How Israel manages its water better than California does


California and Israel share a climate of perpetual drought. As far as water is concerned, however, that’s where the similarities end.

Israel has a water surplus, while California struggles to manage. Among other reasons, the Jewish state owes its water wealth to technology such as drip irrigation and water reclamation, which have yet to win wide popularity here. 

But different rules on water use pose one often overlooked answer to why California remains parched while Israel thrives.

Water law is a famously complex field, but one regulatory difference is clear-cut: In California, if a landowner digs a well, he can freely use the water that comes up. In Israel, the government controls that water.

“This itself is so powerful,” said Tamar Shor, senior deputy to the director of the Israel Water Authority. 

In late June, Shor sat at a round table at the Ritz Carlton in Marina del Ray, at a conference on Israel-California water collaboration. Across from her was Felicia Marcus, who, as chair of California’s State Water Resources Control Board, is the top water official in the state.

Around them, conference guests participated in structured discussions with designated experts, riffing on cue cards that had been distributed in advance. 

At Shor’s table, the card prompted conference goers to discuss “How to design long-term water policies.” Hers was among the most popular discussions.

As Shor and Marcus talked back and forth, a group of farmers, water entrepreneurs and municipal functionaries leaned in.

Marcus expressed her “Israel envy” over the way water rights are apportioned in the Los Angeles County-sized nation.

In comparison to Israel’s system, she said, California’s water rights look something like the Wild West.

“Right now, it’s whoever has the deepest pump wins,” she said.

Shor explained that in Israel, a license is required to dig a well. In California, local health and safety departments can ask for permits, but the state does not.

What’s more, even if a farmer digs a well herself in Israel, she’s required to pay the government for the water she draws from it in the form of a tax, Shor said.

By contrast, in California “if you dig a well on your property, you have a right to use it by virtue of owning the property,” said Eric Garner, a water lawyer and adjunct law professor at USC.

Wells draw from underground water tables with finite resources. 

Imagine a single cup of water with a number of straws in it: In California, anybody with the funds to buy a straw can drink freely, while in Israel, the government owns the straws.

Of about 6,000 groundwater basins in California, some 20 percent of them are considered medium to high priority, meaning there is more water going out than coming in, Garner said. 

Southern California faces further groundwater challenges; Local officials say the aerospace industry left many aquifers tainted with toxic industrial byproducts, such as perchlorate.

But Garner said even in contaminated or prioritized basins, the only law regulating the use of private wells is a provision in the state constitution saying that all water use “shall be limited to such water as shall be reasonably required.”

Functionally, that means the law is “pump until a judge tells you not to,” he said.

 The difference in who owns wells changes the incentive scheme:  Whereas once a farmer in California digs a well, it make sense to pull out as much water as they can; in Israel they’ll draw out only as much water as they care to buy.

“I’m a strong believer that wherever the economic incentives and the regulation don’t go in the same direction, it won’t work in the end,” Shor said.

The rule on who owns wells dates back to Israel’s 1959 Water Law that established government control over water use across the state, Shor said.

That’s hardly the only difference between California’s water regulation scheme and Israel’s.

In 2006, Israel established its Water Authority to replace a previous control board that many felt was mired in politics. Since then, the agency has maintained sole power over distribution and use.

By contrast, in California multiple agencies are responsible for making sure faucets don’t run dry. In Southern California, estimates put the number of governing bodies somewhere around 100.

Often to our detriment, Garner said, “California does probably have the most complex water rights system in the world.”

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