Israel went from water scarcity to surplus. Can it help Utah and the Great Salt Flats?
Tel Aviv, Israel • Utah Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Joel Ferry reads an Israeli nursery rhyme to the men and women who oversee Utah’s water systems as they ride in a van to government offices in Jerusalem.
“Rain, rain from the sky all day, drops of water. Drop, drop, drop, drop, clap your hands.”
The children’s verse sticks in his mind as a stark contrast between Israel’s view of water and the common view at home.
“So in America we say, ‘Rain, rain, go away, come back another day.’ We naturally teach our children that rain is bad. We don’t want the rain here, we want it to go away,” he said in an interview. “So if we can become more like Israel and how we respect water, how we treat water, how we live with water.”
Israel’s innovations in water-saving technologies and water enrichment have intrigued Ferry, who led a delegation from Utah to the desert nation 7,000 miles away in March.
“The way they respect water and use this resource? I think we could really learn a lot,” he said.
For five days, Ferry and 14 others from Utah met with Israeli government officials, tech startups, agricultural producers and research institutions to see how they have gone from a water-scarce nation to a water surplus. They conserve, use, and desalinate water and invest heavily in technology to make it work.
“Israel is known in the world and manages a very sustainable and high-level water sector,” said Yehezkel Lifshitz, director-general of the Israel Water Authority, the country’s central water authority.
As Utah grapples with drought and reverses water decline in the Great Salt Lake, the delegation looked at what Israel has been doing over the past few decades.
“My goal at the end is to take some of these ideas that were born here in Israel and see if they fit into our system,” said Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, the co-chair of the Legislature of the State of Utah Great Salt Lake Caucus.
Teresa Wilhelmsen, Utah State engineer and director of the Department of Water Rights, said Israel has “some progress that we could really think about here for Utah.”
Earlier this year, the Utah Legislature approved funding for new water conservation and augmentation technologies, particularly in the agricultural sector. Ferry said the state is evaluating whether some Israeli technologies are applicable to Utah’s needs. In addition, some in the delegation would like to import Israel’s water thinking.
“It’s part of their culture, water is so precious to them,” said Sen. Chris Wilson, R-Logan, “as it should be for us here in Utah with the second driest state in the country.”
Israel has found innovative ways to find, use and reuse water, and is using technology to help protect it. The country also enjoys a reputation as a “startup nation” for technology.
“The innovation has been incredible considering they’re considered a startup nation,” said Candice Hasenyager, director of the Utah Department of Water Resources.
Founded in 1948 as a Jewish state, Israel had to find its own water. The country treats water as public property controlled by the state—there are no private water rights. Water policy is set by the Israel Water Authority, said Director-General Lifshitz, who met with the Utah delegation at a long table in a Jerusalem conference room, where he said “all decisions are made.”
A nationalized water system differs significantly from Utah, where water is owned and allocated by water districts, water boards and commissions, individual water rights holders, cities, counties, the legislature, state agencies, and the federal government.
“They had a table where they brought together the environmental community, the water community, the agricultural community, you know, defense, and all together they said, ‘What is in the best interests of the State of Israel?'” Ferry noted.
The Director General and his team led the Utah delegation through an introduction to Israel’s water systems. Agriculture uses 56% of the country’s water, and most of that is recycled water. Domestic use (or consumer use) is 38%, while industrial use accounts for about 4%.
Conservation is ingrained in the minds of Israeli citizens. There have been successful television advertising campaigns and public relations to remind people that “Israel is drying up.”
“I think water conservation, to conserve water, to treat the water is very important… not to treat water like we have enough of it. Due to climate change, we will have less and less water in the future,” said Lifshitz. “Countries like Israel and Utah are likely to suffer from water shortages.”
He urged the Utah delegation to keep conservation in mind.
To ensure infrastructure and water supplies, Israel imposes tariffs on the residential, industrial, and agricultural sectors. Everyone pays a flat rate, whether they live on the Mediterranean Sea or hours away in the Negev Desert, parts of which receive less than 10 inches of rainfall a year. The tariffs pay for lines and infrastructure.
“There is a water board that sets the price, and it’s a unanimous price for everyone,” said Lior Gutman, a spokesman for Mekorot, Israel’s national water company. He explained that everyone pays a flat rate for the water used. “Sometimes it’s up, sometimes it’s down. That depends on the energy price and is pretty fair.”
Israel Charges by Consumption: Tariff rates are $2.12 per 264 gallons for water consumed up to 924 gallons. The price jumps to $3.90 per 264 gallons for additional water consumed. On average, Israeli water authorities said a typical household pays about $150 a month for water.
Utah officials seemed stunned by such a high water bill.
In Utah, a typical Wasatch Frontline household pays nearly $60 a month for water (plus stormwater and sewage fees) and uses more than 13,600 gallons, according to the Division of Water Resources. About 7,000 of those gallons are used indoors. Property taxes subsidize the majority of Utahns’ water bills and vary by location.
“We have about 470 water utilities and they all have different pricing structures and different tariffs and it all depends on where you are, where you are, what your supply is,” Hasenyager said.
The Sea of Galilee – known in Israel as Lake Kinneret – used to provide up to 30% of Israel’s drinking water supply. It’s now less than 10% because Israel has dramatically expanded desalination, taking water from the Mediterranean Sea and extracting the salt to make drinking water. About 85% of Israel’s drinking water is desalinated.
With five desalination plants across Israel and three more planned, the nation is leaning heavily towards it. The country now has a surplus of water and sells some of it to Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
“After four hours, you can use it in your house, you can drink the water, you can wash your clothes, you can cook with it, whatever you want to do,” Gutman said of desalinated water.
He showed the Utah delegation the Mekorot Wastewater Reuse Plant outside of Tel Aviv. What is flushed down the toilet or drain ends up in the plant, which treats water for around 3 million people. (Israel’s population is approximately 9 million.)
The cleaned wastewater is then reused.
“It reaches into the middle of the desert, hundreds of miles south, for agricultural use,” Gutman said.
The wastewater is used to water plants, which are then sold at markets across the country. Israel recovers about 90% of its water and uses it for agriculture. According to Mekorot, Israel is the world’s largest user of treated water.
In Utah, some agricultural areas use recycled water, but it’s limited, the state’s Department of Water Resources said.
“Think of ways, on the one hand, to conserve water and to use the water wisely and to use this treated wastewater as another water source,” Lifshitz said.
Experiments are being conducted at research institutions across the country to develop new methods of collecting water. The delegation visited a park outside of Tel Aviv that acts as a natural biofilter, collecting and treating runoff rainwater.
The tech-forward nation also has a number of companies specializing in water technologies. A number of companies presented their software and apps that track everything from water losses to harmful algal blooms faced the members of the Utah delegation.
Barry Gluck, head of US business relations for water technology company Wasens, pointed out the differences between Israel and Utah during his pitch meeting with the delegation. Gluck said Israel is “a world leader in water technology.”
“Apparently there is a big gap between water savings in Israel and Utah. But using the right technologies and using them in the right places will certainly help reduce that,” he said afterwards.
The government invests in startup companies through the Israel Innovation Authority – with no expectation that they will succeed.
“We heard about it on the very first day of this trip and I was really, really blown away, for lack of a better term, by the amount of resources the Israeli government is willing to invest in startups for free,” said Amy Haas, Executive Director of the Colorado River Authority in Utah.
Israel’s tech-savvy reputation and willingness to experiment is something Ferry said he would like to emulate in Utah.
“Ultimately,” he said, “my goal [is] I want Utah to be a water conservation leader in the United States in terms of water development, technology and innovation.”
This article is published by the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that brings together news, education and media organizations to educate people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to help make a difference before it’s too late. Read all of our stories below greatsaltlakenews.org.