Israel’s Drought Lessons for California

As California continues its long-term battle with droughts, perhaps it should look to another arid land for some advice.

1. Ban flood irrigation Flood irrigation wastes approximately half the water used to evaporation. According to a 2010 irrigation survey in California, flood irrigation accounted for 43% of irrigated land, including 78% of corn, 79% of grains, and 85% of sugar beet. In Israel, no farmer has used flood irrigation since the early 1970s. 2. Provide tax incentives to purchase drip irrigation equipment Drip irrigation is 90-95% water efficient and increases crop yield, but many farmers are put off by the cost of the equipment – especially because they think of their current source of water as being essentially free. In California, drip irrigation has been growing substantially since 1995 and now accounts for 39% of irrigated fields, but it is scarcely utilized in field crops, accounting for only 7% of corn. By contrast, in Israel, 75% of irrigated fields are utilizing drip irrigation. [The other 25% are sprinkler irrigated.] To spur adoption, both federal and state tax policy should encourage purchase of drip irrigation with tax credits or accelerated depreciation. 3. Re-use highly treated wastewater In California only 13% of wastewater is reused, of which slightly more than one third, or 5% of the total amount of wastewater, is used for agricultural irrigation. Israel, though, reuses 86% of its wastewater (or treated sewage) for agriculture, accounting for over 60% of the water used in agriculture. 4. Have desalination plants ready for drought Despite its 840-mile coast and history of severe droughts, California’s only operational seawater desalination plant produces a tiny 275,000 gallons a day. The largest desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere, producing over 50 million gallons per day, will shortly open soon in Carlsbad, CA. The plant has been built utilizing Israeli desalination company IDE’s desalination technology. As large as this plant is, when fully operational, it will still only account for about one-third of San Diego households’ freshwater needs. In the time it has taken to build this one plant in Carlsbad, Israel has built five giant seawater desalination plants producing over one quarter of the country’s water supply, mostly used for household water (equivalent to 80% of household water). California now has fifteen seawater desalination plants in the design or planning phase. The most notable of these is the Huntington Beach Desalination plant. IDE is also helping to restore the decommissioned Santa Barbara Charles E. Meyer desalination plant. But desalination plants are unpopular with legislators who have to pay for them and environmentalists who dislike the energy needed to run them. The process is slow and will put California at risk of shortages until the plants are completed. 5. Use special (non-GMO) seeds that thrives on useless brackish water Israel began breeding seeds in the early 1950s to thrive on otherwise useless brackish water and now has a large agricultural export industry tied to it. Today, Israel produces California has inland supplies of brackish water that are not used and that can support a parallel agricultural industry to the thriving one California enjoys today. 6. Require dual flush toilets everywhere toilets are installed A dual-flush toilet can save almost half on most flushes reducing the total household consumption for flushing toilets from 35% of household water use to 20%. In 2000, Israel made the installation of dual-flush toilets compulsory. The Israel Water Authority estimates that this has saved 1,700 gallons per person per year, a large amount when multiplied by millions of people. 7. Add conservation to school curriculum From nursery school onward, Israelis are taught the importance of conservation. People are taught to use all of the water they need but not to waste. This becomes part of Israelis life philosophy and when they need to use water, they are efficient in its use. This should be added to the California curriculum. 8. Centralize control of water California has over 400 water districts, each creating water policy and pricing guidelines. This crazy quilt approach assures Californians of an inability to create a coherent, unified long-term water plan. Israel unifies all water decision making in the hands of a technocratic, apolitical water authority to achieve the best outcomes for the people of Israel – with excellent results. 9. Preserve aquifers Perhaps the worst long-term implication of California’s water policies is the effect on aquifers and the environment. California farmers have long been able to drill into aquifers without regulation on how much water they are removing. This has created a dire situation in which many aquifers are dangerously low. According to Jay Famiglietti, a NASA scientist and leading authority on aquifers, “data from NASA satellites show that the total amount of water stored in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins… was 34 million acre-feet below normal in 2014. That loss is nearly 1.5 times the capacity of Lake Mead, America's largest reservoir.” In Israel, the environment and the aquifers, rivers and the nation’s largest lake are all considered stakeholders in the country’s water future. The environment must be taken into account. 10. Fix infrastructure Because it is easy for cash-strapped municipalities to defer repairs on water infrastructure, many pipes crack and leak. In some parts of California, leaks exceed 30% of all of the system’s water. It is urgent that infrastructure be taken into account and that we utilize water and sewage fees to repair and replace failing pipes. In Israel, 100% of all water and sewage fees must be spent on water. As such, the country has a loss factor to failing infrastructure of less than 10%, among the lowest in the world. Seth M. Siegel is the author of Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution to a Water-Starved World (St. Martin’s Press). He is a businessman, activist, writer, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He has spoken to audiences at the United Nations, AIPAC Policy Conference, the Aspen Ideas Festival, and the Council on Foreign Relations. He has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times and has been interviewed by The Today Show, CNN, CNBC, MSNBC, and Fox News as well as major print media. He graduated from Cornell University and Cornell Law School. He lives in New York City.