Water-efficient Israel has lessons for Canada

The country, which is 60 percent desert, can grow 85 percent of its food on 555,6000 acres of irrigated land

If Canadians had to pay the full cost of water — its collection, sanitation, delivery and recycling — what would that mean?

Big bills, certainly, but it might also mean they would use less than the 300 cubic metres per person that they now average.

Terrence Lazarus, general manager of the St. Mary River Irrigation District, posed that scenario last week at the Irrigated Crop Production Update in Lethbridge.

Canada has an abundance of water relative to most other countries and Alberta has considerable experience with irrigation, but water users and regulators could still learn a lot about efficient water use from a country like Israel.

Lazarus visited Israel several years ago, in part to learn about the ways a country the size of Vancouver Island that is 60 percent desert and has 8.8 million people can grow 85 percent of its own food on 555,600 acres of irrigated land.

“Water is about war and peace and Israel exemplifies that,” said Lazarus.

“The looming problem is, each peace treaty we always think has implications around land. People want land. Actually, what they want is water. Water is power. Water brings you agriculture, economies and stability and produces middle class. So, each peace treaty requires water.”

Five large desalination plants in Israel provide potable water for most domestic water use. The country also has coastal and mountain aquifers and about 230 reservoirs. Water is moved from north to south through a series of canals and pipelines. The Jordan is the only river in Israel, which flows into the Dead Sea.

The largest fresh-water supply is in Lake Kinneret, also known as the Sea of Galilee, which is 40 metres below sea level.

Israel gets virtually no rainfall in summer, from May to October. Average annual rainfall is 1,100 millimetres, but it’s less than 100 mm in most of the south.

“For them, slight changes in the climate are dramatic,” Lazarus said. “They don’t get rain in the summer and if it’s slightly hotter, the evaporation rates are through the roof.”

Water used to be considered a public good in Israel, he said. Now it is treated as a commodity for which users must pay.

“We all know what that does. It promotes efficiencies dramatically.”

Israel recycles about 80 percent of its waste water, and recycled water accounts for about 25 percent of total supply. Lazarus said most of the recycled water is used for agricultural irrigation.

There are about 43,000 farms in Israel of an average 33 acres in size. Some 939,000 acres are cultivated, growing field crops, non-citrus and citrus fruit, grapes and flowers for export.

Lazarus said agriculture gets an annual water quota and is encouraged to use more brackish and effluent water instead of potable water.

All industries, both agricultural and domestic, have water meters and all users pay the “full true cost” of water. For the average household that is about $30 per month, but average use per person in Israel is 95 cubic metres, compared to Canada’s 300 cubic metres per person.

Lazarus said Canada can learn lessons from Israel in terms of efficient water use but not all of its tactics will be feasible in Canada.

For example, Israel’s ability to use aquifers as reservoirs may not be possible here and large-scale desalination has obvious geographic limitations. Nor does the province have accurate groundwater mapping to see what’s available.

As well, he said Israel is willing to change laws to protect water but Canada is less inclined to do so.

As well, there is no strong will here to re-use water, Lazarus added.

“We’re still living on the ‘dilution is the solution to pollution’ idea. We’re not very clear in Alberta who has the rights to recycled water.”

He said he continues to wonder why Canadians use potable water for car washes and lawn watering.

Without more effort toward water conservation, Lazarus said Albertans could one day face true-cost accounting for water and will have to treat it as a commodity as now happens in Israel.

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