High-tech new water — next steps for sustainable water solutions in California

On July 13, a working team was formed among 12 California water officials and practitioners (led by former state Treasurer Kathleen Brown and state bond counsel Robert Feyer) and more than 50 Israel experts who had designed Israel’s water solutions industry. There was a quiet hope during the daylong session followed by two days of site visits that the force of observation could change circumstances in California and for the rest of the world. It’s beyond time for us to all be simply hot and bothered by the water crisis. It’s not going away. California is just like a growing part of the world where water demand exceeds supply for more 40 percent of the world’s population — a trend that will continue to encompass 60 percent of global population by the end of this decade.

A presentation by professor Jay Famiglietti (UC Irvine and JPL) set the tone: Nearly one- third of the world’s 37 largest aquifers are being drained faster than they are being replenished. More than 40 percent of the rise in sea level is associated with groundwater depletion and wastewater dumping into the sea. His NASA data showed that in California, there is only about one year of water supply left in reservoirs and that total water storage has been in decline since at least 2002 and probably since the early 20th century.

Like so many things in this land, this particular existential threat was first recognized here in Israel. About a decade ago, a national emergency was declared and steps were taken. Israel realized that drying out the country would finish us off a lot faster than the Iranians or anyone else for that matter. A lot was learned. Mistakes were made, yet a $4 billion, high-tech water industry was born focused on the most basic need to conserve water in Israel and on this planet.

California and Israel share a globally warming Mediterranean climate, 75 to 80 percent of water used on agriculture, and the lowest rainfall since 1895; in Israel, the lowest since 1865, when measurement began. There, the similarities stop. Israel’s per-capita residential water use is one-third of California’s and represents only a quarter of total annual water consumption; 85 percent of wastewater in Israel is recycled toward agricultural use (often more than once) compared with a roughly estimated 5 percent of recycling (no one knows for sure because it goes largely unmeasured). All Israel water solution technologies seek to mimic the natural water cycle by engineering recycling of the aquifers and minimizing groundwater pumping. Over the past decade, Israel’s large investment in an adaptive and resilient water system through water conservation, desalination, recycling and smart, integrated management systems have led Israel to produce about 20 percent more water than it consumes, exporting the rest to Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

Last year, Californians passed a $7.4 billion bond issue, $3.4 billion of which will be spent in the coming year. It must do so wisely, because it is unlikely there will be a second chance, as Gov. Jerry Brown has warned. Meanwhile, fields continue to be flooded, nonrevenue water (aka leaks) wastes about 10 percent of California’s supply annually (such as UCLA’s 28 million-gallon leak last July), and there’s growing — but hardly universal — water consciousness about the centrality of conservation.

California will discover, as did Israel, that there is no magic bullet, but also that no technology that can help should be discarded or delayed. Desalination, water recycling, smart water systems that use big data science to predict and detect waste, new crops and irrigation that reduces water use are all part of the portfolio of solutions that must be used.

We are now forming project teams to deploy, scale up and localize to California conditions on these following areas that will avoid costs of wasting water by financing new technologies that will produce new water solutions. These include:

1. Desalination: Since desalination commenced and expanded, the average energy cost for desalination has been cut by 50 percent in recent years. New technologies that reduce chemical use and address environmental concerns have developed. None of these sustainable desalination breakthroughs would have occurred (and Israel would long since have run out of water) without major investment in targeted desalination, which increases incentives for new technologies;

2. California must get smart — quickly — about how it improves, produces and delivers water. Nonrevenue water saps at least 10 percent of the water supply and most likely more (because it goes largely unmonitored as indicated by a recent UCLA study). Cloud-based systems for integrated water-system management use advanced algorithms that harness utility raw data (such as flow, pressure and water quality) and enable water managers to better handle water resources. Israeli, Spanish, Brazilian and Australian users of these IT solutions report 66 percent reduction in time cycle to detect and repair leaks. Other sensors and technologies monitor closely water conservation and penalize indiscriminate water use. New material technologies and robotics can fix leaks without major reconstruction and at much lower costs through technologies such as Curapipe, widely used in Israel.

3. Drip irrigation in California has already been used on about 40 percent of the crops in California, and that has contributed about $1 billion annually. Now that technology needs to be quickly expanded to commodity agriculture (such as alfalfa, corn, grains, etc.), which will dramatically reduce groundwater depletion in the Imperial and Central valleys.

4. Embedded wetlands can provide treated effluent for agricultural use with very low capital expenditures (and swimming pools!) and are sustainable for small farms along with smallholder drip irrigation kits, which should be deployed immediately.

5. Enabling filtration of California dairy herd waste to avoid groundwater contamination.

6. Shifting to low-water, high-value crops and farming.

That’s a beginning to scale up these technologies that started in Israel to meet California-size problems in sustainable water management.

Glenn Yago is Senior Director at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies’ Milken Innovation Center and Visiting Professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.