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Parallel Worlds: Water Management in Israel and California

Posted from Jerusalem by Kate Voss, UCCHM Water Policy Fellow. This is the second in a series of posts on our Water Diplomacy trip to Israel, Jordan and PalestineOther posts in the series: 1) Middle East Lost a Dead Sea Amount of Water in 7 Years, by Jay Famiglietti ; and 3) Desalinating Holy Waters with the Red Sea – Dead Sea Conveyance, by UCCHM Graduate Fellow Sasha Richey

As we left the Ben Gurion-Tel Aviv airport, my colleagues and I excitedly scanned the new landscape that surrounded us.  Our first impression was how incredibly familiar it felt to California.  A field of orange trees, perfect rows of irrigated crops, a salty breeze from the Mediterranean Sea.  Maybe we were just hyper-aware of our surroundings, looking to find parallels between our home and this new region, but the reality is that Israel and California share a striking similarity in their physical environments and, subsequently, their challenges to manage water resources.

Agricultural fields in northern Israel. Photo by Kate Voss
Agricultural fields in northern Israel. Photo by Kate Voss

 

The Israel-California Water Link

This core connection between California and the Middle East, particularly Israel, was one motivation for our trip.  The other was the release of our recent paper on groundwater depletion in the Tigris-Euphrates-Western Iran region.  It is a well-known fact that this entire region faces extreme challenges to manage their scarce water resources.  Drought, increasing agricultural water demand, population pressures, and competing stakeholders add to an already stressed water system.  Despite these challenges, this region is at the forefront of water management.   The regional efforts to collaboratively manage surface water resources from the Jordan River and groundwater aquifers, for example by Friends of the Earth Middle East, as well as Israel’s strategies to maximize and efficiently use every last drop of water, are revolutionary.

In Israel, wastewater from urban areas is used to irrigate nearly 100% of crops in a desert while desalination accounts for 60% of water supply in densely populated regions.  Pricing for water accurately reflects the costs to transport and produce the water, but these prices are affordable for all.  Crops that can be grown with “poor quality” water, such as brackish or reclaimed wastewater, are cultivated while water-intensive agriculture and flood irrigation is rejected.  Greenhouses and drip irrigation systems dominate the irrigation landscape.  Clearly, the world, and including California, could learn a thing or two from Israel.

Greenhouses in the Jordan River Valley are used to conserve water and reduce losses through evapotranspiration. Photo by Kate Voss
Greenhouses in the Jordan River Valley are used to conserve water and reduce losses through evapotranspiration. Photo by Kate Voss

 

Over the course of our two weeks in the Middle East, we will meet with the key water authorities, water utility companies, civil society members, and university researchers in Israel, Palestinian territories, and Jordan.  During our “science diplomacy” trip, we hope to not only share our research, but to learn from a region that is a prototype for effective water management.

Lessons from Technion University

Technion University was our first stop on this water journey, where we met with researchers at the Grand Water Research Institute (GWRI).  During our conversation at Technion, we learned about the Israeli tools to allocate, reuse, and distribute water and how academic research improves these tools.  Israel’s water monitoring and allocation system is phenomenal – every drop of water, from freshwater resources to desalinated water, is accounted for, priced accordingly, and delivered to the end-user.  Although agriculture has the largest demand for freshwater resources, the government water policy restricts the freshwater allocation to approximately 0.450 km3 and not a drop more.  The residual agricultural water demand is fulfilled by Israel’s extensive recycled wastewater and brackish water distribution system.  The other major end-user, domestic water demand, is met by desalination, surface water from the Sea of Galilee, freshwater rivers and aquifer supplies.

Dr. Jay Famiglietti presents to a group at the Grand Water Research Institute at the Technion University, Israel.  Photo by Kate Voss
Dr. Jay Famiglietti presents to a group at the Grand Water Research Institute at the Technion University, Israel. Photo by Kate Voss

For we Californians, it was surprising and inspiring to hear about the innovative strategies in place to meet agricultural water demands and, even more so, that the farmers were completely in support of these policies.  In the States, we have very little monitoring of agricultural water use, particularly of groundwater abstraction.  If groundwater were as closely allocated and monitored in the U. S. as the resources are in Israel, the monitoring may be regarded as a breach of personal freedoms, since groundwater rights are tied to property rights in much of the country.  Yet here in Israel, the farmers have fully supported this progressive strategy to both strictly monitor and allocate water resources and to introduce new supplies through desalination and recycled water.  Much of their support appears to be the result of an ongoing communication and social outreach initiative to inform farmers about the limits to water resources and the opportunities to meet water demands through more sustainable practices.  How could we drive a shift in the United States to emulate this support for innovative water management policies?

As our discussions at Technion illustrated, the support for such innovative management policies begins with knowledge transfer to stakeholders.  For example, the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture hosts annual meetings that farmers, academics, and decision makers attend with the goal of sharing their respective water experiences and to work toward more efficient water practices. A core aspect of that effective communication is creating practical, actionable results rooted in technical research.  During our discussion at Technion, we repeatedly heard an emphasis on interdisciplinary research, bringing together economists, engineers, hydrologists, and politicians to guide those actionable results for water management.    Technion is one of many universities that are part of the Middle East North Africa (MENA) Water Centers for Excellence project, sponsored by USAID.  This platform provides the foundation for collaboration between researchers throughout the MENA region including in Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan.

The concept of a “water research network” is lacking in the United States, as is the connection between researchers and decision-makers at the local, state, and national levels.  In Israel, this model of collaboration has resulted in meticulous monitoring of water resources to inform water management policies and the subsequent support from all stakeholders.  If we could shift our water management paradigm in the United States to effectively link researchers, policy-makers, and local stakeholders with open lines of communication, the outcome could be groundbreaking.

Collaborating for a Sustainable Water Future

Our meeting at the GWRI at the Technion left us with many ideas for potential collaboration between our research center at UC Irvine and  the Technion.  On a technical level, we discussed a wide variety of potential research topics, ranging from the development of a 3D groundwater model; the evaluation of the linkages between water and soil management at a global scale; the use of enviromatics to better manage and monitor regional water systems; and optimization of land-surface and water management models to better reflect the reality of water demand and supply.  On a broader level, our meeting provided a glimpse at new strategies and tools that we, in California, can use to more effectively manage water resources, link stakeholders, communicate knowledge, and develop policies to sustainably manage our resources.

 

Group picture from the UCCHM visit to the Grand Water Research Institute at the Technion University. Photo by Kate Voss.
Group picture from the UCCHM visit to the Grand Water Research Institute at the Technion University. Photo by Sasha Richey.

 

This Israel-California knowledge transfer model is an exciting venture, and we hope that over the duration of our trip we will find more ideas, collaboration opportunities, and links with civil society, academic, and governmental agencies.  From domestic water use strategies to effective agricultural irrigation and high-tech water system modeling to the development of innovative distribution systems, the possibilities for international learning are endless.  In the next few posts, you’ll hear about our conversations with key civil society leaders, such as Friends of the Earth Middle East, and regional water managers in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan as well as our insights to the region’s water initiatives, such as the proposed Red Sea-Dead Sea conduit.  With this new cross-regional network as a foundation, our water future is looking brighter.

Comments

  1. bismaya ku pati
    bargarh, odisha, India
    May 8, 1:18 am

    Rain water harvesting through age old traditional system managed by village units is to be promoted by Govt.s n private agencies n the UN for its low capital investment n guaranteed solution for water need…in India n Asian, African countries..thank u for yr effort in this direction of water treatment programs….

  2. bismaya ku pati
    bargarh, odisha, India
    May 8, 1:13 am

    water management is now a program to be very seriously worked on and I think rain water harvesting through traditional reservoirs with little capital investment n managed by small village units needs to be promoted in countries like India n South American, Asian, African countries. the need to be promoted by Govt.s n private agencies. thank u for responding.

  3. brunner
    zimbabwe
    October 12, 2013, 4:41 am

    impressive

  4. Penny
    Paso Robles California
    August 24, 2013, 3:36 pm

    We need help here in Paso Robles, our groundwater is being sucked up by the vineyards. Many people have lost their wells. People like Stewart Resnick have put in large ponds, bigger than a football field. Our supervisor’s aren’t willing to anything about stopping it. Soon the aquifer will be dry, we need help now.

  5. Tomas
    AZ-CA Droughty Land
    April 15, 2013, 9:02 am

    From the land of “Whiskey’s for drink’in. Water’s for fight’in”, just down the road from El Ranchos de John Wayne, Ronnie Reagan and Charlton Heston, Christian farmers and developers are slowly finding their moral compasses.
    The conversion to drip and micro-sprinkler irrigation in CA is vast. Unfortunately, the adoption of strict water measurement at the district turn-out and well-head for sagaciously scientific irrigation scheduling is wholly absent.
    The “use it or lose it” mentality persists, along with the greed engendered by absentee, worm-like investors living in Beverly Hills.

  6. sefy
    March 15, 2013, 3:50 am

    The concept of a “water research network” is lacking in the United States, as is the connection between researchers and decision-makers at the local, state, and national levels. In Israel, this model of collaboration has resulted in meticulous monitoring of water resources to inform water management policies and the subsequent support from all stakeholders. If we could shift our water management paradigm in the United States to effectively link researchers, policy-makers, and local stakeholders with open lines of communication, the outcome could be groundbreaking.

  7. Dr. William Turner
    Albuquerque, New Mexico
    March 13, 2013, 1:40 pm

    It does take generations for the rest of the world to learn of the expertise of Israel when it comes to water. The greenhouses in your article were flourishing in Israel and elsewhere where Israel Worked 50 years ago. Drip irrigation was begun by Netafim in the mid-1960s. Israeli hydrologists had large Hele-Shaw models of the Israel Coastal Plain already in operation in a big warehouse in Tel Aviv in 1964. Israeli Embassies the world over were pushing projects later executed by TAHAL and their foreign affiliates 50 years ago. Tahal continues to opeerate in Ethiopia and elsewhere with their highly experienced staff. viz. Emmanuel Schachnai who has more than 50 years experience worldwide. Some of the most prominent hydrogeologists of the 20th Centuray were Israelis viz. Dr. Shlomo Neuman and Jacob Baer. The Ground Water Institute was under Dr. Picazrd at the Hebrew University 60 years ago teaching foreign students viz Dr. Shrikant Limaye who has spent his life playing an important role in hydrogeology worldwide. Israelis continue to educate and the world is a better place for their endeavors.

  8. Fred L. Curry
    San Francisco
    March 1, 2013, 2:33 am

    I think the operative word that separates Israel from California as far as sustainability is concerned is GREED. California farmers are very slowly realizing that society was not created for them, very slowly.

  9. Sasha
    Eugene, OR
    February 28, 2013, 11:35 pm

    Save the Earth, Stand with Israel!

  10. Mangesh
    February 27, 2013, 7:48 pm

    Very informative!