What Utah can take back from Israel in terms of water conservation and what gets lost in translation
Lake Kinneret, Israel • The delegation of Utah officials, legislators and researchers was impressed by Israel’s achievements on the water front.
“They’ve gone from a water-hungry country to a country that actually exports water,” said Zach Renstrom, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District. “There are some lessons to be learned and it was great to come here and see that.”
Lake Kinneret (also known as the Sea of Galilee) was once an important part of Israel’s water supply. That is no longer the case as the country has created other water sources through desalination and water reuse.
Israel’s advances in technology and water development are something state leaders are watching closely as they try to cope with drought and the shrinking Great Salt Lake.
“Israel is known, I believe, in the water industry as a true innovator when it comes to technology and forward-thinking in terms of expanding service,” said Amy Haas, executive director of Utah’s Colorado River Authority.
After touring desalination and wastewater treatment plants and farms that are growing crops in new ways, and meeting with Israeli government officials and tech startups, the Utah delegation is trying to export some ideas – starting with a culture of conservation.7
“They really measure every drop of water. I think Utah can measure our water better and use it more efficiently,” said Teresa Wilhelmsen, Utah State Engineer and Director of the Department of Water Rights.
One of the biggest issues that may need to be addressed is how much Utah residents pay for water. For example, Israel charges a tariff for water consumption. For the average Israeli citizen, it’s about $150 per household per month when consuming about 1,000 gallons. Water rates in Utah vary depending on where you live and how much you use. That doesn’t even cover the actual cost of water, which is offset by property taxes (and some nonprofits like churches and schools don’t pay property taxes and therefore pay next to nothing for water).
“I absolutely believe this is the conversation we need to have,” said Assemblyman Casey Snider of R-Paradise, co-chair of the Great Salt Lake Caucus of the Utah state legislature. “The legislature has taken this path. We’ve had conversations about making sure people feel the true price of water, and maybe that’s what they’re doing better here in Israel.”
Lawmakers declined to change water prices during the 2023 session, opting instead to examine them. But a Republican senator is promising to bring about significant change in 2024.
Israel has a nationalized water system, where it is public property controlled by the government, and this is where water policy decisions are made. This will not work in Utah, where individual water rights owners, water districts, cities, counties, the legislature, state agencies and the federal government are involved.
“We have water rights,” Wilhelmsen said. “Israel, definitely the water is controlled and owned by the government. Here in Utah? We have the system of prior appropriation. The water is public water and people are given the right to use this water through the system of prior appropriation. And I don’t see that system changing.”
Without much litigation and public protest, that would not change, state leaders concede. Water rights in Utah date back generations before statehood.
If Israel diverts water from the Mediterranean Sea and passes it through desalination plants for consumer use, then takes the wastewater and processes it for agricultural use, it can certainly further extend the water supply. But it won’t work in Utah where we’re a landlocked country. (A pipeline from the Pacific Ocean to Utah could cost billions of dollars, not to mention regulatory and environmental hurdles.)
Water reuse could also harm the Great Salt Lake, said Candice Hasenyager, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources.
“That’s less practical here in the Great Basin because a lot of that reused water, that treated wastewater, goes into the Great Salt Lake,” she said. “But in places like St. George or along the Colorado River? Reuse is a great option to implement.”
Desalination could work in other parts of Utah. Renstrom said the Washington County Water Conservancy District is reviewing some areas that have brackish water that could be used. He also looks at water reuse, which could save millions of dollars in taxpayer costs after an initial investment.
“There are some things I learned here that I will definitely apply to Washington County,” he said. “Because reuse in Washington County will be critical to our water source for the next 10 years and people have embraced it.”
Water reuse could also work for agricultural producers in the Colorado River system, said Amy Haas, executive director of Utah’s Colorado River Authority. But even then, it could take a lot of negotiation since the Colorado River is used by two countries and multiple states and tribes.
“I certainly think we could do more in terms of reuse. But again, I think — especially when we’re talking about Ag water — there’s this tension, if you will, between the concept of reuse and our current regulatory structure,” she said. “So none of these things could happen without some serious legislative changes.”
Lawmakers are certainly keen to export new methods of growing crops that use less water.
“We were able to reach out to a couple of irrigation companies that were just world leaders, and I think we’ll be able to partner with them and then try to bring some of those applications to the state of Utah,” the senator said Chris Wilson, R-Logan.
The Utah state legislature this year authorized spending $200 million on “agriculture optimization” programs. These are grants to farmers and ranchers to encourage them to switch to more water-efficient technologies. Craig Buttars, Utah state commissioner of agriculture, said he would like to see drip irrigation explored in the state.
Joel Ferry, executive director of Utah’s Department of Natural Resources, said he plans to extend invitations to some Israeli companies to visit Utah to showcase their products to local farmers and ranchers who might consider adoption.
“Showing this technology, showing these innovations and how is it being implemented here in Utah? And then the producers can decide,” he said. “The state isn’t going to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to buy this.'”
Members of the Utah delegation to Israel were fascinated by the nation’s streamlining of much of its water-related decision-making powers, but acknowledged limitations on water rights and systems here that date back more than a hundred years. Still, they are looking for places to cut red tape and increase collaboration between governments and Utah research universities and businesses.
“We have some amazing R&D colleges,” Wilson said. “We have a lot of very smart people and I think if we can work together and maybe have some money available to try and solve some of these difficult issues and problems that our farmers, agriculture, have.”
Some have floated the idea of ”demonstration gardens,” which use the Utah State University Extension Service and other venues to demonstrate some of the technologies of drip irrigation or simply to improve education about where water comes from, how it’s used, and why conservation is so important.
“Set up some actual research or demonstration projects for the different types of crops, or even use by homeowners,” Wilhelmsen said. “And make it available for people to see and learn from these innovations and even have those who created them as mentors.”
One area that is currently not Israel’s focus is the Dead Sea, which draws comparisons to the Great Salt Lake. Unlike Utah, the Dead Sea does not have a significant center of population around it. Israel shares it with Jordan, and Israeli government officials said they have other priorities.
“We have some difficulties, because if we talk about drinking water and water to save the Dead Sea first? We have to live, we need water to drink and to grow crops, trees, etc.,” said Yehezkel Lifshitz, director-general of the Israel Water Authority, the central government agency that oversees the country’s water supply.
He said they are considering ways to help the Dead Sea, “but it’s going to be very, very expensive.” But Lifshitz said there are people in the Israeli government who are considering ways to help the Dead Sea in the long term.
Ferry said there are lessons from Israel that could be applied to help the Great Salt Lake, even though it’s 7,000 miles away.
“The biggest factor affecting Great Salt Lake is human distraction,” he said. “So if we can reduce human distraction by being more efficient with our water use, more water will end up in the Great Salt Lake.”
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.