Solutions to California's Water Crisis From Half a World Away

If Israel can do it, why can’t California?

Climate scientists say California faces decades more of record drought and needs more than 11 trillion gallons of water just to catch up with its current deficit. That means it could rain an inch of water every day on San Francisco and Oakland for 13 years and we still wouldn’t have that much water.

The water crisis faces the state even if California gets hit with a strong El Niño this year and the drought washes out of the public consciousness.

A three-month investigation by NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit took our team halfway around the world and involved speaking to more than 75 experts in climatology, water policy and new water technology.

NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit discovered that while the drought has stretched the state’s water resources to the limit, the drought itself is not the crisis. The crisis, according to dozens of experts NBC Bay Area spoke with, is that California has not secured enough new viable sources of fresh water that are not tied to the weather. The experts also say that California’s historic approach to water management is antiquated and does not allow the state to address serious water shortage needs in a timely and innovative way. The result: agricultural fields that once produced crops lie fallow, rural towns are running out of water, and farmers are digging wells deeper and deeper as underground aquifers are sucked dry.

In search of solutions, the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit traveled to Israel, where about a decade ago the country faced a similar crisis. Now, after treating water as a national security issue on par with terrorism, Israel produces more water than its population can use and many Israelis say they no longer care if it rains.

“This has been a bad run for [California] in terms of the drought and it’s not just the drought itself,” said Dr. Glenn Yago, Senior Director and Senior Fellow at the Milken Institute, an independent think tank that is currently teaming with scientists from the University of California at Berkeley to find market-based solutions to this drought. “It’s the fact that you have to have a sustainable water system whether you have El Niños or you don’t have El Niños,” Yago said.

Watch Stephen Stock’s extended, web exclusive interview with Dr. Glenn Yago, Senior Director/Senior Fellow at the Milken Innovation Center at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.

Yago has one foot in Israel and the other in the United States. He was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, but now runs the Milken Innovation Center in Jerusalem. He’s says there’s a lot that California can learn from Israel.

“The bottom line is [Israel] produces 20 percent more water than it consumes currently,” Yago said.

Yago’s office sits near the remnants of an ancient aqueduct that carried water to Jerusalem for thousands of years, but Israel’s new water portfolio and approach to water management is entirely modern, built out of necessity during a critical drought about eight years ago. Because of that crisis, leaders in Israel decided to implement an aggressive strategy to water management. The country adopted advanced water recycling, emphasized efficient irrigation techniques that had been first invented 50 years ago, encouraged rain catchment systems at schools and on buildings, and aggressively began building and bringing on line desalination plants. That strategy, coupled with conservation and advanced leak detection, created a system that now can withstand years of drought. As one farmer who grows crops in the Negev Desert put it, “I don’t really care if it rains anymore.”

Although California passed Proposition 1 in 2014, a $7.545 billion statewide grant project for funding of water projects and programs, experts say much more needs to be done to truly address California’s water crisis. Those experts say California has not taken the same aggressive approach that Israel did a decade or so ago.

Californians are seeing the cost of that inaction, as the state suffers through a fourth year of drought and continues to overtax its water resources and ecosystems. A NASA study recently found it will take 11 trillion gallons of water for California to recover from the drought. With the prospects of climate change and population growth on the horizon, the situation will only grow worse without a major shift in how the state and local communities treat water. 

“We simply don’t have enough water,” said Laura Shenkar, the founder and principal at San Francisco’s Artemis Water Strategy, a water consultancy project that that works with major private corporations to find innovative solutions around water. “We’re depleting our groundwater aquifers in places that will become ghost towns unless we address this. And I guess the idea is I am so concerned that we’re not ringing the bell very, very loudly.”

Watch Stephen Stock’s extended, web exclusive interview with Laura Shenkar, founder and principal of Artemis Water Strategy based in The Presidio, San Francisco.

To believe a rainy winter will solve the water crisis in California, Shenkar said, is wishful thinking.

“What is confusing is why people think that it could rain and it could solve this,” she said. “I can give you mathematical numbers. It never made any sense. It has been a problem that’s been boiling up for a very long time.”

Shimon Tal knows what it’s like to be in a position of leadership when there is no water. Tal served as Israel’s water commissioner for six years during the time his country faced similar critical water shortages as California faces now.

“Believe me, I was sometimes afraid that we [would] not be able to supply water even for basic needs for some time,” Tal said.

It took a crisis similar to the one California faces today for Israel to shift the water paradigm. Israeli leaders made water a national priority, with major investments in new technology and partnerships with high-tech companies. Less than a decade later, Tal said he no longer worries whether the country will thirst.

“Today, after doing what we should do, we have an excess amount of water,” he said. “And so we are not afraid of drought years.”

The man known as the father of Israeli desalination was also there during the country’s turning point. Abraham Tenne is the former head of the desalination division of the Israeli Water Authority, and refers to Israel’s five large-scale desalination plants as his children.

“In California, unfortunately, I think that the people cannot understand yet what the problem is they are facing,” he said. “They don’t understand yet how huge these problems are. They are not going to vanish next year because they will have a rain or two.”

California can’t simply dust off the roadmap Israel used to innovate their way out of crisis because each place has its own unique set of challenges. Namely, California is much larger than Israel and has many different regions, from snowy mountains to arid deserts. But there’s a reason why delegations of Californians, from lawmakers to professors, keep going to Israel in search of answers to the state’s water crisis. Israel serves as a model for how to approach water management from the top down. And, many say, it’s about time that California try to emulate Israel’s aggressive approach and adopt much of the recycling, irrigation, and desalination technology they used to build and secure sustainable sources of water.

NBC Bay Area visited Hashita School in Rehovot, Israel, where school leaders teach kids the importance of water conservation through hands-on projects.
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