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California Takes Cue from Israel

The Carlsbad Desalination Plant in southern California has slugged through six years of permitting (Carlsbad City Council, California Coastal Commission, et al.), and won 14 lawsuits and appeals by environmentalists. It broke ground in December 2012. When it opens in 2016, it will be the largest ocean desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere. The $1 billion project will provide 50 million gallons of drinking water a day for San Diego County.

Water shortages and droughts are serious issues, but now cities, states and even countries deal with such conditions is instructive.

With California being in its third year of drought, and summer coming, the California State Water Resources Control Board on May 28 ordered 2,648 water agencies and users in the Sacramento Valley to stop pumping water from streams, a measure not taken since 1977.

The order affects only "junior" water rights, meaning those issued by the state after 1914. Sacramento has junior water rights to the Sacramento River, a river that supplies water to over half of California's population and supports Central Valley crop irrigation, one of the most productive agricultural areas in the U.S.

Sacramento must now, at least temporarily, halt siphoning water from the mighty Sacramento. Fortunately, the city has 'senior' water rights for the American River, which flows down from the Sierra Nevada.

Since January, Sacramento (metro area pop. 2,527,123) has made it mandatory for residents to cut usage
by 20 percent. A city spokesman said water usage in public buildings, parks and landscaping has already been
cut in half.

On the other side of the world in Israel, however, drought is no longer feared. Israel (pop. 8,146,300) is only slightly larger in area than New Jersey, our fifth smallest state, so juxtaposed to California we're comparing David with Goliath, but it's interesting how this country, one of the driest on the planet, deals with drought. Israel's Water Authority reports the country has "all the water we need, even in the year which was the worst year ever regarding precipitation."

How is that possible? Planning and what Israel calls "a water revolution."

Israel's short winter rainy season supplies about half of its water needs. This past winter's rainfall, however, was 50 percent below average. So, panic, right? No. Israel conserves 90 percent of its grey water and recycles it for irrigation. But the bigger story is that Israel has four desalination plants, with a fifth that will be up and running later this year. That technology today supplies 35 percent of the country's drinking water. In 2015, desalination will supply 40 percent of drinking water, and by 2050, 70 percent.

Arid southern California, by contrast, has 7 proposed desalination plants along the coast, from El Segundo down to Carlsbad, but red tape and lawsuits have kept them from being a reality. In Southern California, there currently in operation only a small desalination plant on Catalina Island, and a desalination plant at the Diablo Canyon Power Plant in San Luis Obispo County, which uses the water only for its nuclear pressurized water reactor. California does have one desalination plant up on the Monterey Coast at Sand City, but it only produces 98 million gallons of water a year.

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June 18, 2019, 6:46 pm PDT

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