Will New Mexico have enough water in the future?
NM water managers, when factoring in variability in rainfall, are projecting shortages in drinking and irrigation water over the next few decades. Managers have warned that the supply from river and groundwater pumping would meet only half the state’s water needs in New Mexico’s most populous area, the corridor from Santa Fe to just south of Albuquerque, during a drought like the one that peaked in 2013. Experts warn that out-of-the-box thinking is needed to ensure that future supply and demand can be balanced.
At the same time there may be opportunity in this crisis. What other place shares common conditions of aridity, low rainfall, few year-round rivers, poor soil, hot summers, cold winters, and substantial desert farming, AND has solved its water problem? Israel! The most water efficient country in the world.
The State of Israel is one of the few countries that has gone from being water poor to water rich through a few carefully-crafted water policies that now make it a net water exporter. As a result, Palestinians and Jordanians reap the benefits of Israel’s innovative technologies, water conservation consciousness, realistic pricing, and efficient methods of water use and harvesting. Israel is able to exceed its contractually agreed upon sale of water to these two groups. (For a deeper dive into the subject of water and the relationship of Israel to it’s neighbors, refer to Seth Siegel’s book Let There Be Water and “Myths vs. Facts”, both sited in the end notes below.)
Taking some tips out of the Israel water policy playbook could lead to economic revitalization in New Mexico. Through partnering with Israel, New Mexico could become a leader in water technology, creating a new NM-based industry. Here are some of the innovative solutions that Israel has developed.
Drip irrigation was invented in Israel by Simcha Bass in the early 1960’s; 75% of its irrigated fields use this method of watering crops. Currently only 2% of New Mexico’s crops are drip irrigated.
Drip irrigation minimizes evaporation. Israel no longer uses ditch irrigation, a method still used extensively today in the US. In New Mexico acequias or aqueducts have been shown to lose as much as 50%–70% of their water through soil absorption and evaporation. Because 75% of NM water use occurs in agriculture, and sprinkler irrigation is nearly as inefficient as ditch irrigation, that translates to a lot of water loss!
Water inefficiency for crop production in New Mexico is stunning. Compare:
In 2010, Israel irrigated 460,000 acres using 53% of total water supplies, producing nearly $8 BILLION worth of crops, while New Mexico used nearly 80% of the state’s water supplies on 900,000 acres to produce only $600 MILLION worth of crops.
|Location||Crop Acres||Crops Sold||Crop water as % of total water use|
It’s a no-brainer! New Mexico needs to change the types of crops it produces. Over the past 20 years Israel has changed its main crops from those that are worth less but use a lot of water to those that are worth more and use less water. In contrast, two-thirds of New Mexico’s crops were hay and alfalfa, crops requiring lots of water.
Differing Water Needs for Sample Crops
|Crop||Crop water need (mm/total growing period)|
Israel has been busy engineering plants specifically for their water efficiency, such as short stalked wheat, clustered tomato plants with fewer leaves, plants with shorter roots, and plants that can grow in higher salinity water, (melons, peppers, tomatoes, eggplants and others that thrive on naturally-occurring diluted brackish water) .
And most of these newly-designed plants are more delicious than their originals. As plants absorb 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. The Sweet Water Tomato is one such engineered plant that Israel is able to export to Europe, fetching premium prices.
Setting modest goals to shift crops that create high value with little water would help deliver significant water savings for New Mexico.
How does Israel produce more water than it needs? Of course it uses its normal sources of aquifers and freshwater surface sources, but these are dwindling. So it has resorted to innovative uses of brackish supplies, desalination, harvesting of storm water, and efficient recycling of sewage.
In many parts of the world, aquifers are mostly located close to the surface and are easy to access. They are replenished by rain. In contrast, Israel and New Mexico have an abundance of “fossil” aquifers, deep caverns over a mile down often containing pristine water sources untapped for millennia. These reserves are insulated from surface rains and are highly mineralized. Using this source of water requires ingenuity. And just imagine the possibilities … such caverns could also be used to develop complex reservoir systems for capturing redirected rainwater arising from winter flash floods.
Three-quarters of New Mexico’s groundwater is too saline for use without treatment. The water removed from these fossil aquifers is usually very salty, requiring dilution, or is usable in brackish water desalination, perfect for those engineered tomatoes.
Hands down, Israel is the worldwide leader in desalination technology. A revolutionary technique forcing seawater through ultra-fine membranes that filter out larger salt molecules was pioneered by Israeli scientist Sidney Loeb. As a result, Israeli companies have designed and built large-scale desalination plants across the globe – in California, China, and India. Israel’s own Soreq desalination plant produces 165 million gallons a day translating to the highest worldwide daily volume. In total, Israel now produces nearly 500 million gallons of freshwater from salty sources daily, equivalent to 94% of Israel’s household water use.
Wherever there’s water, Israel will use it! 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 into rivers or oceans.
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 in Israel.
Peace through Water
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.
Annually, Israel supplies the West Bank and Gaza with 30.3 and 2.6 billion gallons of water annually, respectively. 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 with the pre-1967 borders.
Through necessity, Israel has learned to squeeze water from wherever it could be found. In New Mexico, hurdles such as private ownership of water rights handed down from generation to generation, powerful lobbies opposing a change in water management, and lack of centralized planning need to be traversed. But solutions for New Mexico lies in the power of imagination and potential partnership with those who have created ingenious solutions to solve their water problem.
“Drought Planning,” Susan Montoya Bryan, US News and World Report, Associated Press, March 31,2017 – http://bit.ly/2riUUG4
“An Overview of Hydrogeology of Saline Ground Water in New Mexico” by G.F. Huff, 9/2004, US Geological Survey – http://bit.ly/2BakaC9
Seth Siegel, Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World , 2015- http://www.sethmsiegel.com/
2015 New Mexico Progress Report: Water, October 2015 – http://bit.ly/2rgbS7X
Divining Rod, January, 2013, NM Water Resources Research Institute http://bit.ly/2FOF09D
New Mexico Acequia Association, Acequia Governance Project – http://bit.ly/2FNOKB1
“How Israel Became a Leader in Water Use in The Middle East”, PBS News Hour Special, April 26, 2015, – http://bit.ly/2FM69Kp
“Myths vs. Facts: NGOs and the Destructive Water Campaign against Israel“, NGO Monitor 2016 – http://bit.ly/2rhNSBp
“Water Deal Reached Between Israel and Palestinians”, YnetNews.com – http://bit.ly/2FLzzrT
For more details on the Palestinian water issue, see item #4 in Ambassador Alan Baker’s “Debunking 11 More False Assumptions Regarding Israel.” – http://bit.ly/2G8Gw6L