Israel, New Mexico, and Water

Is New Mexico running out of water? Maybe it could learn something from another country that shares common conditions of aridness, low rainfall, few year-round rivers, poor soils, hot summers, cold winters, and substantial desert farming.

Israel has gone from being water poor to water rich through a few carefully crafted water policies that now make it a net water exporter, helping the Palestinians and Jordanians reap the benefits of Israel’s innovative technologies, water conservation consciousness, realistic pricing, and efficient methods of water use and harvesting.

For many years water was plentiful; our water source systems therefore did not consider future scarcity, but were de facto wasteful. We didn’t need to be innovative and resourceful because there seemed to be no urgency or economic justification. And water has been cheap – we don’t pay for the real cost of what we use.

Who Owns the Water?

In New Mexico water belongs to (1) private individuals, for whom rights to water allocations from common sources are handed down from generation-to-generation, (2) local water authorities, which receive negotiated allocations from common water supplies, or (3) who knows? As Winthrop Quigley wrote in the Albuquerque Journal in 2015, “it is almost impossible to say with certainty who owns water rights in the Middle Rio Grande Valley, and it would be obscenely expensive to find out. If you can’t be certain who owns the right, you can’t create a market to buy, sell and lease water.” When water is scarce, it doesn’t get distributed to the most efficient or needy places. Instead “it legally goes first to holders of the most ‘senior’ water rights (those whose legal claim is the oldest).”[i]

In Israel the government owns and controls all water rights and water uses. It has been able to plan centrally, providing the most efficient and effective ways to conserve and produce. It assures safe and reliable water systems. It has achieved not only a balance between its supplies and demand, it now has a water surplus that it sells to neighboring desert countries that have failed to keep up.   Further, Israel has taken politics out of the hands of the legislative bodies and water regulators through a technocratic centralized authority that is relatively non-political.

While it would be a massive political undertaking to change water rights in New Mexico, taking a page out of Israel’s book could help us deal with climate change and drought conditions in New Mexico more efficiently and effectively.

Efficient Production and Effective Conservation

How does Israel pursue its water sources and conservation efforts? Author Seth Siegel, in his landmark text Let There Be Water, Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World, lists a number of actions that have helped Israel pursue its clean, safe, and available-anytime resources:

  1. Conservation – Israelis are water-conscious individuals. They are taught water conservation from their early days in primary school, and constantly reminded of their responsibility through community messages and social pressure. Conservation is a way of life.
  1. Agriculture – Israelis are the inventors of drip irrigation. 75% of irrigated fields are drip irrigated. The rest are sprinkled. For decades Israel has abandoned flood or ditch irrigation, a method still used extensively today in the US. In New Mexico acequias have been shown to lose as much as 50% – 70% of their water through soil absorption and evaporation, never getting to the agricultural crops being grown. As acequias are drying up, however, NM farmers are looking to more water-efficient methods and beginning to convert to more water use-efficient methods. Sprinkler irrigation losses are typically around 20% in New Mexico.[ii]

In New Mexico 75% of all water use is in agriculture. Drip irrigation in 2010 (latest data readily available) accounted for only 2.2%, essentially unchanged from 2005.   Flood and sprinkler irrigation accounted for 45.5% and 52.2% respectively.[iii]

Given the amount of water loss using flood and sprinkler irrigation we estimate that around 32% of all agricultural water use in NM is wasted to evaporation and ground absorption not at the sites of plant growth.

It is easy to see that even a modest switch to drip irrigation from flooding and sprinkling would lead to huge savings in water use.   How might we this? Charging for water use based on its real value might be one way to encourage the installation of drip irrigation methods. However, NM has a strong lobbying organization that reinforces the development and maintenance of acequias, making this potentially a difficult political issue.

Types of Crops Produced

Another critical piece in agriculture: water efficiency for value of crops produced. Over the past 20 years Israel has changed their main crops from high water, low value to low water high value.

Israel irrigated 460,000 acres, using 53% of total water consumption, and produced $ 7,643 billion worth of crops.   In contrast, New Mexico in 2010 used 78.6% of the state’s water (872,664 acres) and produced just $616.9 million worth of crops. Over two-thirds of NM’s crops were hay and alfalfa, whereas, for example, onions yield ten times the market value per pound as alfalfa.

Israel has developed plants specifically for water efficiency: short stalked wheat, clustered tomato plans with fewer leaves, plants with shorter roots, plants that can grow in higher salinity water like melons, peppers, tomatoes, eggplants and others that thrive on diluted brackish water. Many of these newly designed plants are better tasting;

As plants absorb the salty water, there is a change in the plant’s cell structure. The amount of water in the cell declines, but the natural sugars increase. This produces sweeter fruits and vegetables with a better texture.[iv]

Of course, switching crops cannot occur overnight.   But a modest redirection from high water/ low value crops to the reverse would lead to major improvements in the NM’s water use. It has been estimated that such a switch, coupled to a move to drip irrigation, could save as much water as would be saved by eliminating agricultural uses almost entirely.[v]

Water Production

Besides the normal sources of aquifers and “sweet water” surface sources, Israel produces more water than it needs through innovative uses of brackish supplies, desalination, harvesting of storm water, and efficient recycling of sewage.

Table 1: Israel’s Water Supplies (2015)  (numbers are approximate)

Source Billions of Gallons Percent of Total Sources
Natural
Surface (Sea of Galilee) 58 10%
Aquifers 162 28
Manufactured    
Desalination 156 27%
Sewage recycling 121 21
Brackish water 64 11
Storm water 17 3

 

Israel and New Mexico share some of the same types of geological formations that make water harvesting difficult. Israel has “fossil” aquifers – deep, non-renewable caverns over a mile down – that are insulated from surface rains and are highly mineralized. Such caverns can also be used to develop complex reservoir systems for capturing re-directed rainwater arising from flash floods during winter. The water removed from these fossil aquifers is usually very salty, needing dilution or usable in brackish water desalination.

Desalination

Israel’s desalination expertise has resulted in Israeli companies designing and building the world’s largest desalination plants across the globe, like in Carlsbad, California, China, and India, which produces 106 million gallons a day. Israel’s own Soreq desalination plant produces 165 million gallons a day and is the largest on earth. In total, Israel now produces nearly 500 million gallons of freshwater from salty sources daily. This is the equivalent of 94% of Israel’s household water.

Water Use

Israel is the most water efficient and effective use country in the world. It recycles more than 85% of household water and sewage. In Israel recycled sewage water is also used to replenish aquifers.  

After passing through a series of treatments and then naturally filtered by passing through desert sand this newly purified water reaches the aquifer in 6-12 months.

In contrast, Santa Fe recycled just 15.6% of its water use in 2015. In most western countries, partially treated sewage is released in rivers or oceans.  (Image just above from PBS special April 26, 2015)

 

Table 2: Israel’s Water Uses (2015)  (numbers are approximate)

Use Billions of Gallons Percent of Total Use
Agriculture
Manufactured 190 34%
Natural 120 21
Household use 185 33
Industry 35 6
Palestinian Auth & Jordan 30 5
Environment 5 1

 

New Mexico farmers’ access to water is governed by centuries old rules; the rights of first users, the rights of down-stream users, the “use it or lose it” rule, the limitations on transfer rights, and over arching it all, the fundamental principle that water belongs to private individuals rather than to the state.

Peace through water

  1. Jordan.

Because of Israel’s total water conservation and production it now has an excess of water, permitting it to provide Jordan with about 14 billion gallons of water each year from Israel’s own supplies. In 2015 Jordan signed a contract for Israel to supply another 9 billion gallons of desalinated water annually from a newly planned desalination plant in Aqaba. These agreements increase the value of the relationship between the two nations, an encouraging component of peace.

  1. West Bank and Gaza.

Annually Israel supplies the West Bank and Gaza with 30.3 billion and 2.6 billion gallons of water respectively.[vi] This is about 8.7 billion gallons more than required in the Oslo Accords. Of the 30 billion gallons supplied to the West Bank, 19.5 billion were transferred to the West Bank from the Israeli national water system within the pre-1967 borders.[vii]

Israel is often falsely accused of withholding water from the West Bank and Gaza. According to the 1995 Oslo II agreement Palestinians are “free to build any and all components of the water and sanitation sector, subject to the approval of the [Joint Water Committee or JWC]. Implementation of these projects is the responsibility of the Palestinian Water Authority after obtaining permits from the Israeli Ministry of Defense Civil Administration.”   The majority of wells in the West Bank are owned and operated by the Palestinians.

Further, the Oslo Accords clearly state that all water sector management in Gaza is to be done entirely by the Palestinians (with the exception of Israeli settlements and military bases – none of which have existed in Gaza since 2005). After the 2005 Gaza disengagement by Israel Hamas and the Palestinian Authority bear full responsibility for water in Gaza.

Unfortunately, as the NGO Monitor special report in 2016 entitled “Myths vs. Facts: NGOs and the Destructive Water Campaign against Israel” points out, political advocacy NGOs use misinformation and the need for cooperation “as part of their delegitimization and anti-normalization campaigns against Israel. NGOs often present a distorted narrative of the water issue, ignoring the negotiated agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.” The NGO Monitor report provides the data:

In fact, of the approximately 114.8 MCM [million cubic meters or 30.3 billion gallons] supplied by Israel to the West Bank in 2015, 64 MCM [17 billion gallons] were delivered to Palestinians and 50.8 MCM [13.4 billion gallons] to Israelis. 73.7 MCM [19.5 billion gallons] were transferred to the West Bank from the Israeli national system within the Green Line. In other words, Israel is transferring far more water to the West Bank than what Israelis there consume, and uses significant amounts of its own water to supply the Palestinians (on top of the 140 MCM/Y Palestinians extract from their own wells) and not the reverse as claimed by the NGOs.

Another factor in the Palestinian complaints about water derives from their stopping their cooperation with the Israelis; for many years the Palestinians have boycotted the JWC. This controversial action by the Palestinians has partially been in protest of some water supplies going to West Bank settlements, and partially internal political – many times any collaboration with Israel by Palestinians is seen as a form of disloyalty which can be punished by vigilantes in the West Bank.

There may be some hope in this regard, however.  On January 15, 2017, Israel and the Palestinian Authority signed a new water agreement.  As stated in Ynet News:

One of the goals is to improve and modernize the West Bank water infrastructure, which is essential to the fabric of normal life for those who live there.

According to the agreement, the JWC will reconvene after not having met regularly for six years. It will discuss the allocation of additional water to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, increasing water water sources with new drilling, environmental issues, water tariffs, agricultural water use and promoting hydrological matters. The agreement will allow the laying of new pipes for water, sewage and effluent quickly and efficiently.

Another result is that new projects should be able to advance quickly, including planning new water lines to increase the capacity existing ones which have reached their limit. The committee will work on coordinating joint water-reservoir usage in preparation for the coming summer months.

Meanwhile, Israel and the Palestinians are working to formulate a long-term strategic plan for up to 2040, planning for the expected population growth in the region. The JWC should streamline dozens of other new projects, which include laying water lines throughout the West Bank.

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Endnotes

[i] 2015 New Mexico Progress Report, October.

[ii] Study done by NMSU in 1992.

[iii] Data: New Mexico Water Use by Categories, 2010 and 2005, NM Office of the State Engineer Technical Report 54 and 52 respecitvely.

[iv] From Siegel’s Let There Be Water, page 71.

[v] Divining Rod, January, 2013, NM Water Resources Research Institute.

[vi] Siegel, op. cit., 271-2.

[vii] NGO Monitor, Myths vs. Facts: NGOs and the Destructive Water Campaign against Israel, 2016.

Additional information can be found at the above resources, as well as many YouTube and other sources.  Here are just a few:

For more details on the Palestinian water issue, see item #4 in Ambassador Alan Baker’s “Debunking 11 More False Assumptions Regarding Israel.”