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COMMENTARY: Down to the last drop

With Las Vegas and other parts of the West suffering from extreme drought, there’s heightened attention on better water management — whether it’s conservation, reuse for agriculture and recreation or recycled for drinking.

Those communities need look no further than Israel, the world leader in repurposing the water we cavalierly flush and otherwise waste when showering and doing household chores.

In Vegas, the average household uses 222 gallons of water a day (a little more than half that if recycled water is taken into account). Either way, Israel wouldn’t think of it.

Set in a desert, surrounded by hostile neighbors and home to a literal Dead Sea, the average Israeli household consumes about 37 gallons a day. The country faces one of the most precarious water situations in the world. But because the natural resource is so scarce, Israel has learned to make the most of every drop.

The way Israel views its limited supply of fresh water — and the technologies it uses to promote efficiency — are lessons for the rest of the world.

Estimates vary, but Israelis use less than half as much water per person per day than Americans. In Israel, public education about wise water use starts at an early age. While American kids grow up singing, “Rain, rain, go away,” Israeli preschoolers are all about, “Haval al kol tipa,” which is Hebrew for “Every drop matters.”

Older Israelis grew up with the long-running TV ad campaign in the 1990s and 2000s that reminded viewers how drought was draining the Sea of Galilee. As celebrities spoke to the camera, their faces cracked and peeled like drying earth. The campaign was so effective that it was reprised during a more recent drought in 2018.

National plumbing standards were changed to require the use of low-flow showerheads and faucets. Many toilets in Israel now have two buttons: one for more water and a second button with less flow, depending on needs.

While marketing campaigns helped to win consumer acceptance of water efficiency, engineers were making revolutionary progress.

Facing its worst drought in at least 900 years, Israel turned to the one natural resource it has in abundance: the Mediterranean Sea. The country invested much money and brainpower into one of the world’s most vexing problems — how to turn salt water into fresh water.

Scientists long have known how to remove salt from water by pushing it through special membranes. The problem has been to prevent the membranes from being clogged by natural organisms and nutrients. But a Yale-trained Israeli scientist figured out how to use lava rocks to remove many microorganisms before the water even reaches the membranes. This made desalination more cost-efficient.

Five major desalination plants were built, and two more have been authorized. The result: Israel soon will get up to 90 percent of its municipal and industrial water from desalination, the most of any country in the world.

At the same time, Israel launched a major drive to make the most of the water it already had. Wastewater plants were built and infrastructure added to allow recycling of water.

It’s not as gross as it sounds. If you think about it, all water is recycled eventually, as it flows from creeks to rivers to oceans, where it evaporates into the sky to return to Earth as rain or snow. Wastewater recycling plants just speed the process with technology.

The idea is to strip out the pollutants that mix in with water as it is used and flushed through a community. Instead of returning that treated wastewater directly to a river or ocean (the old line holds that dilution is the solution to pollution), recycling plants pump the treated effluent to farms, where the water is used to irrigate crops and grow food.

In the past 20 years, Israel has invested more than $750 million in national water recycling, building more than 60 major wastewater treatment facilities and a nationwide pipeline network. The result is impressive: Today about 75 percent of the country’s wastewater is treated and reused, which makes Israel by far the world’s top recycler of water. (Spain is second with 12 percent, and the United States recycles less than 6 percent of its wastewater.)

Other communities are taking note. In the west Texas desert, El Paso is upgrading its wastewater system where recycled wastewater will be treated and purified enough to return water directly to taps.

Las Vegas has made strides in reusing water for public lands, golf courses and such. But much more invention and education around water use needs to happen to address fast-changing conditions, especially in the western United States.

The world can look to Israel for some of the best ways to make most efficient use of limited water supplies.

Ari Goldfarb is CEO of Kando, an Israel-based company, providing data-driven wastewater management solutions.

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