Why did Utah leaders go to Israel?

A team of 15 leaders from various Utah departments traveled to Tel Aviv to meet with Israeli officials.

(Ben Winslow | FOX 13 News) Craig Buttars, Utah Commissioner for Agriculture (left), Shlomi Kofman, Vice President of the International Division of the Israel Innovation Agency, Executive Director of Utah’s Department of Natural Resources, Joel Ferry (center); Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise; and Sen. Chris Wilson, R-Logan, at the Israel Innovation Authority.

One of the driest countries in the world, Israel once struggled to find enough freshwater to feed its growing population amid record droughts. Its largest freshwater body, the Sea of ​​Galilee, has suffered record low levels. Its salt lake, the Dead Sea, is dying from upstream diversions.

Sound familiar?

But Israel now has a water surplus. And Utah policymakers, who monitor the state’s dwindling water supplies, want to know how the country did it. They want to bring back Israeli techniques and technology to both save the Great Salt Lake and draw water from the dwindling and flooded Colorado River. They wanted to find solutions and build relationships to improve Utah’s water infrastructure, agricultural water use, and water conservation.

According to Nathan Schwebach, associate director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, the state’s goals were:

  • Here’s what Utah can learn from Israel’s water stewardship to create a framework and hub for water innovation.

  • Strengthen partnerships to test Israeli innovations and technologies in Utah, particularly in agriculture.

  • Understand the infrastructure and practices of water desalination and reuse.

  • Learn how to plan for Utah’s growing communities by integrating water use with land development.

  • Learn how you can potentially strengthen Utah’s water security by identifying technologies to measure water and collect data.

This trip comes a year after the state traveled to Israel on a trade mission to discuss the Great Salt Lake.

A team of 15 traveled to Tel Aviv in March. They represent the Utah Department of Natural Resources, the Utah Division of Water Resources, the Utah Division of Water Rights, the Colorado River Authority of Utah, Utah State University, the Washington County Water Conservancy District, and the Utah Department of Agriculture & Food. The group also included two lawmakers, a representative of Utah Governor Spencer Cox and a journalist representing the Great Salt Lake Collaborative.

Perhaps radical: “I want Utah to be the leader in water conservation, water development, technology and innovation in the United States,” said Joel Ferry, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, after the trip.

Water conservation may have a greater emphasis in Utah. Farmers save water with drip irrigation; higher water prices; and Desalination and Water Reuse Experiments in Southern Utah.

Schwebach says there could be more collaboration between industry, academia, research and development, and government; new methods to improve water measurement and data collection; and improving infrastructure to reduce water loss.

The Great Salt Lake Collaborative — a group of local newsrooms and community partners working together to cover the struggling Great Salt Lake — asked the state delegation if a reporter could attend. It’s important for Utah residents to know what solutions have been implemented elsewhere to understand what’s possible here. The journalist’s travel expenses were covered by the Great Salt Lake Collaborative.

Utahns use more water than Israelis – and pay less.

It is difficult to know how much water Utahns use and what they are charged for, since such information is calculated by various independent water agencies. But the Utah Division of Water Resources told the Collaborative that an average Wasatch-Front household uses more than 13,600 gallons per month for indoor and outdoor personal use and pays an average of $60 per month, plus stormwater and sewage fees.

Israeli officials told the Utah delegation that the average Israeli household pays about $150 a month. Israel uses a tiered tariff system. Basically it’s a flat rate of $2.12 per cubic meter (or 264 gallons) for up to about 1,000 gallons. After that, the price jumps to almost $4 per cubic meter.

Monthly water consumption in Israeli indoor areas was not available, but they are known to use less water than many other countries. A Utah State University study of the Great Salt Lake shows that in 2013, Utah residents used 650% more water per person than Israelis.

The price of water in Utah doesn’t even cover actual water costs, which are subsidized by property taxes (and some nonprofits, like churches and schools, don’t pay property taxes and therefore pay very little for water).

The Dead Sea, a salt lake that lies on Israel’s border with Jordan, is surrounded by a smaller population (compared to the Great Salt Lake, where the majority of Utahns live).

Schwebach says Israel is developing a long-term plan for the sea and is considering options such as importing water from the Red Sea or the Mediterranean. “They face similar water challenges as it’s shrinking very quickly due to water scarcity and mineral extraction,” he says.

As in Utah, Israel’s largest water user is agriculture. Agriculture in Israel uses 56% of the water versus approximately 70% in Utah.

About 85% of all Israeli farms use drip or sub-surface irrigation, including for alfalfa. Drip irrigation uses up to 50% less water compared to flood irrigation and pivot sprinkler systems, which are widely used in Utah.

The delegation neither met with members of the Palestinian Authority nor traveled to the West Bank. The visit focused solely on Israel and how its government and technology sector handles water. All members of the delegation had to follow the itinerary for safety reasons. The state worked with the US Embassy in Tel Aviv and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs to plan the trip.

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.

Justin Scaccy

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