but it is on its way.

Meanwhile, here in California, public will to change the way we use water has not yet been met with political will in Sacramento. Residents have generally surpassed Governor Jerry Brown’s mandatory water restrictions, but the governor is still fiddling with a tunnel project and wasting billions on a high-speed rail system no one will use.  The entire state is praying that a long-anticipated El Niño will fill the state’s aging reservoirs–barely upgraded in decades–without washing away coastal communities in landslides. As Israelis learned long ago, you can pray for rain–indeed, Jews say a rain prayer thrice daily in the winter–but that’s not enough.

As our own Daniel Nussbaum reported recently, California Republicans are backing a ballot initiative that would shift money from high-speed rail to water. That is a step in the right direction. But what the state really needs is leadership that grasps the water problem as a whole, that can balance present needs with future resources, that can bring farmers and environmentalists and fishing interests and recreational users together in a transparent process that does not commit money taxpayers simply will never provide.

Too much of our water debate is caught up in talk about “climate change.” California will suffer severe shortages, with or without a warmer planet. We need to act soon. Water policy may not generate flashy headlines, and politicians who lay the foundations for reform may not be in office ten or twenty years from now, when credit is handed out. But it can be done. Israel has shown us how.

 

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