At JNF water summit, agreement on next steps, but when will L.A. act?
This scene, it seems, repeats itself every few months in Los Angeles: Politicians, city agencies, water experts and environmentalists convene, agree that California — particularly Los Angeles County — is doing a poor job of implementing proven solutions to solving water shortages, and then ask when the government will get serious about things.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
The Jewish National Fund’s California-Israel Water Summit, held March 2 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, attempted to break this cycle. The conference included an array of speakers and panelists from across the environmental, technological and political spectrum, and featured Seth Siegel, author of the recent book “Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World.”
During his morning address, Siegel connected California’s water needs with the nation’s general cynicism in regard to government, and said a breakthrough could restore people’s trust.
“The more government can deliver on its promises, the more people will trust government to do other things. Water is a good place to start,” he said. “The very good news is that Israel has spent decades developing a solution for this problem. The world can avoid the worst of a potential water scarcity crisis by being more like Israel, at least in terms of water.”
During a morning panel, UCLA’s associate vice chancellor for environment and sustainability, Mark Gold, said the last four years of drought in California “have told us very clearly that the way we’re managing water is just not sustainable.”
“We have to move. We have no choice,” Gold said.
Gold’s panel was moderated by David Nahai, former CEO of the L.A. Department of Water & Power, and featured city and state officials, including Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies about 2 billion gallons of water a day for 19 million people across Southern California.
The summit’s overall message was simple: Solutions are out there — places such as Israel, Australia and even Orange County have proven it by implementing a cocktail of wastewater purification, rainwater capture and even the expensive desalination route that San Diego County recently launched.
But these opportunities continue to be sidelined in most of California, for now. Heather Repenning, commissioner of the L.A. Department of Public Works, said during the morning panel that most of the 350 million gallons of wastewater the agency treats daily is pushed into the ocean.
“It’s obviously a missed opportunity,” she said.
The answer to that problem, as TreePeople founder and president Andy Lipkis has said for years, is that wastewater purification (also known as “toilet to tap”) and rainwater capture make more sense than a system that pumps about 80 percent of rainwater to the sea, and imports about 90 percent of the water it consumes from hundreds of miles away.
“Rainfall in Los Angeles actually represents about half the water we need,” Lipkis said on an afternoon panel moderated by Rob Eshman, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Jewish Journal. “When it rains 1 inch in Los Angeles, we throw away 3.8 billion gallons of capturable rain water.”
That panel also included City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield; Brian Peck, who is Gov. Jerry Brown’s deputy director of international affairs and business development; and Dillon Hosier, the Israeli-American Council’s head lobbyist and former senior advisor to David Siegel, Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles.
Israel, which is arguably the world’s leader in water conservation technology, was held up at the summit as a model for how California — which has similar climates and topographies to the Jewish state — can address severe water shortages and poor policy decisions exacerbated by a four-year drought.
“If you could just go over there and put it in place here, we’d be done with these kind of conferences,” Eshman said to the panel. “We could move on from this problem, which they’ve already solved in Israel.”
So what’s the hold up? Why hasn’t California replicated Israel’s water solutions?
Well, in some places, it already has. The Western Hemisphere’s largest desalination plant in Carlsbad, just north of San Diego, came on line in late 2015 and was built and designed by Poseidon Water and IDE Technologies, an Israeli desalination company. That $1 billion plant, which is adjacent to the Pacific Ocean, provides about 50 million gallons of clean drinking water to a service area of about 3.2 million people. And because it’s not dependent on rain, snow or groundwater aquifers, it’s a “drought-proof” supply, which is also reflected by the fact that it’s the most expensive method of water supply, at about $2,000 for every 326,000 gallons.
Orange County, meanwhile, has one of the largest wastewater purification systems in the world, producing up to 100 million gallons of drinking water per day. Even Los Angeles, which relies overwhelmingly on imported water, has the West Basin Municipal Water District, which provides purified wastewater to 17 coastal cities in L.A. County.
And while implementation of Israeli-style water technologies is still more or less just a topic of discussion in Los Angeles, there’s hope that things like the memorandum of understanding signed between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Brown in early 2014 will help build momentum for tangible action. The same is true of more local water agreements, including those between Beverly Hills and L.A. County and Israel.
But how far can Israeli solutions go in California? Gold and Lipkis believe the relatively expensive route of desalination means it should be used only as a last resort in Los Angeles. Lipkis said that reverse osmosis, the key purification process used in desalination, is also used for wastewater purification, but is far cheaper when not cleaning seawater.
“Israel’s loaded with good solutions — they don’t all apply here,” Lipkis said. “Desalinating seawater is the last thing you do.”
In addition to advising lawmakers and agencies on water policy, Lipkis sees water education as the other major key to translating the consensuses reached at summits like these into government policy.
“We have to radically increase literacy,” Lipkis said. “We’re fairly impenetrable right now. There are lots of government policies and rules that are stopping it. We have to create the market for policy change.”
The drought, he suggested, has helped create that market: “Before the drought, there were thousands of people in California who cared about water. All of a sudden there are 40 million of us.”