California needs water – and Israel

While the leaders of California universities have been busy discussing whether or not to endorse an academic boycott of Israel — and generally weighing in against it — they are overlooking a much more productive way to single out the Jewish state: 

Invite Israel to help solve California’s water crisis.

Israel is uniquely positioned to help our state deal with what historian Victor Davis Hanson calls “the worst extended drought in [California’s] brief recorded history.”

This drought is a two-headed monster, caused by nature and man. On the nature front, Hanson writes, “There is little snow in the state’s towering Sierra Nevada mountains, the source of much of the surface water that supplies the state’s populated center and south. The vast Central Valley aquifer is being tapped as never before, as farms and municipalities deepen wells and boost pump size. Too many straws are competing to suck up the last drops at the bottom of the glass.”

But it’s human complacency that Hanson blames the most for today’s water crisis:

“In the early 1980s, when the state was not much more than half its current population, an affluent coastal corridor convinced itself that nirvana was possible, given the coastal world-class universities, the new riches of the Silicon Valley, the year-round temperate weather, and the booming entertainment, tourism and wine industries.

“Apparently, Pacific corridor residents from San Diego to Berkeley had acquired the affluence not to worry so much about the old Neanderthal concerns like keeping up freeways and airports — and their parents’ brilliantly designed system of canals, reservoirs and dams that had turned their state from a natural desert into a man-made paradise. 

“Californians have not built a major reservoir since New Melones more than 30 years ago. As the state added almost 20 million people, it assumed that it was exempt from creating any more ‘unnatural’ Sierra lakes and canals to store precious water during the rarer wet and snow-filled years.”

This is where Israel comes in. Complacency is not an Israeli trait, certainly not when survival is at stake. And in the desert lands of the Middle East, just as in any desert region, water is a survival issue.

But unlike California, Israel has spent the past few decades immersed in one of its greatest accomplishments: solving its water crisis.

“This country was on the brink of water catastrophe, reduced to running relentless ad campaigns urging Israelis to conserve water even as it raised prices and cut supplies to agriculture,” David Horovitz wrote last year in The Times of Israel. “Now, remarkably, the crisis is over.”

How did they do it?

It wasn’t just the desalination and recycling technologies, although those were critical. It was also the attitude.

“We decided we would,” Horovitz quotes the head of Israel’s Water Authority, Alexander Kushnir. “And once you’ve made that decision, you build the tools to reduce your dependence. We’re on the edge of the desert in an area where water has always been short. The quantity of natural water per capita in Israel is the lowest for the whole region.

“But we decided early on that we were developing a modern state. So we were required to supply water for agriculture, and water for industry, and then water for hi-tech, and water to sustain an appropriate quality of life.”

He might as well have been talking about serving California.

California Gov. Jerry Brown holds a chart depicting the annual state-wide precipitation levels in the state during a news conference in San Francisco on Jan. 17. Photo by Robert Galbraith/Reuters

The real question today is, can the Israeli know-how and can-do attitude help our Golden State deal with its own water crisis?

It’s clear that California’s political leaders, notwithstanding all their boilerplate rhetoric, have fallen short. We need to light a fuse under them to shake them out of their apathy. One institution that could do that is our university system, whose brilliant minds are there to contribute to society’s betterment. This model of academic, governmental and private industry cooperation is already happening, successfully, in Israel.

Instead of discussing academic boycotts of Israel, California universities ought to discuss creating a California-Israel Water Alliance that would use Israel’s unique expertise and put some concrete proposals in front of our lethargic legislators.

They can start by looking at San Diego, where a subsidiary of Israel’s IDE Technologies Ltd. is building the largest desalination plant construction project in the western United States.

Construction on the $922 million project, which is being built in partnership with the San Diego County Water Authority, is expected to begin this year and should provide high-quality drinking water to the San Diego area by 2016.

The global campaign to boycott and isolate Israel, however hypocritical and unfair, has been terrible for Israel’s image. Ultimately, of course, the very best way for Israel to improve its image would be to accomplish another miracle: make peace with the Arab world. But until that magical moment comes, we can’t underestimate the value of leveraging Israeli know-how.

And California is not the only place with a water problem. Approximately 40 percent of the planet’s entire population has little or no access to clean water, and experts predict that by 2025, two-thirds of humanity will live in “water-stressed” areas.

In other words, little Israel can become the world’s water savior. Try boycotting that.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at