TEL AVIV – Crossing the Negev Desert in Israel by bicycle in 100-degree weather last month, the sun seared us and the wind scorched us. It was like riding into an oven.
There was hardly a green thing to be seen – few trees or shrubs – only a scattering of low, scraggly plants struggling for survival on an otherwise barren, brown, rocky landscape.
With perspiration pouring from our bodies, water was foremost in our thoughts.
In the dry Middle East, collecting, storing and making the best use of water is an age-old tradition. It’s the only way desert cultures could grow food and survive the harsh, oppressive heat.
Thousands of years ago, cities of the ancient world were challenged to provide ample water supplies – enough for swimming pools and heated baths.
During our bike tour from the northern border with Lebanon and Syria down to the Red Sea on the borders with Jordan and Egypt, my friend Graeme and I observed numerous ancient ruins and studied their water sources.
At Masada, a mesa-top fortress built by King Herod just before the time of Christ, gutters were carved into sandstone walls to channel cherished rains into vast cisterns hewn from solid rock.
We climbed down long stairways into these cisterns and noted that the floors, walls and ceilings were plastered to seal in water and keep it clean of sediments.
On a side trip to Petra, Jordan, the canyon walls were carved with water channels to bring rain runoff into a city that supported thousands.
Israeli water technologies have gone far beyond what Herod’s architects and the Nabatean city builders of Jordan contrived in the ancient world, but they hark back to a conservation ethic for water that leads the world today.
And what we saw from the seats of our bicycles was no less than an agricultural wonder.
The lush greenery of kibbutzim (traditional communal societies) or moshavs (collective farms) stood out like oases. Many kibbutzim are lush and flowering, not only with food crops, but with decorative horticultural marvels that rival the mythical Babylonian Gardens.
We were drawn to kibbutzim like flies to honey because they provided us with water and food. They also offered an inspiring look at intensive agriculture practiced with extreme water efficiency and social cohesion among those who live there.
The lessons from Israel could well be applied to the West and the Colorado River Basin, which is struggling with drought.
Jim Pokrandt, the communications and education director for the Colorado River District, based in Glenwood Springs, spent two weeks in Israel last December traveling with his wife.
Pokrandt was not visiting Israel as a water expert, but he gleaned, as I did, that Israel is intensively farmed with state-of-the-art irrigation systems.
“My wife and I stopped in kibbutzim and chatted with the people there,” Pokrandt said. “We learned that through drip irrigation, date palms can produce a product in 20 years. In the north we saw a lot of grazing, and in the Negev Desert we saw lots of vegetables. The water comes from wells, recycling and desalinization.”
Pokrandt said that the American West shares a feature with Israel for being just as dependent on limited water. Among traditional users relying on the Colorado River, agriculture is the dominant customer, accounting for approximately 88 percent of the water consumed in Colorado.
“Including transbasin diversions, the Colorado River helps irrigate nearly two-thirds of Colorado’s total irrigated lands,” Pokrandt said. “Major crops grown with Colorado River water include grass and alfalfa hay, grains, vegetables and fruit.”
When Pokrandt talks to people about a water crisis in the American West, he reflects on the Israeli model.
“I tell them I spent two weeks in Israel and that I’m not worried about water over here,” Pokrandt said. “We’ll figure it out like they did – with water re-use, cluster development, and desalination. We can also be innovative with our uses of water.”
There may be no better model for water efficiency than Israel. The country is intensely farmed and scrupulously watered. Most important, however, is an overarching conservation ethic in a land where water has long been valued as a precious commodity.
Sustainable agriculture in Israel has long been a national priority that maximizes arable land for food production – with limited water. That’s why most of the country is plumbed for drip irrigation, a technique developed in Israel for watering individual plants with minimal water to avoid loss from seepage and evaporation. Piped water is also easier to monitor, regulate and protect.
Huge purple irrigation pipes are seen across Israel’s countryside where farms, orchards and vineyards draw water allocations and use them sparingly to incredible effect. Huge covered orchards in the north and vast date palm plantations in the south reveal a nation of skilled and studied agronomists.
Until recently, modern Israel had long relied on a central river system – the River Jordan – which flows south through the Great Rift Valley. More than the metaphorical boundary to the Promised Land, the Jordan has served as a chief source of Israel’s fresh water.
The Jordan gathers tributaries from the northern part of the country, surrounding the heights of Mt. Hermon, the highest mountain in Israel at 9,230 ft, which stands sentinel over the border with Syria. These waters serve myriad uses many times over on their way south to the Dead Sea.
Below Galilee we pedaled down the West Bank of the Jordan, a stone’s throw from the Jordanian border. Here the biblical river eventually tapers down to the equivalent of an irrigation canal by the time it reaches the Dead Sea 1,500 feet below sea level – the lowest place on the surface of the earth.
The Dead Sea is known for its buoyancy because its salt content is 9.6 times that of the world’s oceans, with 34.2% salinity. There is no outflow, so salts are concentrated through evaporation.
The mineralization of the Dead Sea, which is dropping at the rate of about one meter per year (3.2 feet), is accelerating due to the Jordan’s flow being dramatically reduced by upriver draws for agricultural and municipal purposes.
The Jordan River system, though only 124 miles long (223 miles if you count the meanders), reminded me of the Colorado River system in that they both serve arid regions with limited water. The Colorado is a lot longer (1,450 miles) and more complex than the Jordan, but the challenges of administering these rivers are similar.
Like the Jordan when it reaches the Dead Sea, the Colorado’s flow is greatly reduced when, or if, it reaches the Gulf of California in Mexico, where the Colorado River delta is rarely recharged with fresh water from the mountains.
The Israelis have made the desert bloom by using high-tech irrigation techniques with water from varied sources. In addition to the Jordan, supplies come from wells, recycled wastewater and from the desalination of saltwater, in which Israel is a world leader.
In 2013 more than a third of Israel’s tap water came from the Mediterranean Sea and briny wells. Dozens of Israeli water innovators work intensively on monitoring and measuring flows and designing filtration systems for everything from microbial organisms to acidic chlorine from swimming pools.
Innovators have developed ultrasonic technologies, micro generators inserted into water pipes to capture energy, pressurized systems and valve designs, ultraviolet disinfection, contamination detection, and more.
Today, the Israeli Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor lists some 166 water tech enterprises, including 91 companies offering water efficiency solutions, 50 companies specializing in wastewater reuse and desalination, and another 25 offering water control and command systems.
Even as Haaretz, the English-language news source, reported recently of an abundance of water in Israel due to desalination, the state continues to advocate for water efficiency as a national ethic that reflects a slogan known traditionally in Israeli households: “Don’t waste a drop.”
This strict ethic of developing water supplies and maintaining efficiency exists because water has long been key to the survival of Israel. Water innovation is the equivalent of a national defense industry, and desalination is the country’s new lifeblood.
The largest desalination plant of its kind in the world, using reverse osmosis, is at Hadera, a city on the Mediterranean Sea north of Tel Aviv. Desalination has been practiced in Israel since the 1930s, but today’s facilities are fueled by a recently discovered offshore field of natural gas in the Mediterranean.
On a particularly broiling day during our ride through the Negev Desert, which covers about one-third of Israel, we stumbled upon a paradise-like oasis at kibbutz Neo Smadar. Here the desert blooms where a temple-like arts center stands prominently with a phallic cooling tower.
Heat exhausted and fly-bitten, we were welcomed there for two nights of camping. More important, our visit coincided with the second Seder dinner of the Passover holidays.
Dining on an outdoor patio with 250 kibbutz workers, and appreciating a cooling desert breeze, we felt an uplift in our spirits that went beyond the delicious organic food and drink we were served, much of which originated from the kibbutz fields, orchards and vineyards.
Only after my return home did I learn that Eden Vardy, founder and director of Aspen TREE, a local non-profit focused on creating sustainable communities, had lived and worked at Neot Smadar six years ago.
As a result of his kibbutz experience, Vardy knows Israel’s water ethic firsthand. Born in Tel Aviv in 1986, his family moved to Aspen in 1988. He returned to Israel in 2008 to explore his native land.
Vardy, who grows food year-round at the greenhouse at Cozy Point Ranch, first studied desert agriculture at kibbutz Lotan in the Arava Desert north of Eilat, near the Red Sea, on the border with Jordan. Here he learned the benefits of drip irrigation and intensive farming and livestock raising.
“Drip irrigation started in Israel and it’s the best irrigation school in the world – leading the way, out of necessity,” Vardy said.
Vardy then spent six months in the Arava Desert, where he witnessed the application of “black water” for date-palm plantations.
Black water is the effluence from raw sewage, whereas gray water comes from non-septic drains like kitchen sinks. The kibbutz experimented with black water to see if the date palms would survive with that water source.
“There was a lot of research going on in the desert – growing dates and feeding them with different levels of black water,” Vardy said. “At one kibbutz they constructed wetlands to handle effluent for 500 people. We also built mini gray water systems and used composting toilets.
“The idea is not to use water, but if you do, use it as many times as you can. Using every drop – twice – is also a key part of permaculture, which calls for using resources many times before they leave a site.”
For Vardy, the big difference between farming in Israel and the Western U.S. is in the manner in which water is regarded.
“The difference is in the mentality,” he said. “Here, people are trying to get as much water as they can. There they try to use as little as possible. Israel has had to rely on itself with limited water for the whole country. Here it’s ‘use it or lose it.’”
Editor’s note:Aspen Journalism’s Land Desk collaborated on this story with the Aspen Times Weekly, which published a version of this story on Thursday, May 22, 2014.