Israel Bringing Its Years Of Desalination Experience To California : Parallels After decades of work, Israel now gets about a quarter of its water from the sea. But experts say desalination is not a magic bullet, and conservation and infrastructure fixes are also needed.

Israel Bringing Its Years Of Desalination Experience To California

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An Israeli company is helping build a big, new desalination plant near San Diego. Taking the salt out of seawater helped Israel move from facing a constant threat of drought to having plenty of water. But as NPR's Emily Harris reports, Israel has learned desalinization is not the only answer.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Israel's Institute for Water Research is deep in the southern desert.

Wow, it looks like a water lab.

JACK GILRON: This is our private facility.

HARRIS: Professor Jack Gilron explains that you can get the salt out of seawater by freezing it, then melting the ice or by heating it and condensing the steam. Israel has done both, but the work horse of desalination is the thin, strong, manufactured membranes wrapped in a tight spiral around a plastic pipe with holes. Gilron picks one up.

GILRON: Essentially, it's like a jelly roll. OK you can see that it's opened up here. You've got the central collection tube.

HARRIS: Gilron notes that Israel has half a dozen major desalination plants.

GILRON: An incredible game changer. What it means is that even in a year where we don't get enough rain than what we normally get, that difference can be made up from desalination.

HARRIS: At one plant here run by IDE, the Israeli company building the new San Diego facility, rack after rack of those membranes in metal casings fill two long sheds. Tomer Efrat of IDE explains the basic concept.

TOMER EFRAT: When you have salty water and fresh water and a membrane in between, the salt water will want to go into the fresh water. If you want to reverse this process, you need to put pressure in it. And in this case, you will be able to extract fresh water from salty water.

HARRIS: Here, the salt water comes in through a pipe that runs nearly a mile out to see. Marine life is screened and pathogens filtered. After separating the salt from the water, leftover brine is partially diluted and sent back to the ocean. The clean water gets minerals added and is sent inland to Israel's national Water Authority. There's a small faucet by the big outgoing pipes. Efrat says water doesn't get any better than this.

EFRAT: This water is exactly what the state of Israel wants you to drink; the exact amount of alkalinity, the exact amount of hardness, the exact amount of everything.

HARRIS: Desalination now provides more than a quarter of Israel's total water demand. But Avrahm Tenne, head of desalination at Israel's Water Authority, says surpluses don't start there.

AVRAHM TENNE: Desalination is not the first step that you are doing. It's probably the last step.

HARRIS: From where he sits, U.S. drought problems are due to management.

TENNE: There is no central management of the water sector in the United States; not even states. It goes in counties and cities and farmers. And nobody is responsible for the water sector.

HARRIS: Israel went massively for desalination in the late 1990s when the government decided to build five modern plants as fast as possible after a particularly bad drought. But Tenne says Israel also invested in fixing leaky pipes and recycles close to 90 percent of sewage water used for agriculture.

TENNE: The third thing is paying the real price for water. Whenever you pay the full amount, you will cherish water, you will save water.

HARRIS: The gardener of a kibbutz community south of Jerusalem agrees. Asaf Dror uses sprinklers, not drip irrigation, to keep the central lawn a green and inviting gathering place.

ASAF DROR: We used to have lots - like, meters of meters, acres of grass.

HARRIS: He shows me a shared yard in front of a half a dozen homes. The kibbutz management stopped watering it to save money several years ago.

DROR: The big manager was sure that the private members would take water from their tap or the local sprinkler and continue to give the grass water. They didn't, and now it's dry. It's ugly, and that's because of money.

HARRIS: The price, officials say, is one way to reduce the need to desalinate more water. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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