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Israel is a Drought-Survival Model for California – But Not the Way Everyone Keeps Telling You

That’s it. I’ve had it. It’s just too much. Any time I hear speakers talk about the drought in California, there is a portion of the speech that goes something like this:

  • I was just in Israel to see how they deal with arid conditions.

  • They have it at least as tough as us and have even fewer financial resources.

  • But they have no water worries! In fact, they’re exporting water and operating aquaculture in the middle of the desert!

  • In conclusion, we must build more water storage and desalination facilities.

The first three bullet points are all true. But the last point – the main point of countless speakers and editorialists – is a bizarre conclusion. These claims are always made by my fellow pro-agriculture advocates in this state, but I just cannot agree with them. Yes, we could get out of the drought by following Israel’s model. But storage and desalination are not the next logical step, if we are following Israel’s model. These articles and speeches always gloss over recycling and conservation and are usually used, oddly enough, to indicate that conservation and recycling are not the solutions we are looking for.

Yet conservation and recycling are the foundations of Israel’s water-independence. Let me share some of the differences between the typical Israeli household’s water usage and the typical California household’s water usage:

  • Israelis have far less lawn-space and other water-intensive landscaping.

  • Israelis, the inventors of drip-irrigation, make much greater use of it.

  • Israelis almost invariably have considerably smaller water heaters, which are heated primarily by sunlight, encouraging much quicker showers.

  • Israelis have to pay quite a bit more for water.

  • Every toilet I have ever seen in Israel, since I started going there in the mid-80s has been dual-flush.

The list goes on and on. But the big difference is not in the residential homes, but out on the farms. Over 90% of Israeli farms use drip irrigation, which can cut water usage for irrigation in half, while only 40% of California's do. More importantly, the Israeli agricultural sector’s primary water source is reclaimed water, which supplies over 50% of agricultural water usage. We’ve got a long way to go before we get there in California. The data out there isn’t great, but my estimate is that 2% of California’s agricultural water is from reclaimed sources. But agriculture is such a big industry in California, we could never achieve such numbers, right? Israel did and agriculture is a more important industry in Israel than it is in California, accounting for 2.5% of GDP, compared to California’s 2.1%.

As far as water storage goes, Israel has very little. The country’s largest reservoir is the Sea of Galilee, with a volume of 3.2M acre-feet. This is less than either Shasta Lake or Lake Oroville. In fact, my estimate, based on publicly available information, is that California has more than 10 times the water storage capacity of California and that does not include snowpack, of which Israel has none. Keep in mind that California’s population is not even 5 times that of Israel. Therefore, California already has well over twice Israel’s per-capita reservoir capacity. Todd Fitchette recently wrote in the Western Farm Press that, “As is seen in California, recycling goes only so far.” Sorry, Todd, but the truth is the opposite. It should have read “As is seen in California, water storage goes only so far.”

Israel did build out desalination plants and this is key to the Israeli drought miracle. But the desalination plants are what put Israel over the top. The amount of water generated by desalination every year is roughly equal to the amount of water that is reclaimed for agriculture. The desalination plants turned Israel into an exporter of water, but most of the work of getting to water independence was done through conservation and recycling. Most of the desalination infrastructure wasn't built until after that work was done. The takeaway here is that Israel used every option at its disposal to achieve water independence. Maybe we should do the same.

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