Part I of a two-part series on Israel’s water use, with lessons to be learned and applied to the Colorado River Basin. Written by Aaron Citron, Policy Analyst for Environmental Defense Fund.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the Colorado River is no longer able to support its growing cities and working lands. As its annual flows are diminished through drought and climate change, boaters, fishermen, and the businesses that depend on them are already beginning to struggle. With the recent release of the Federal Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado River Basin Study, we have an opportunity to chart a new course for the River – one that provides for people’s water needs while ensuring that the river itself remains healthy for generations to come. To gain some perspective on how other river basins have fared facing similar issues of water scarcity, let’s take a look at Israel.
Of late, Israel has been the focus of national media attention, but journalists are missing a part of the country’s larger story: the part about water.
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Israel seems to have always struggled with conflict, but because or in spite of this, it has also been a hotbed for innovation. I had the opportunity to visit Israel this November on a water management tour organized by the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center. The seven-day tour included meetings with Israeli water managers and NGOs working to restore rivers and streams, as well as visits to water transportation and reuse facilities and the world’s largest seawater desalination plant. What became clear over the course of my trip was that Israel has made impressive strides in water conservation and management that seem particularly relevant to our nation’s current situation in the Colorado River Basin.
In Part I of this series, I will provide some background on Israeli water management and culture, pointing out some specific areas where it compares and contrasts with the Colorado River Basin. In Part II, I will describe how Israel’s relationship with water can provide meaningful perspective and applications for the Colorado River. So here it goes.
The following is a snapshot of Israel’s water landscape, with a few comparisons drawn to the Colorado River:
- Israel has a Mediterranean climate and can expect approximately 35 inches of rain each year in the north, compared to just over 1 inch per year in the southern Negev region. This is comparable to precipitation in the Colorado River Basin, ranging from 40 inches in the Rocky Mountain Headwaters to just 0.6 inches each year near the Mexican Border.
- The country has a population of about 7.7 million people, roughly 1/5 the population supported by the Colorado River and its tributaries. Like the Colorado River region, Israel’s population is growing rapidly.
Israel utilizes high-quality recycled water for agriculture in place of scarce and expensive freshwater
In order to fuel agricultural, high tech, and population growth, Israel has for years invested heavily in conservation practices and education: Nearly all of the country’s agriculture is supported by highly efficient drip irrigation, and water managers and farmers continue to explore new ways to adapt agriculture to the dry landscape. Water conservation education begins in kindergarten and a public water ethic, along with innovative municipal conservation programs, has created a water-conscious society that uses, on average, approximately 72 gallons of water per person per day. This can be compared to 85 gpcd (gallons per capita per day) in Denver, 110 gpcd in Phoenix, and 125 gpcd in Las Vegas.
- Israel is a world leader when it comes to water reuse, recycling more than 80 percent of its wastewater to meet a variety of needs.
More recently, as the country gets closer to meeting the reasonable conservation potential in its system, Israel has begun to explore desalination to further augment its supplies. On the first day of my trip, I visited the new Hadera reverse osmosis seawater desalination plant, currently the largest of its kind in the world. The plant can convert more than 100,000 acre-feet of seawater to potable, drinking water quality each year. In conjunction with two other existing plants, Israel can treat more than 230,000 acre-feet of seawater each year. The country has plans to nearly double that capacity in the coming years. But desalinated seawater doesn't come cheap and Israelis pay a high price for it (between $2,500 and $4,500 per acre-foot for treatment, delivery, and other operations and maintenance of drinking water quality water). The country continues to explore options to expand its available supplies, but local conservation and water reuse remain top priorities.
Here in the Colorado River Basin, we are struggling with a rapidly growing population and energy development alongside dwindling rivers and impacts to the recreational sector, as well as potential threats to the agricultural backbone that provides jobs, food, fiber, and irrigated open space that has sustained the region for generations. These concerns are exacerbated by an increasingly warmer, drier climate that provided us less than 50 percent of normal snowpack in the River’s headwaters last summer. With only tougher times ahead, we must be considering all options for the Colorado Basin – including methods of conservation and reuse being applied half way around the globe – before we invest in expensive, 20th Century infrastructure to solve a 21st Century problem.
In the second and final part of this series, I will dive into the issues facing the Colorado River and make recommendations based on the relatively successful water management that’s been instituted in Israel.