Israel-California Water Conference: The challenge of thinking one drop ahead

marina-del-reyState Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus and Israeli Water Authority Senior Deputy Director Tamar Shor discuss water management in California and Israel

On January 12,2014, Governor Jerry Brown declared the drought state of emergency, calling on all Californians to conserve water in every way possible.  Less than 2 months later, the Governor and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed a Memorandum of Understanding to develop joint projects and conduct mutually beneficial research in California and Israel, including making water conservation and management a top priority.  As it would so happen, the same year that California declared a state of emergency, Israel was able to declare a water surplus for the first time since its founding.

Many factors have led Israel, an arid desert country with limited natural resources, to be able to produce more water than it consumes.  First and foremost, there is a deeply rooted cultural belief in conservation with Israeli children learning from the very beginning to value every single drop of water.  Furthermore, Israel is the world leader in recycling and currently reuses 86% of its wastewater using the processed water to serve the country’s significant agricultural sector.  However, one major difference between Israel and California is that Israel has only one major regulatory body.

The Israel-California Water Conference, held earlier this summer in Marina del Rey, brought together key government leaders from both California and Israel, along with over 300 people water professionals in various fields, to discuss and share best practices and hold meetings with a delegation of over 20 Israeli companies.  The conference included a series of panel discussions with agricultural, municipal, and industrial water officials and representatives, along with keynote speakers representing various facets of the water industry.

During the introductory speeches, Secretary of Agriculture Karen Ross discussed her recent visit to Israel with a delegation of California agriculture representatives.  karen-rossShe said she was impressed by the strongly held notion of the Israeli people to value every drop of water.  “Water is life, and I felt that everywhere we went,” she said.  “The passion of the people who are involved in water management and water conservation is so evident.  That is exactly what we are trying to do through our California Water Action Plan and our integrated approach to resource management is to make sure that every Californian has an ethic of valuing water for the value that water brings to us.”

Secretary Ross said she was also impressed with the technologies, specifically around plant breeding.  “I was told by a researcher that he truly believes that the work that they are doing in understanding roots will in fact deliver the second green revolution.  They are spending lots of money and time and intellect.”

California agriculture has done a lot and continues to do a lot,” she said.  “I know of no people who are more resilient than California farmers; they prove it over and over again.  Compared to the applied water used in late 80s, early 90s, we are now using 8% less water, but the economic value of that is 96% more than it was.  Our yields have improved 57%.  It’s because of adaptation and resilience.  We now have over 50% now under drip technology or precise irrigation technology.  With the support of the Governor and the legislature, we are making investments on an annual basis to advance that precise irrigation technology, but there’s still more for us to do.”

We cannot sit in one place and think that we had all the solutions,” said Secretary Ross.  “The power and the possibility of partnerships is truly how we will work together on issues that matter for the world and for those billions of people that are yet to be born that will want to have a good quality of life and want to be fed with healthy and nutritious food.  We have the intellect, we have the venture capital in this state, and I believe we have the political will to move forward.”

After the introductory speeches, State Water Resources Control Board Chair Felicia Marcus and Israeli Water Authority Senior Deputy Director Tamar Shor each spoke about water management in California and Israel.

FELICIA MARCUS, State Water Resources Control Board

Felicia Marcus, Chair of the State Water Resources Board, then took the podium, agreeing that there is much to learn and take heart from what Israel has accomplished.  “As you all know, this work has its ups and downs.  I tend to be a glass half full kind of a person and generally an optimist, but I there are those moments when we can feel that the hill is too high, it’s taking too long, people aren’t listening to what’s going on, and so the course of this day will hopefully give us some emotional and psychic support as well as intellectual fortitude and ideas.

We do have some very striking similarities and some striking differences between California and Israel in our setting, our situations, our governance, and our history, and all of that is instructive and inspiring …  It really is about great people trying to make progress wherever they are.”

In California, the variable hydrology is really the defining feature.  “Sometimes we have more water than we can deal with, a lot of times we have a lot less, and we know that’s going to happen but we can’t predict it,” she said.  “Sometimes we have both, like this year where some areas were flush and other areas got little, and that creates a very complex and complicated-to-explain situation.”

felicia-marcusWe do have an incredibly wide mix of sources among our folks; we’re a very large state and every area has its own mix of sources,” Ms. Marcus said.  “Most of our population is nowhere near where their water comes from.  Some people are lucky enough to see it go by as wet water, but that is a small percentage of our population.  Some of us have surface water they can divert, others have surface water that’s conveyed over long distances through public works developed over the course of the last century by individual water agencies or by the massive state and federal projects that provide supplemental water.  Groundwater varies across the state with some areas completely dependent on groundwater and others have none at all.

So we have a totally different set of situations wherever you are in this large state, and the impact of things like drought also varies greatly depending on where you are,” she said.  “Not surprisingly as a result, we have a mix of solutions.  The menu is one you’re very familiar with in Israel …  conservation of course is key, but also recycling, stormwater capture, and desalination.  Integrated water management has been a big effort over past decade.  In California with some tremendous advances with people working across geographic silos and traditional professional silos: flood control, water supply, water quality, environmental, etc, in trying to find ways to use that scarce drop of water multiple ways.”

We have to accelerate that perhaps more than anything else we’re doing, and that requires working on people skills and people connections more than anything technical,” Ms. Marcus said.  “Frequently folks here have heard me say that our biggest challenge is not the technology, it is not engineering, it is not science, it is not ecosystem management – it is egosystem management, which is managing ourselves in a room, reaching across traditional divides, and trying to figure out how to make it work better.  That frankly is the hardest challenge that I think we have in California but we’re making progress.”

Storage is also important, because the water doesn’t fall where most of the people and agriculture are, and it doesn’t fall regularly, she said.  “Sometimes our dialog about storage gets simplified down to a sound bite, but we do need storage above ground and below, big and small, wherever we can find it to weather what’s to come.”

Ms. Marcus then went into some basics about California.  “The majority of our population is hundreds of miles away from where their water comes from, it comes from a mix of different places, and it is a miracle in modern history that so many can take their water for granted and don’t know where it comes from.  It is a miracle in modern society that so many can take their food for granted and don’t realize where it comes from, but it’s at cost.  Because the public discourse about what we need to do to value agriculture, environment, and water is something that is a really huge hill for us to climb. … The flip side of that miracle is that we don’t have a basic sophisticated public discourse about the value of water.”

California is one of the five Mediterranean large-scale agricultural areas in the world, Ms. Marcus pointed out.  “That is a gift, not just to us but to the nation and the world, and we have to honor it,” she said.  “We have the greatest biodiversity in the nation, but we’re also losing it at more rapid pace than anywhere else in the nation and we have to take that seriously for our souls as well as ourselves.”

marcus-ic-water-power-point_page_04The institutional setting between California and Israel is perhaps the most significant difference between the two.  “We do have to deal with an institutional setting where the bias and the priority and the setting is just towards local control without much top down state control,” she said.  “We have a mix of systems, a mix of water rights, a mix of rules and tools, and that’s worked incredibly well for a long time, but we don’t’ have the same ability to just make it so. … We also have a result have very fragmented interests and understanding and discourse.”

Finally, the administration has really been a driving force. “Our governor likes to get stuff done, he just doesn’t use the word stuff when he says that – which is the best direction a governor can give you is ‘be smart, go, do, don’t be stupid.  We’re all in this together.”

Another challenge ahead for California are the impacts of climate change; only a few degrees rise of temperature for California means more precipitation falling as rain instead of snow, and that’s a disaster, she said.  “Our snowpack is a third of our storage in an average year, so that means without any changes, whether it’s next decade, the next or the next, all the conflicts that we have right now, which are severe, will seem like a picnic, compared to what’s to come.”

marcus-ic-water-power-point_page_05The Governor’s California Water Action Plan embodies the administration’s commitment to the people of California on what actions would be prioritized in the remaining years to lay a foundation for a sustainable water future for California.  “What does that mean? That means all of the above.  That means not being political and picking winners and losers.  That’s saying we’re for all of it: we’re for the environment, we’re for agriculture, we’re for healthy urban communities, a healthy economy, and we’re for using every tool in the tool kit to use our scarce water resources more intelligently.  That may seem simple, but it was revolutionary in its impact and in its approach.”

marcus-ic-water-power-point_page_07People can quibble about the precipitation, but I think it’s pretty clear, particularly after last year when we had the worst snowpack in 500 years, that we are in the worst drought,” said Ms. Marcus.  “Even if it hadn’t been, it’s had the worst impact.  We have millions more people since the last big droughts; we have more irrigated ag dependent on the same drop of water precisely because agriculture has become so much more efficient, and we have more endangered and threatened species that don’t have the resilience they had years ago as we’ve blocked off their habitat where they used to seek refuge in a drought, so it’s been a disaster for them.”

Although this drought has been beyond anything else we’ve dealt with, we know from the geophysical record that we’ve had longer droughts; Australia had more or less a similar three-year drought cycle, and then they had the millennial drought of ten to twelve years.”

marcus-ic-water-power-point_page_08This is California on climate change, and it’s one of the most frightening photos imaginable,” she said.  “But it will become more regular.  There was tremendous impact, although other areas did quite well.  Some areas of ag did better, but the pain and suffering in certain areas, particularly in the Central Valley, particularly in the Central Valley and in Tulare was just heartbreaking.  Folks running out of water, fields fallowed, diminished yields, people out of work.  And the fish and wildlife got hammered pretty severely all around.”

The state responded with a lot of actions: emergency drought relief, food and water deliveries, fish and wildlife rescues, voluntary agreements with farmers, and an unprecedented level of cutbacks which were painful and difficult, she said.

California also worked on adding supply; the water conservation regulations were unprecedented, and the state pushed on recycled water big time putting out nearly a billion dollars in low cost loans, she said.  “We’ve done a lot of streamlined permitting, we’re in the process of updating our regulations to go the next stage, indirect potable reuse, surface water augmentation and even feasibility of direct potable, so really probably the biggest area of change there.”

marcus-ic-water-power-point_page_17A lot of folks thought El Nino would save us,” she said.  “They said it would be the Godzilla of El Ninos, and I like to say we got Mr. StayPuff instead.  Climate change is the real Godzilla of all wakeup calls.  The reality that helps me be optimistic is that we can do something about it.  Integrated water management, Water 4.0, moving from separate silos and integrated water management, recycling, and all of that.

Ms. Marcus then closed with the key things the California will be working on this year.  “I want to mention the efficiency standards work …  the Governor directed us to work on long-term efficiency standards with DWR and Department of Food and Agriculture is also working on ag efficiency work with DWR.  We’re going to be setting standards and coming up with a method for more efficient use of water indoors, outdoors, commercial, industrial, and institutional.  For leak detection, we’re going after water waste and again, it’s all about valuing water and it’s one of those areas where we really do need your help and inspiration and assistance.”

TAMAR SHOR, Israeli Water Authority

Next, Tamar Shor, Senior Deputy to the Director of the Israeli Water Authority in charge of the Division of Regulation, then gave the Israeli perspective on water policies.

tamar-shorI want to start with something that I heard from the minister of water in San Paolo, Brazil,” she said.  “I met him two months ago at the World Bank, and he asked a question:  ‘What is the very first thing that gets flushed after first rain that comes after a very, very long drought?’  And his answer was, ‘the memory of decision makers.’  I think this is very, very true – not only for decision makers but for us as human beings.  We tend to have a crisis, then we cope with it, and then it sort of goes away and then we forget about it because there are other important things that we have to deal with.”

In Israel, even though they are aware of water issues, almost every decade there has been some years of drought, and every time it became a crisis.  They took care of the crisis, and then another decade passes, and another crisis would come.  “The last major crisis was 2008-2009 and what we decided that instead of taking the regular approach of problem solving, we would try to approach it this time in a more sustainable way,” she said.  “We wanted not only to solve the problem of the drought, but try to really build a sustainable future for Israel’s water.”

When we’re asked, what is the one major thing that you have done to cope with the problem, the real answer is there is no one major thing,” Ms. Shor said.  “The whole approach of being sustainable says that we have to operate in multiple dimensions and to take care in extended solutions from different areas to make sure that the solution is sustainable.

Integrated Water Resources Management

Israel is smaller than California.  It is home to 8 million residents; it has about 200,000 hectares of irrigated fields, about 1000 industrial plants, and it rolls about 9 billion New Israeli shekels or approximately 2.4 billion US dollars in a year with the whole water sector.

israels-water-policies-the-challenge-of-thinking-one-drop-ahead-6_29_16_page_05It was apparent from the early years that they would have to bring water from the northern, relatively rainy part of Israel to the very arid southern part of Israel.  Israel has three main water resources:  The Sea of Galilee (also known as Lake Kinnaret) which is the only large surface water reservoir in the country, and two aquifers: the Shore Aquifer and the Mountain Aquifer.  So in the first years after Israel was established, the ‘national water carrier’ (or aqueduct) was built; it combines the Sea of Galilee with the two aquifers to deliver water all the way to the southern part of Israel.

Another major difference between Israel and California is that there is only one central governmental water company that takes care of supplying water throughout the country; there are local companies that supply to municipalities, farmers, and all the others, so it was easy to do, Ms. Shor said.  “So this is how we managed it in the first years, and it really made a big revolution in the southern part of Israel and the central part of Israel, but this was not enough.”

israels-water-policies-the-challenge-of-thinking-one-drop-ahead-6_29_16_page_06Israel, like many other parts of the world, is feeling climate change impacts as droughts are becoming greater in magnitude and intensity and the duration come much more than it used to be in the past.  “We really can see it and as we expect for the future, huge droughts are coming ahead, so we really have to get organized for that,” she said.

Ms. Shor then ran down the numbers.  The amount of natural water in Israel is about 1.17 billion cubic meters, and the water demand already today is beyond 2 billion cubic meters per year.  The forecast for potable water use is that by 2020, 1.7 billion cubic meters will be needed; by 2050, 2.45 billion cubic meters will be needed.  “So how do we close the gap? How do we get to mitigate the resources that we have and the demand that we have?

The first step Israel took to address the imbalance was to reuse all sewage effluent.  “This was really a central decision by the government of Israel to take sewage infrastructure and develop and upgrade them nationwide, and that’s enabled to turn to environmental resource,” she said.  “The amount of reuse today extends closer to 500 million cubic meters per year.  Sewage effluent is used for agriculture; agriculture uses more effluent that it uses natural water resources.”

Israeli regulations require all sewage to undergo tertiary treatment before it is used on agricultural fields, so it is safe to use to irrigate vegetables or other crops, she noted.

israels-water-policies-the-challenge-of-thinking-one-drop-ahead-6_29_16_page_11Israel’s use of recycled water is almost 90%; most of that is used in agriculture.  Since sewage comes out of the sewage treatment plants almost in the same quantity all during the year, but the growing season is only eight months a year, so the recycled water must be stored for four months.  “That is the greater part of the costs for our reclaimed water, and that usually cannot be made with only private investments, so a lot of governmental help was done in it to subsidize the infrastructure for the reservoirs and the supply systems.”

She presented a graph of Israel’s agricultural use from 1960 to present day, noting the shift from potable water to reclaimed water and even brackish water for some crops.  “The agriculture part that takes more than half of Israel’s consumption of water is built today with only less than half potable water, 444 million cubic meters per year; most of it is reclaimed effluent and brackish water that is used for agriculture.

Governance and regulation

Israeli water law actually gives us a lot of power concerning water,” Ms. Shor said.  “It states that the country’s water resources are public property, they are controlled by the state and are designated for the needs of residents and the development of the country.  Water resources for this purpose of law includes springs, streams, rivers, lakes, reservoirs, either surface or groundwater, natural or artificial, standing or flowing, including drainage water and sewage.”

Ms. Shor acknowledged that is probably one of the biggest differences between Israel and California, and it gave a lot of power to the Israeli government to work with.  Nonetheless, there were still problems with governance because seven different ministries in the government dealt with water issues, and coordination was difficult; politicians had difficulty raising prices because the public doesn’t like paying more than what they are used to paying, she said.

What we found was that we had to make sure that the prices cover costs.  If the prices didn’t cover costs, than we are bound to find ourselves every decade or every few years again in the same problems that we faced in the last years,” she said.

israels-water-policies-the-challenge-of-thinking-one-drop-ahead-6_29_16_page_16So the Israeli Water Authority was established; it’s an group of professional people and bureaucrats, not elected officials; each ministry is represented.  “There’s no certain minister or elected person that can interfere with the decisions that are done in the water authority, so this made it very powerful,” she said.  “What we did was we set a principle that says that the price of water in Israel will reflect all the costs are to consume the water and take care of the sewage …  the principle says that every person in Israel pays the same price no matter where he lives and no matter where he takes the water.  The prices are built into in two tiers.  The first tier is for quantity of water which is basic for your domestic use … it’s usually the needs that we have for domestic homes without gardening.  And the second tier is the price for excess use of water.  This made water accessible for everyone in a price that people can pay, that’s the first tier, but if you want to use excess amount of water, then you pay much, much higher price.

israels-water-policies-the-challenge-of-thinking-one-drop-ahead-6_29_16_page_18The average price for water in Israel is about $2.63 (US Dollars) per cubic meter for domestic use in Israel.  This price includes all the parts of supplying the water to the consumer; about 16% of it is the desalination.  22% is the cost of supplying the national distribution, 18% is the wastewater treatment, which is already included in the price of the water and 44% is the local supply of water within the municipalities, she said.

Another problem they had was that the revenues from water bills were part of the overall budget for the municipality, so sometimes the money was diverted from water and sewage issues to other things that the municipality needed to take care, she said.  “As we know, infrastructure of water and sewage is usually underground infrastructure, so the people in the municipality don’t see what happens underground, and it was just deteriorating by the years and the water unaccounted for and the leaks became very, very high.  So another law was established in Israel and the law is called the corporations law, and it obliged every municipality to form a corporation that would supply the water in its area.”

Most of the municipalities in Israel don’t supply water anymore.  They have a water company and the water company supplies to all the people, takes care of all the sewage, and it also made the municipalities themselves consumers of the same company,” she said.

It made a huge difference in Israel; the public really didn’t like establishing the corporations, and they really didn’t like the prices going up by 40%.  “It wasn’t a reform that the people in Israel liked, but it was something that was needed to be done and if we hadn’t done it, then the situation that we had been in for many years would just remain the same and we wouldn’t come out of this circle of taking care, drought after drought, with the shortages of water that we had.”

They also saw a drop in the percentage of water unaccounted for, she added.  “The water companies were starting to use a lot of technology to find the leakages and get them down, and to take care of other issues that they have to make the business work in a real professional way.”

Israel also meters most everything.  “Every drop of water in Israel that is being produced, either from surface water and underground water, is measured and has been transmitted to a central place in the Water Authority where we can see every drop of water that comes from any place,” she said.


Lastly, she turned to desalination.  “In 2005, we had no desalination plants in our national water distribution system.  We had only one in Alott which is a southern city in Israel but nothing in the national system, and from then, 5 different desalination plants were facilitated,” she said.  “Each one of them is larger than the one that is being built in California now that has already started to supply the water; they supply today 600 million cubic meters per year, which is more than half of the amount of water that people consume for drinking water today in Israel.”

israels-water-policies-the-challenge-of-thinking-one-drop-ahead-6_29_16_page_28Ms. Shor credited the success of Israel’s desalination industry to the use of public private partnerships.  “We used Build Own Transfer contracts, this mutual work of the private sector and the public sector made a big difference,” she said.  “Until we got to this framework, desalination was delayed in Israel for many, many years because we couldn’t find the budget to do it; you couldn’t find the framework to do that, but once we had the BOTs and the government committed to buy the water, and we committed to bring the price of desalination inside the cost of the water, then the system is full.  So private investors came, they knew that they could put the money because they knew that they could have the return on investment in 17 years, where they supply the water and get the revenues for and the people pay for it.  Technology makes it more and more costly during the years, but I think actually we’re in the state where in the coming decade, Israel is secured.”

Ms. Shor concluded by noting the regulation was very different in California than it is in Israel.  “I do believe that changes are really made by people, and I met so many people here that really have the good intentions to find the real solutions for this country, and I believe it really could work.”

“Thank you very much.”

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