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Beersheba, a city in southern Israel, is largely unknown to most of the world, but the city represents a bold, progressive approach toward water usage and planning for the future. The 1,700-acre, $300 million Beersheba River Park is the main part of the Jewish National Fund’s (JNF) Blueprint Negev initiative, to move more of its population into the Negev Desert, which covers 60% of the nation’s land, but less than 10% of its population.
Beersheba is just one example of a city that has used innovative technology and partnerships to improve the quality and accessibility of water.
Israel as a whole inspires the globe to action on game-changing water supply solutions, according to Seth Siegel, author of a new book, “Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World.” Siegel visited San Antonio on Dec. 2 as part of a nationwide tour to promote his book, and to share what with locals what he has learned from Israel. The JNF and AccelerateH20, a local non-profit clearinghouse for Texas water technologies, co-hosted a free reception for Siegel and more than 40 other people at Temple Beth-El.
City Councilman Joe Krier (D9), businessman Mike Beldon, a former Edwards Aquifer Authority (EAA) board chairman, and Richard Seline, AccelerateH20’s executive director and senior adviser, offered short comments during the event.
Krier mentioned key water management projects at San Antonio Water System (SAWS), which include aquifer storage and recovery, a new desalination program and the planning for Vista Ridge. He said these projects enable San Antonio to better manage its water supply future.
Beldon said he realized the importance of water resources to Israel during his travels in the early 1970s, but he would have never guessed Israel would become a leader for water solutions.
“San Antonio is so well positioned in water today,” Beldon told the crowd. “We’ve come so far from the early 1990s when the EAA was formed.”
Between SAWS, EAA and conservation measures, San Antonio can “show the world what it has done with its water,” said Richard Seline, executive director and senior adviser at AccelerateH20.
After spending time in the law and business worlds, Siegel fully understood how the scarcity of potable water could have a worldwide impact. He researched the subject to educate himself, and found one nation that, despite a challenging climate, wars and civil strife, had mounted a forward-thinking mindset about water management.
“I didn’t know back then Israel has the potential answer. Israel now has so much water, an abundance of it,” Siegel said. “It gives water to the Palestinians and to Jordan. It has a dynamic, billion-dollar agriculture exporting industry, but hardly anyone knows about it.”
Israel has developed innovative ways to conserve available water and to supply it safely to a growing population for decades, but it hasn’t been easy. The issue was not just about technology. There had to be a willingness among generations of leaders across Israel to think ahead.
“Israel turned water into an existential issue,” Siegel said. During the 1930s, before the State of Israel was formally established, Jewish leaders in Palestine often looked for adequate water supply planning as they expected and encouraged the large-scale movement of Jews from Europe and elsewhere to Palestine.
When the State of Israel came into being after World War II, the country’s leaders decided to make water the common property of all citizens. Over the years, the Israelis revolutionized agriculture through drip irrigation and breeded seeds that thrive on brackish water. Israel’s Mediterranean desalination plants now provide the equivalent of 80% of the country’s household water.
Israelis improved on on other water management and treatment methods, including membranes, valve-to-control room communications, and reusing treated sewage water. As a result, Israel has comparatively lower costs than other nations when it comes to improving water efficiency, and rivers and creeks are left to flow more freely and even serve as places of public recreation, as the case with Beersheba.
“Israel is a water powerhouse of independence,” Siegel said.
Many major population centers have “sleepwalked into a crisis and now we’re facing a situation on a global basis — continent-sized migrations” of people searching cleaner, more secure sources of water, he said. There is a lack of safe drinking water in parts of China and India, two of the world’s most populous countries, and in Brazil, a fast-growing power of South America.
The time for action is now, Siegel said. “If we don’t get this right, and not just here, there’ll be a cataclysmic transformation of our world.”
Water infrastructure across the United States must be fixed, but there is no amount of federal, state or local money anywhere that will come close to adequately addressing any community’s infrastructure issues, Siegel said. More than 20% of treated water nationwide, combined, is lost everyday to broken or aging infrastructure.
What are the options? Everyone — elected officials, planners, all types of water users — must have “an intelligent conversation” about the price of water.
“The price doesn’t bear the real cost of getting the water,” Siegel said, adding that he understands that many Americans are used to the access to water being more of a personal right without having to pay a true cost of using it.
“While water is free, nobody has incentive to fix it,” he said. “It used to be in California that if you had a drill bit, you could take whatever water you wanted and not pay a consequence.”
However, if and when “real-world pricing” is introduced, it could unleash an innovation curve, inducing a growth of businesses that could ultimately help to keep prices down through technologically advanced management and treatment. More than 200 Israeli companies have sprung up in the last decade, all with technological solutions.
Another thing that is making water solutions complicated is governance. Siegel said he could not believe upon hearing that Texas has more than 100 districts that have some level of authority over water in their jurisdiction. He added that many districts discourages coherent, consistent water planning, especially since many natural water sources cross numerous district and county and even state lines.
Siegel implored everyone to be more engaged in emotionless conversations about water management, from the local to national level.
“Everything (Israel) did, we can do and easier,” he said, recognizing the United States as a wealthy superpower with stable populations and a number of scientists and planners who can figure out smart ways to improve water delivery. Yet help from willing political leaders and stakeholders is needed.
A few attendees asked questions, including one man who expressed disappointment at SAWS Dec. 1 act, which lifted outdoor watering restrictions following recent rains. SAWS’ year-round watering rules remain in effect, while the EAA lifted its pumping restrictions Nov. 12.
City Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) has helped to lead the public push to make Stage 1 conservation measures permanent. His colleague, Krier, told a reporter after Siegel’s presentation that the entire Council and community must ask more questions before making such a decision.
“A decision like that has major implications — financial ones,” Krier said, pointing to SAWS projecting its annual budget on consumption rates. It would also mean a lifestyle change for many water customers, such as those challenged with maintaining a landscape with vegetation that requires lots of water.
“We need to think this through,” he added.
Attendees received free, autographed copies of his book during the event at Temple Beth-El, but Siegel will be donating all book sale profits to charity. When asked by a reporter if he thought San Antonio is doing enough to secure its water future, he simply replied: “Oh no, there’s lots more that can be done.”
Top Image: Author Seth Siegel signs a copy of his new book, “Let There Be Water,” during a reception at Temple Beth-El on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.