Israeli experts address California water woes in Sacramento

The billboards show a man with one of the bushiest beards imaginable, one that would do ZZ Top or the “Duck Dynasty” guys proud. “Drought Face” is its title, with the tagline “Beards Save Water.”

The lighthearted ad is part of a campaign launched by Sacramento’s Regional Water Authority to remind customers to pitch in during the drought.

However, since banning shaving won’t end the water crisis, state officials last week turned their attention not to the eye-catching billboards but to a symposium titled “Israel Water Technology: Opportunities for Cali­fornia.”

Ben-Gurion University’s Eilon Adar speaks in Sacramento on June 11. photo/dan pine

Co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region, the seven-hour event on June 11 featured insights from Israeli scientists, water tech entrepreneurs and water agency executives.

Israel — and its role as a global leader in water technologies and water use — was front and center during the symposium, which was held in the chambers of the Sacramento City Council and attended by about 75 people.

The bottom line take-away: Technology exists that can help the state manage water resources during a drought. And if a desert nation like Israel can do it, California can do it, too.

“Israel is a leader in water recycling and reuse,” S.F.-based Israeli diplomat Eyal Naor said in his opening remarks. “Though the population is growing and demand is high, there is no water shortage [in Israel]. We will share our knowledge and success in water solutions.”

Naor, deputy counsul general of the Israeli Consulate for the Pacific Northwest, then stepped aside and let the experts take over. It was an impressive lineup, with people such as Eilon Adar, director of the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev; Alex Furman of the Technion Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa; Sivan Cohen, a director of development with Ayyeka Tec, an Israeli startup focused on water monitoring; and, via Skype, Tami Shor, a senior executive with Mekorot, Israel’s national water authority. 

“We look with concern on California,” Shor said. “The good news is we have a lot of experience with drought.”

Shor noted that Israel recycles 75 percent of its wastewater, with a target of 90 percent by 2020. She also noted that 100 percent of the country’s drinking water comes from the nation’s five major desalinization plants, an achievement which stopped the steady draining of the Sea of Galilee, formerly a chief water source. “Water belongs to the people,” she noted.

Labeling his talk “Overcoming Water Scarcity: What California Can Learn from Israel,” Adar said that although Israel consumes more water “than God provides,” the country is moving ever closer to closing the gap between supply and demand.

He said the main steps are improving irrigation efficiency, expanding wastewater reclamation and engineering drought-tolerant crops, then showed a projection of wine grapes growing in the harsh Arava Desert, irrigated with brackish water.

A sign in the San Joaquin Valley near Merced photo/andy altman-ohr

And illustrating how Israel makes every drop count, Adar pointed to a fish farm in the Negev Desert that recycles effluent-ridden wastewater twice: first to a lily farm, then to a date orchard.

Furman, speaking about how California and Israel are at once similar and dissimilar when it comes to water, noted that although both have a rainy north, an arid south and long coastlines, one big difference is that Golden State residents use 2 1/2 times more water per capita than Israelis. Conservation has to become the creed for all Californians, he stressed.

“California can adopt [Israeli] technology,” he said. “Just cut-and-paste it. But you need to create incentives to save.”

After lunch, Newsha Ajami, Iranian-born director of Urban Water Policy with Stanford University’s Water in the West initiative, pointed out that four years of exceptional drought and a snowpack down to zero percent could put California’s status as an economic powerhouse in jeopardy.

She said that in addition to employing new water-saving technology from Israel and elsewhere, she also would recommend raising water prices as an incentive to save. She also wants to see all water-related agencies work together.

John Woodling, executive director of the Regional Water Authority, said Gov. Jerry Brown’s 25 percent water-use reduction mandate is not just an empty threat in the Sacramento area. His agency has handed out more than 20,000 “tickets” to water wasters, with second offenses accompanied by a $50 fine.

He said Roseville city officials even contracted a private security firm to track down cheaters who water their lawns at night under cover of darkness.

That and other conservation measures seem to be working, he said. He noted that Sacramento area customers cut water use by 19 percent last year and water supplies have risen, thanks to new wells, turf replacement rebates and other measures.

The conference coincided with a new edict from Brown last week ordering agricultural landowners to stop pumping water from the Sacramento, San Joaquin and Delta watersheds. It was another sign that the state has had to move from voluntary to mandatory measures.

“California faces something we’ve never seen before,” Sen. Darrell Steinberg told conference attendees. “[In previous years,] drought had been considered a temporary state. Not this drought. This [conference] is a reminder that [U.S.-Israeli] relations go far beyond the geopolitical. We are friends and we ought to ask our friends for knowledge.”

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.