The future of water in Los Angeles: What the Israeli experience can show us

Most people in Los Angeles don’t feel just how serious the city’s water predicament is.

After all, we are enjoying a respite right now; last year was a banner year for snow and rain. However, just three years ago we were battling a drought so severe that we had to have water rationing in Los Angeles. The anemic 2012 numbers for the Sierra Nevada snowpack (which provides most of our water) portend another shortage around the corner. 

Nearly 90 percent of our water comes from hundreds of miles away — the Owens Valley, the Colorado River and the Sacramento Delta. All three of these sources are under pressure — imports from the Colorado River are capped, deliveries from the Delta are no longer fully dependable in view of the fragility of its ecosystem and the instability of its protective levies, and supplies from the Owens Valley have been significantly curtailed due to environmental obligations and an erratic snowpack. Steep price increases are projected for shipments from the Colorado and the Delta. We have to face the fact that the days of cheap, abundant imported water may be numbered. To compound matters, our sole indigenous resource of any consequence, our groundwater aquifer in the San Fernando Valley, which provides for around 10 percent of our consumption, is suffering from such contamination that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) has had to close a substantial number of its wells.

Climate change will exacerbate the situation. Los Angeles is heavily dependent on the Sierra snowpack that feeds L.A.’s own aqueduct and the supply from the Sacramento Delta. The Sierra Nevada snowpack (effectively California’s largest surface-water reservoir) has already diminished by 10 percent since 1950 and will continue to shrink as more precipitation falls as rain instead of snow. LADWP has projected that by 2050 a water shortage worse than the 1977 drought could occur in one out of every six to eight years.

We must act now to shape a better destiny for our city — one built to a greater extent on our homegrown water resources. This is not a new concept. Indeed, this is exactly what the 2008 Water Supply Plan, drafted during my tenure at LADWP and announced by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, espouses. It is disheartening that four years after its release, its tenets still remain distant goals — the result of our failure as a city to garner the political will and gather the funding necessary to provide for our future. LADWP is currently attempting to obtain rate increases to finance the programs envisaged by the Water Supply Plan, such as wastewater recycling, rainfall capture, groundwater remediation and underground storage. Angelenos should support this effort.

In envisioning this road to a new water future, it may be helpful to study the experience of other countries that have made radical changes in their water portfolios. 

One such country is Israel. 

Israel has suffered a chronic water shortage for years. By the mid-1990s, a combination of unrelenting drought, population growth, urbanization (impeding the normal recharge of aquifers from rainfall) and man-made pollution led to the depletion and degradation of Israel’s natural water resources — Lake Kinneret and the country’s mountain and coastal aquifers. This crisis threatened the very adequacy of the country’s domestic water supply. As a result, Israel has embarked on a wide-ranging strategy that includes desalination, wastewater reclamation, conservation, infrastructure upgrade and rate reform strategies — all under the jurisdiction and leadership of Mekorot, the Israeli national water company. 

Israel has already begun to reap benefits from its water revolution, accomplishing the highest rate of wastewater reclamation in the world, an enviable conservation record and landmark advances in desalination processes. Mekorot has emerged as a world leader in water technologies and is today sharing its expertise and engaging in global business transactions. In effect, Israel’s actions to solve its water crisis have become exportable assets providing valuable know-how to others while also bringing revenues to Mekorot.

This is not to suggest that Israel and Los Angeles are in the same position; Israel’s water exigencies are certainly graver that any presently confronting Los Angeles, and Israel’s geopolitical and security situations place it under much greater pressures than we in Los Angeles can even begin to imagine. However, there are some intriguing parallels between Los Angeles and Israel. Both have a semiarid climate, and both face recurrent droughts and the uncertainties of climate change. Israel and Los Angeles also have similar policies for dealing with their respective water supply problems. 

However, there is at least one important distinction: Israel has staked its water future, to a large extent, on seawater desalination; Los Angeles has not, although desalination technologies are utilized in wastewater reclamation, aquifer remediation and other methodologies. As can be seen from the list below, ocean desalination is conspicuously missing from the L.A. Water Supply Plan as a strategy for obtaining a new water resource for the city. This is because, unlike Israel, Los Angeles has a long way to go in first attaining practical levels of wastewater recycling, conservation, rain capture and aquifer purification before it can justify desalinating the ocean (given the high monetary and environmental cost of this choice); Israel has already substantially exhausted these other options and has determined that it has no choice but to turn to the Mediterranean. It is reported that Israel will spend around $15 billion on its five new coastal desalination plants. Mekorot is regarded as peerless in terms of optimizing the design and operation of desalination plants to reduce cost, energy consumption and environmental impacts, but the fact remains that for us in Los Angeles, desalination is the most expensive of treatment technologies (especially compared to wastewater reclamation, aquifer remediation and conservation), the most energy intensive and the most problematic as far as environmental effects are concerned (considering the land area needed and marine life and brine disposal matters). It makes little sense for Los Angeles to pursue ocean desalination as a first-tier policy when it is recycling negligible amounts of its wastewater (see below). It would be illogical to clean our wastewater, dump it in the ocean, and then suck it back up and desalinate it; we need to reclaim and reuse that wastewater before it hits the ocean. Still, Israel’s advances are of tremendous benefit to us because these desalination technologies can be applied to other water purification methods beyond seawater desalination.

As a first step for Los Angeles, we need to recognize that our imported-water model (compounded by the advent of climate change) may simply not be sustainable as we seek a secure, affordable, adequate water supply for the Los Angeles of tomorrow. The 2008 Water Supply Plan already gives us the blueprint; we now need the leadership, and LADWP needs the funding, to implement it.

Let’s review the strategies for Los Angeles:

Conservation. Los Angeles has done extremely well; our population has grown by more than a million people over the last 25 years, and yet our water consumption has actually declined. Our per capita use is now less than 120 gallons a day, the lowest of any American city with a population of more than a million people. During my tenure at LADWP, we were able to dramatically reduce water consumption levels using the combination of a public outreach campaign, the enactment of the Water Conservation Ordinance (together with the deployment of the Water Conservation Team to enforce it), a rate regime to send a potent conservation signal, and a panoply of rebates and incentives to encourage behavior change. The positive results of those steps are still with us today. But, we can do better. We may be able to boast a low consumption rate in contrast to other American cities, but not in relation to other parts of the world. As a point of comparison, the per capita daily consumption number for Israelis is around 70 gallons. This is partly because a water conservation ethos is taught to Israelis from a very young age, an example we are now emulating in Los Angeles. Let’s remember also that around 40 percent of the water used in Los Angeles is outside the home — those ubiquitous sprinklers quenching the relentless thirst of lawns. By installing California landscaping and drip irrigation, a great deal of water can be saved.     

Infrastructure. Our pipelines are deteriorating, and current replacement and repair programs aren’t keeping pace. Across the United States, there are more than 240,000 water-main breaks annually (650 per day). It is estimated that this translates to wasting 7 billion gallons per day. Around 20 percent of LADWP’s pipelines are more than 100 years old. Strengthening LADWP’s repair and replacement program will protect the integrity of the system and provide a new source of water.

New building standards. We have made great strides in Los Angeles with our fixtures ordinance, which requires water-saving appliances to be incorporated in new development; the Low Impact Development Ordinance; the Green Building Ordinance; and other measures. Much more can be done by way of legal mandates, especially with respect to gray-water systems, cisterns, metering and other design features to conserve water. 

Wastewater recycling. This has to be a crucial element of any program to produce new water. In Los Angeles, we’ve spent billions of dollars building state-of-the-art plants to treat our wastewater to a high degree (secondary and tertiary levels), only to throw it away in the ocean. Other jurisdictions have long discovered that wastewater is an asset and have devised ways to reclaim it safely and affordably. Israel now reclaims almost 80 percent of its wastewater for irrigation and industrial uses. In Los Angeles itself, our rate is a paltry 2 percent. LADWP plans a substantial expansion of reuse projects for both nonpotable and potable applications. 

Rainfall capture. It is estimated that 60 percent of the rain that falls on Los Angeles is wasted. It hits impervious surfaces (roads, roofs, parking lots) and runs untreated to the ocean through an extensive storm drain system, only to foul the coast. This is both a water quantity and water quality problem. It is a central paradox of our city that in exactly this place so dependent on imported water we treat our own rainfall like some evil force to be gotten rid of as quickly as possible. We have to learn to build differently so that we don’t continually add impermeable areas. Here, our Low Impact Development Ordinance and other regulatory mandates are steps in the right direction. Israel, too, has to address the issue of lost rain as a result of urbanization that precludes the natural seepage of rain to recharge groundwater. Mekorot builds and operates catchments for the retention of rain. One example is the facility at the Shikma River, south of the City of Ashkelon, which can store up to 6 million cubic meters (nearly 5,000 acre feet) of rainwater.

Aquifer remediation. Roughly 10 percent of our water comes from our own aquifer in the San Fernando Valley. It’s a tragedy that this irreplaceable resource is suffering from contamination from human activities, which continues to spread. To its credit, LADWP has decided to execute a plan to save this basin. Israel is likewise no stranger to the qualitative deterioration of groundwater resources (as a result of over-extraction, seawater intrusion and anthropogenic pollution) and to the means that can be employed to redress these problems. In Israel, contamination caused by human activity menacing the coastal aquifer includes nitrates (probably from fertilizers), fuel (from leaks at oil refineries), volatile organic compounds (from industrial activities) and perchlorate, a rocket fuel. Pollution from pesticides and fertilizers has also posed a threat to the health of Lake Kinneret. 

Underground storage. As the effects of climate change become more pronounced, it is foreseeable that long dry spells will follow periods of heavy precipitation, that the Sierras will receive more rain than snow, and that the pattern and timing of snowmelt will change. This all points to the need to store water underground during the times of plenty for use in the lean years. Storing underground avoids losses due to evaporation and contamination resulting from aerial deposition.

The foregoing, then, is the roadmap for providing a degree of water security for Los Angeles as we contemplate a future in which our imported water sources won’t expand and may well contract as climate change takes hold and other factors play out.

The problem, of course, is to find the funding necessary for these programs. Achieving a rate increase in Los Angeles is a very political, public, often contentious exercise. Rate revisions require a broad-based, painstaking, time-consuming campaign — a dialogue with every segment of society, including business, labor, environmental, neighborhood and faith-based groups — so that these stakeholders will take ownership of the issue and, in turn, pressure the decision-makers to do what is necessary. Further, it’s not just the rate increase that needs to be explained and defended, but also the rate design because we must ensure that the burden of the rate hikes won’t fall on those least able to bear them. LADWP is going through this process right now and the L.A. City Council is scheduled to consider the requested rate additions in August.

In 2010, Israelis acceded to a number of rate increases, starting with a whopping 25 percent hike in January 2010 (with subsequent additional raises) to support construction of desalination plants. This was a difficult, divisive process in Israel, but most Israelis were convinced of the need for the increases. Our water officials in Los Angeles must gain the trust of Angelenos; I firmly believe that if our rate-payers have confidence in the truth of the reasons being offered for rate increases, they will support them, even in harsh economic times. Otherwise, we will be courting a water crisis.

H. David Nahai is a consultant and attorney specializing in water, energy and real estate matters. He is the former general manager and commission president of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, chair of the Regional Water Quality Control Board and senior adviser to the Clinton Climate Initiative.

Red-Dead canal idea stirs controversy

HERZLIYA, Israel (JTA) – On aerial photographs, the shrinking Dead Sea juts into the surrounding desert landscape like a blue index finger.

As part of the effort to prevent this finger from becoming a mere smudge on the map by 2050, the World Bank is conducting a $14 million study into the practicalities of building a channel to bring water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, which is shrinking rapidly due to evaporation and upstream water diversion.

Proponents say the plan could rescue the Dead Sea while supplying desalinated water and hydroelectric power to the region.

“We will have to balance the technological, environmental and economic issues at the heart of this complex study,” Peter Darley, the team leader of the feasibility part of the World Bank study, said at a public hearing last week in Herzliya.

Similar public hearings were held earlier in the week in Amman, Jordan, and the West Bank city of Ramallah.

The governments of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, all of which stand to benefit from such a project, had asked the World Bank to fund and oversee the study on the implications of building a 112-mile long conveyance system—either a canal or pipeline—to bring the water to the Dead Sea.

The idea has come under intense fire from Israeli environmentalists and water experts, who argue that more time than the year currently allotted needs to be devoted to studying the possible scientific consequences of the project.

They cite the potential environmental damages the project could cause, whether it be to the fragile coral reefs of the Red Sea or the unique Dead Sea ecosystem. They say alternatives must be studied in tandem by independent-minded international consultants—not representatives of the three governments involved, as is currently proposed.

“It’s like asking a cat to guard a bowl of milk,” said Gidon Bromberg, the Israel director of Friends of the Earth Middle East.

Bromberg and other critics of the canal plan charge that the Israeli, Jordanian and P.A. governments are interested in the canal solution because the international community might foot the bill for it as a massive desalinization or peace project.

Alex McPhail, the program manager at the World Bank who is overseeing the overall study of the project, says the bank is being methodical and scientific in its approach. He noted that the World Bank’s approach consists of three parts: a feasibility study, an environmental impact study and a report on alternative solutions.

“It’s an environmental question mark and that’s why we are doing these studies,” McPhail said. “It’s very important that we examine and understand all the potential environmental implications.”

Proponents of the canal project argue that the project could be a one-stop solution for replenishing the waters of the Dead Sea, generating energy, and providing drinking and agricultural water for Jordan, Israel and the Palestinians.

The project also is being touted as a rare symbol of regional cooperation.

“There is an interest internationally in saving the Dead Sea and this could also help bring water to the region that badly needs it,” said Uri Schor, a spokesman for the Israeli Water Authority.

Addressing environmentalists’ concerns, he added, “That is why everything is being checked out first.”

“We need to check all the options. If the project is deemed unsuitable, then we won’t do it. But if there are no problems found, then why shouldn’t we pursue it?”

Some developers see the project dubbed the Red-Dead Canal as a potential boon.

Isaac Tshuva, the Israeli real estate magnate, has answered President Shimon Peres’ vision for a so-called Peace Valley to be built along the canal—a corridor of shimmering skyscrapers, casinos, man-made lakes and 200,000 hotel rooms. That’s more hotels rooms than currently exist in all of Israel. The vision is for a new tourist and industrial mecca that planners hope would draw as many as 3 million Israelis to live in the region.

The project, whose scale would be unprecedented in Israel, has been described as Las Vegas meets Dubai in the Arava Desert.

Its detractors roundly condemn it as an environmental nightmare.

In 2007, when Peres was Israel’s minister in charge of Negev and Galilee development, a government decision declared the Peace Valley project and the canal as national projects.

At the time, some environmentalists warned that political and business interests were being mixed too closely at the potential expense of the environment.

Baruch Spiegel, Peres’ adviser for regional affairs, rejects any such notions.

The government made its decision to prioritize the project because of Israel’s water crisis and the shrinking of the Dead Sea, he told JTA. The Dead Sea’s water levels are dropping by about 3.2 to 3.5 feet per year.

“This is a major vision of the president of Israel—to use water and energy as a catalyst for peace and stability,” Spiegel said, emphasizing that environmental concerns will come first and any development that follows will have to adhere to strict guidelines.

“All options are being examined very carefully,” he said. “But without a project, things will get worse.”

Some Israeli and Arab environmentalists say the Jordan River, historically the main source for the Dead Sea’s water, should be rehabilitated rather than undertaking such a complex and expensive project as the canal. They also suggest reforms in the chemical industries on both sides of the sea, which are blamed for contributing to the Dead Sea’s dwindling water levels.

Among the environmentalists’ main concerns is that mixing Dead Sea and Red Sea water could damage the Dead Sea’s unique ecosystem, leading to growth of algae that could change the color and buoyancy of the water. That would also damage the tourism industry that has sprung up around the Dead Sea in both Israel and Jordan.

Others note that if the salty marine water from a canal or pipeline were to leak, it could seep into the ground water and contaminate local aquifers. There are also concerns that the coral reefs of the Red Sea could be harmed by the pumping out of so much of its water.

“I’m worried,” Yehoshua Shkedi, chief scientist of Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority said at last week’s hearing in Herzliya. “I have a feeling not enough money or time is being given to research to answer major questions. Good studies have to be done.”

For Gundi Shahal, a member of Kibbutz Ein Gedi, which sits near the banks of the Dead Sea, the questions about the canal plan are not just academic.

“Who will take responsibility for the impact on our lives, livelihoods and what we call home?” she asked at last week’s hearing.

Save the Dead Sea by restoring the Jordan River, not a canal to the Red Sea

TEL AVIV (JTA)—Environmentalists in Israel and the Middle East have a clear vision on how to save the Dead Sea, which has been losing 850 million cubic meters per year thanks to water diversion upstream and mineral extraction at the sea.

This vision sees fresh water flowing again into the Dead Sea from the Jordan River, arresting the sea’s declining water levels. It envisions Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian communities that live along the Jordan River benefiting collectively from a revitalized economy based on shared water and sustainable tourism, including Christian pilgrimages to holy sites on the rehabilitated river.

This vision, however, could not be more different from that of the World Bank, Israeli President Shimon Peres or Israeli billionaire Yitzhak Tshuva.

Their solution is to build a canal from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, which they say also will counter water scarcity in the region and bolster peace ties. Along the route of the canal, in the Arava Valley, Peres and Tshuva have proposed building artificial lakes, casinos, Dubai-style skyscrapers and 200,000 hotel rooms.

Ignoring the environmental impact of their plan is a grave mistake.

The Red-to-Dead canal plan places the fragile coral reefs of the Jordanian city of Akaba and the Israeli city of Eilat at risk. Pumping 2 billion cubic meters of water out of the Red Sea could alter water temperatures in the Red Sea Gulf.

Transporting seawater in a pipeline or open canal through the Arava Valley, an area where earthquakes regularly occur, likely would lead to spills and the salinization of groundwater. And the development ideas Peres and Tshuva harbor for the route of the canal would transform the unique desert landscape of the rift valley in the Arava into a Las Vegas-type strip mall.

The canal plan jeopardizes the Dead Sea as well. Scientists are now vocal in their concerns that mixing sea water with the unique minerals of the Dead Sea could lead to the growth of algae and turn the Dead Sea’s waters from deep blue to reddish brown.

By contrast, rehabilitating the Jordan River would strengthen existing but all-but-forgotten Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian communities in the Jordan Valley by bringing an influx of tourists and investment to the struggling region. New infrastructure would have to be built to accommodate the tourists, helping revitalize a region that is home to 350,000 people.

Rehabilitating the river would not require restoring its historical flow of 1.3 billion cubic meters per year. We can make do with just a quarter of that, 350 million.

To do so, however, we have to stop drawing so much water out of the Jordan’s tributaries, including Lake Kinneret.

How? Studies show that Israel could reduce domestic water consumption by 30 percent by promoting a combination of policy directives, from education for water conservation to pricing reforms. Rainwater harvesting, waterless toilets and low-water-use appliances need to be supported by legislation and grants. Domestic water measures would save some 200 million cubic meters of water per year.

The balance would have to come from reforms in the agriculture sector, which consumes about 500 million cubic meters of fresh water per year. Water authorities and environmentalists already agree that Israeli agriculture should be based solely on recycling treated sewage water. But while the water authorities want the savings to go toward satisfying increased urban demand for water, environmentalists want to see the saved water returned to nature, including the Jordan River.

The vision of Friends of the Earth Middle East is to decouple population and economic growth from increased freshwater demand. Our region, not Europe, should be the model for ingenuity in water conservation.

As for the Dead Sea, we believe the sea’s water level should be stabilized, not restored to its historical levels, last seen around 1930. Some 850 million cubic meters of water would be needed per year for stabilization.

If the aforementioned water reforms are applied in Israel and Jordan, a revived Jordan River could supply 500 million cubic meters of that, solving 60 percent of the problem. The 350 million balance must come from the mineral extraction companies at the Dead Sea, which are responsible for 40 percent of the water that leaves the Dead Sea every year.

It’s time that the Israeli and Jordanian publics demand that the enormous profits being earned by these companies—Dead Sea Works in Israel and the Arab Potash Company in Jordan—be invested in new technology to extract minerals without evaporating so much Dead Sea water.

The demise of the Dead Sea is man-made. Environmentalists should not be condemned for insisting on looking at the causes of the demise: upstream water diversion and mineral extraction.

Our vision is based on water sharing, water conservation technologies, sustainable agriculture and sustainable tourism. The Peres-Tshuva-World Bank vision may lead to ecological disaster.

Gidon Bromberg is the Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East,, a regional environmental organization that brings Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians to work together in a common effort in search of peace and sustainability.