Utah leaders look to Israel to help save the Great Salt Lake
Map created by R. Adam Dastrup, Salt Lake Community College, using service layers from KADDB, Esri, HERE, Garmin, FOA, NOAA, USGS
Editor’s note: This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late.
TEL AVIV, Israel — Utah Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Joel Ferry reads an Israeli nursery rhyme to the men and women who oversee Utah’s water systems as they ride in a van headed to government offices in Jerusalem.
“Rain, rain from the skies. All day long, drops of water. Drip, drop, drip, drop, clap your hands.”
The children’s verse sticks in his mind as a stark contrast between how Israel views water and how it’s often viewed back home.
“So in America, we say ‘Rain, rain, go away, come again another day.’ Just inherently, we teach our kids, rain is bad. We don’t want the rain here, we want it to go away,” he said in an interview. “So if we can become more like Israel and how we respect water, how we treat water, how we live with water.”
Israel’s innovations in water-conserving technologies and water augmentation have intrigued Ferry, who led a delegation from Utah to the desert nation 7,000 miles away in March.
“The way that they respect water and manage that resource? I think we could really learn a lot,” he said.
For five days, Ferry and 14 others from Utah met with Israeli government officials, tech startup companies, agriculture producers and research institutions to look at how they have gone from a nation of water scarcity — to water surplus. They conserve, reuse and desalinate water, heavily investing in technology to make it work.
“Israel is well known in the world, managing a very sustainable and high-level water sector,” said Yehezkel Lifshitz, Director General for the Israeli Water Authority, the central agency that handles water for the country.
As Utah struggles to cope with drought and reverse water declines in the Great Salt Lake, the delegation looked at what Israel has done in the past couple of decades.
Ariel Schalit, Associated Press
“My goal at the end of this is to take some of these ideas that are born here in Israel and see if they can fit into our system,” said Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, who co-chairs the Utah State Legislature’s Great Salt Lake Caucus.
Utah State Engineer and Division of Water Rights Director Teresa Wilhelmsen said Israel has “some advancements that we could really think about here for Utah.”
Earlier this year, the Utah State Legislature approved funding for new technologies for water conservation and augmentation, particularly in the agriculture sector. Ferry said the state is looking at whether some Israeli technologies might be applicable to Utah’s needs. Beyond that, some in the delegation would like to import Israel’s mindset on water.
“It’s part of their culture. Water is so valuable to them,” said Sen. Chris Wilson, R-Logan, “as it should be to us here in Utah with the second-driest state in the country.”
Israel has innovated ways to find water, use it and re-use it and utilizes technologies to help with conservation. The country also enjoys a reputation as a “startup nation” for tech.
David Childs, KUER
“The innovation was incredible the way they’re considered a startup nation,” said Candice Hasenyager, director of Utah’s Division of Water Resources.
Founded in 1948 as a Jewish state, Israel had to find its own water. The country treats water as public property controlled by the state — there are no private water rights. Water policy is set by the Israel Water Authority, said Director-General Lifshitz, who met with the Utah delegation at a long table in a conference room in Jerusalem where he said “all the decisions are made.”
A nationalized water system contrasts markedly from Utah, where water is owned and allocated by water districts, water boards and commissions, individual water rights holders, cities, counties, the legislature, state agencies and the federal government.
“They had one table where they brought together the environmental community, the water community, the agriculture community, you know, the defense, and all of these together saying ‘What is in the best interest of the state of Israel?'” Ferry noted.
The director-general and his team walked Utah’s delegation through a primer of Israel’s water systems. Agriculture uses 56% of the nation’s water, and most of that is recycled water. Domestic use (or consumer use) is 38%, while industrial use makes up roughly 4%.
Conservation is ingrained in the minds of Israeli citizens. There have been successful television ad campaigns and public outreach efforts to remind people “Israel is drying.”
“I think water conservation to save water, to treat the water, is very important… not to treat water as something that we have enough of it. We’re going to have less and less water in the future due to the climate change,” Lifshitz said. “Countries like Israel and Utah probably will suffer water scarcity.”
He urged Utah’s delegation to keep conservation top of mind.
To ensure infrastructure and water supply, Israel imposes tariffs for residential, industrial and agriculture sectors. Everyone pays a flat rate whether they live next to the Mediterranean Sea or hours away in the Negev desert, parts of which receive less than 10 inches of rainfall a year. The tariffs pay for pipes and infrastructure.
“There is a water authority that determines the price and it’s a unanimous price for everyone,” said Lior Gutman, a spokesperson for Mekorot, Israel’s national water company. He explained that everyone pays a flat rate for the water they use. “Sometimes it goes up, sometimes it goes down. It depends on the price of energy and it’s quite fair.”
Israel charges based on use: The tariff rates are $2.12 per 264 gallons for water used up to 924 gallons. The price jumps to $3.90 per 264 gallons for additional water used. On average, Israeli water officials said a typical household pays about $150 a month for water.
Utah officials appeared stunned at such a high water bill..
In Utah, a typical Wasatch Front household pays nearly $60 a month for water (plus stormwater and wastewater fees) and uses more than 13,600 gallons, according to the Division of Water Resources. About 7,000 of those gallons are used indoors. Property taxes subsidize the bulk of Utahns’ water bills, and it varies based on where you live.
“We have about 470 water suppliers and they all have different pricing structures and different rates and, and it all depends on where you’re at, where you’re located, what your supplies are,” Hasenyager said.
FINDING NEW SOURCES OF WATER
The Sea of Galilee — known in Israel as Lake Kinneret — used to supply as much as 30% of Israel’s drinking water supply. It’s now less than 10% because Israel has dramatically expanded desalination, taking water from the Mediterranean Sea and extracting the salt to create drinking water. Roughly 85% of Israel’s drinking water is desalinated.
With five desalination plants across Israel and three more planned, the nation is leaning heavily into it. The country has a surplus of water now and sells some to Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
“After four hours, you can use it in your house, you can drink the water, you can wash your clothes, you can cook with it, whatever you want to do,” Gutman said of desalinated water.
He showed Utah’s delegation around Mekorot’s wastewater reuse plant outside Tel Aviv. What’s flushed down the toilet or goes down the drain winds up at the plant, which processes water for roughly 3 million people. (Israel’s population is roughly 9 million.)
The treated wastewater is then used again.
“It goes down to the mid desert, hundreds of kilometers south to be used in the agriculture sector,” Gutman said.
The wastewater is used to water crops, which are then sold in markets across the country. Israel reclaims about 90% of its water and uses it for agriculture. Israel is the world’s top user of reclaimed water, according to Mekorot.
In Utah, some agricultural areas do use recycled water, but it is limited, according to the Utah Division of Water Resources.
“Think of ways to on the one hand to save water and to use the water wisely and use this treated sewage as another source of water,” Lifshitz said.
At research institutions across the country, experiments are underway to develop new methods for collecting water. The delegation toured a park outside Tel Aviv that acts as a natural biofilter, collecting runoff stormwater and processing it.
The tech-forward nation also has a number of companies that specialize in water technologies. A number of companies showcasing their software and apps that track everything from water losses to harmful algal blooms made their pitches to members of Utah’s delegation.
Barry Gluck, who heads U.S. business relations for the water technology company Wasens, noted the distinctions between Israel and Utah during his pitch meeting with the delegation. Gluck said Israel is “a leader in the world in water technology.”
“Apparently, there’s a big spread between the savings of water in Israel and in Utah. But using the right technologies and employing them in the right places will certainly help reduce that,” he said afterward.
The government invests in startup companies through the Israel Innovation Authority — with no expectation that they succeed.
“We heard about this the very first day on this trip and I was really blown away, for lack of a better term, by the amount of resources that the Israeli government is willing to invest in startups without any return,” said Amy Haas, executive director of the Colorado River Authority of Utah.
Israel’s tech-savvy reputation and willingness to experiment is something Ferry said he would like to see Utah emulate.
“Ultimately,” he said, “my goal [is] I want Utah to be the leader in the United States in water conservation in water development technology and innovation.”