What Israel can teach Utah when it comes to water savings, and what gets lost in translation
The delegation of Utah officials, lawmakers and researchers have been impressed with what Israel has accomplished when it comes to water.
“They really went from a water-hungry country to now a country that's actually exporting water,” said Zach Renstrom, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District. “There are some lessons to be learned, and it's been great to come here and see that.”
Lake Kinneret (also known as the Sea of Galilee) was once a major part of Israel’s water supply. That’s no longer the case as the country has created other sources of water using desalination and water reuse.
Israel’s advances in technology and water development are something state leaders are looking at closely as they try to deal with drought and the shrinking Great Salt Lake.
“Israel is known, I think in the water community, as being a true innovator when it comes to technology and forward thinking regarding augmentation of supply,” said Amy Haas, executive director of the Colorado River Authority of Utah.
After touring desalination and wastewater processing plants and farms growing crops in new ways and meeting with Israeli government officials and tech startups, Utah’s delegation is looking at exporting some ideas — starting with a culture of conservation.
“They really do measure every drop of water. I think Utah can do better,” said Teresa Wilhelmsen, Utah State Engineer and director of the Division of Water Rights.
‘The real price of water’
One of the biggest issues that may have to be tackled is how much Utahns pay for water. Israel, for example, charges a tariff for water use. For the average Israeli household, it’s about $150 per household each month. Utah’s water rates vary, depending on where you live and how much you use. That doesn’t even cover the true cost of water which is absorbed by property taxes (and some nonprofits, like churches and schools, don’t pay any property taxes and therefore pay next to nothing for water).
“It's the conversation we need to have,” said Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, who co-chairs the Utah State Legislature’s Great Salt Lake Caucus. “The legislature started down that road. We've had conversations about ensuring that people are feeling the real price of water and that's maybe what they do here better in Israel.”
Lawmakers declined to change water rates during the 2023 session, instead opting to study them. But a Republican senator vows to bring back significant changes in 2024.
Lost in translation
Israel has a nationalized water system, where it’s a public property controlled by the government and that’s where decisions on water policy are made. That won’t work in Utah, where there are individual water rights holders, water districts, cities, counties, the legislature, state agencies and the federal government involved.
“Israel, definitely the water is controlled and owned by the government. Here in Utah? We have the prior appropriation system. The water is public water and people get a right to use that water through the prior appropriation system. And I don't see that system changing,” Wilhelmsen said
It wouldn’t change without a lot of litigation and public protest, state leaders acknowledge. Water rights in Utah stretch back generations to before statehood.
Where Israel pipes water from the Mediterranean Sea and runs it through desalination plants for consumer use, then takes the wastewater and processes it for agricultural use, it can certainly stretch the water supply further. But it won’t work in Utah, where we are a landlocked state. (A pipeline from the Pacific Ocean to Utah could cost billions of dollars, to say nothing of regulatory and environmental hurdles.)
Water reuse could also harm the Great Salt Lake, said Utah Division of Water Resources Director Candice Hasenyager.
“That's less viable here in the Great Salt Lake Basin because much of that reuse water, that treated effluent goes to Great Salt Lake,” she said. “But in areas like St. George or on the Colorado River side? Reuse is a great option that they should be implementing.”
Desalination might work in other parts of Utah. Renstrom said the Washington County Water Conservancy District is looking at some areas where they have brackish water that could be utilized. He is also looking at water reuse, which could save millions of dollars in taxpayer costs after an initial investment.
“There are some things that I've learned here that I will definitely be applying in Washington County,” he said. “Because in Washington County reuse will be, it's going to be critical to our water source for the next 10 years.”
Water reuse might also work for agriculture producers in the Colorado River system, said Amy Haas, executive director of the Colorado River Authority of Utah. But even then, it might need a lot of negotiation because of the Colorado River’s use by two countries and multiple states and tribes.
“I certainly think we could do more in terms of reuse. But again, I do think that there is — especially when we're talking about ag water —there is this tension, if you will, between kind of the concept of reuse and our current regulatory structure,” she said. “So none of these things could happen without some serious law changes.”
Bringing Israel to Utah
Lawmakers are certainly keen to export new methods for growing crops with less water.
“We were able to go to a couple of irrigation companies that were just world leading and I think we're going to be able to work with them in partnership and then trying to bring some of those applications to the state of Utah,” said Sen. Chris Wilson, R-Logan.
The Utah State Legislature this year authorized spending $200 million for “agriculture optimization” programs. Those will be grants to farmers and ranchers to get them to switch to more water-saving technologies. Craig Buttars, Utah’s state agriculture commissioner, said he would like to see drip irrigation explored in the state.
Joel Ferry, executive director of Utah’s Department of Natural Resources, said he plans to extend invitations to some Israeli companies to visit Utah to showcase their products to local farmers and ranchers to consider adopting.
“Showing that technology, showing those innovations and how is it implemented here in Utah? And then the producers can decide,” he said. “The state is not going to say, ‘Hey, we're going to buy this.’”
Members of Utah’s delegation to Israel were intrigued by how the nation streamlined a lot of its decision-making authority when it comes to water, but acknowledged limitations with water rights and systems here that are more than a hundred years old. Still, they are looking to see places where bureaucratic red tape could be cut and cooperation between governments and Utah’s research universities and companies could be increased.
“We've got some amazing higher ed institutions with research and development,” Wilson said. “We've got a lot of very smart people and I think if we can collaborate and maybe have some money available in trying to solve some of these difficult questions and problems that our farmers, agriculture is having.”
Some have floated the idea of “demonstration gardens” using Utah State University’s Extension Service and other locations to show off some of the technologies on drip irrigation or even just increasing education about where water comes from, how it gets used and why conservation is so critical.
“Set up some actual research or demonstration projects for the different types of crops or even homeowners use,” Wilhelmsen said. “And make it available for people to be able to see those innovations and learn from them and even have those that have developed them mentor people.”
Helping Utah 7,000 miles away
One area that is not a focus of Israel right now is the Dead Sea, which draws comparisons to the Great Salt Lake. Unlike Utah, the Dead Sea does not have a significant population center around it. Israel shares it with Jordan and Israeli government officials said they have other priorities.
“We have some difficulties because if we speak about water for drinking and water to save the Dead Sea first? We need to live, we need water to drink and to grow crops, trees, etc.,” said Yehezkel Lifshitz, director-general of the Israel Water Authority, the central government body that oversees water for the country.
He said they are thinking of ways to help the Dead Sea, “but it's going to be very, very expensive.” But Lifshitz said there are people in the Israeli government that are thinking of ways to help the Dead Sea in the long term.
Ferry said there were lessons to be learned from Israel that can be applied to help the Great Salt Lake even though it’s 7,000 miles away.
“The biggest factor impacting Great Salt Lake is human diversion,” he said. “So if we can reduce human diversion by becoming more efficient with our water, more water gets to Great Salt Lake.”
Ben Winslow traveled to Israel and produced this report for the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative informing people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late.