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September 22, 2018
More than water: Innovations found in Israel's water supply

Photo: Mark Wemple

Drip irrigation is the key to producing year-round food crops at this moshav near Tel Aviv.

Editor's Page

More than water: Innovations found in Israel's water supply

Mark R. Howard | 11/24/2015

This fall, state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam traveled to Tel Aviv to speak at a conference called Watec Israel. The conference highlighted Israeli water-related technology and the challenges facing the world in supplying clean water to a population expected to reach 10 billion by 2050. Putnam was there to help build trade relationships with Israeli firms looking to do business in Florida and to share information about Florida’s water policy while learning about Israel’s.

It’s good that a top state official is paying attention to water issues. During the recession, water receded as a pressing issue in Florida. But the state’s aquifers, our main source of drinking water, remain stressed. Floridians actually cut their per capita water consumption as the state grew past 20 million residents, but overall consumption is growing. And parts of the state are up against the limits of what they can pump out of the ground to supply the population, agriculture and our natural areas.

“I’ve said consistently that water is the biggest issue facing Florida,” Putnam says, “and if we can’t get that right, nothing else matters.”

One of Putnam’s stops in Israel was at Sorek, a $500-million, 50-million-gallon-a-day desalination plant built by IDE Technologies near Tel Aviv. The firm’s state-of-the-art technology requires much less energy than traditional desal plants, producing the cheapest desalinated water in the world. Sorek and four other privately owned and operated desal plants now produce 40% of Israel’s water supply and will produce 50% by next year. As recently as 2004, according to the MIT Technology Review, the country relied entirely on groundwater and rain.

But desal is just one part of the picture. A new book, “Let There Be Water” by American businessman and writer Seth Siegel, offers a detailed look at how a host of policies and initiatives have brought water self-sufficiency to Israel’s 8 million citizens. What’s striking is how comprehensive Israel’s approach has been, embracing every aspect of supply and conservation. Just as notable is how the country consistently springboards innovations in producing or conserving water into commercial products.

For example, the pioneering drip-irrigation technology developed in the 1960s as a way for Israeli farmers to grow more crops with less water led to the creation of the legendary irrigation firm Netafim. A host of other companies followed to market the technology worldwide.

The country likewise has leveraged innovations in cleaning and reusing waste water. Israel now treats and reuses about 85% of its sewage, with the purified water going to irrigate crops. That level of reuse is the highest in the world; the U.S. reuses only about 1% of its wastewater. In addition to water treatment technology firms, other companies have formed that harvest gas and other byproducts from the treatment process and sell them. Israeli engineers also have developed technology to find and fix leaks in water pipes. Elsewhere, some cities lose up to 40% of their potable water to leaks; by 2013, Israel was losing only 11% of its municipal water to leaks, saving nearly 9 billion gallons — the equivalent of a small desal plant’s production.

For all the technology Siegel’s book highlights, what it ultimately illuminates is the difference between the way Israel thinks about water and the way other nations do. Most countries, both rich and poor, he writes, “subsidize the price of water to the point of making it seem to be free.”

By contrast, Israeli water policymakers don’t think in terms of ensuring a supply of “cheap” water. All water users in Israel, Siegel writes, pay the “real” price for the water they consume — water bills reflect everything from the cost of developing water resources to testing to pumping it to consumers to cleaning up the sewage afterward.

Water managers use price as the primary lever to manage consumption, and to fund and maintain infrastructure. After a bad drought in the early 2000s, for example, the country raised water prices by 40% to all users, which prompted a 16% reduction in household use. The revenue went to fund the desal plants and additional waste water treatment facilities that have all but eliminated the threat of drought.

But as demand increases, so will price. People and businesses forced to pay market price for water will keep looking for ways to use less; in the process, they develop innovations that become the basis for private-sector businesses.

On his trip, Putnam was able to brag a bit on Florida — the state reuses more waste water, both in the number of gallons and on a per capita basis, than any other U.S. state. And from a policy standpoint, Florida has embraced — ahead of most places — the idea that the natural environment has water rights along with citizens, farmers and businesses. Putnam says our state’s climate means that we can focus less on creating supply and more in the short to medium term on how better to capture and store water. Florida has “an opportunity to resolve water supply issues in a sustainable way that takes a load off the natural system without compromising our quality of life,” he says.

Putnam says that what impressed him as much as Israel’s water-related technology is the “startup culture,” which pervades not just the water supply system but the entire economy, one of the most high-tech in the world. Whatever Florida may learn about water supply from Israel, he says, it may learn even more about developing and sustaining a vibrant, innovation-focused economy.

“The things they’ve done to create that innovation, that entrepreneurial culture, is a part of the trip I didn’t anticipate,” he says. “I’d like to get back over there and dig a little deeper.”

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