In Israel, it’s all about water

While in Israel, I learned how the life-giving resource of water is brought to a dry and thirsty land and conserved so that generations to come can eat of the fruit of the land.

Sea of Galilee with a new grove of fruit trees in the foreground, and shade cloth covered bananas nearer the Sea.
Sea of Galilee with a new grove of fruit trees in the foreground, and shade cloth covered bananas nearer the Sea.

As 2020 dawned, I had the opportunity to be in Israel for Dairy School; The Israeli Experience. This was my first time in that ancient land, and it opened my eyes to the realities with which the people and particularly dairy farmers deal with. One of those realities is living in a hot, arid climate. Truly, water is essential not only for life, but for crop and milk production as well.

Israel is a rather small country, but its topography and location lead to various climates within. In the north, Mt. Hermon is a snow-crusted peak. The plains along the Mediterranean Sea receive rainfall averaging 23 inches per year at Tel Aviv, but that decreases as you head east across the narrow nation. The Sea of Galilee, roughly 65 miles east of Tel Aviv and about 700 feet below sea level, receives only 17 inches of annual rainfall. In the south, the Negev desert has scarce rain, measured in millimeters, with less than an inch per year on average. Approximately 90% of the rain, no matter whether in the Golan Heights, Judean Hills or the dry desert, falls in the “winter” months, from November to March. The rest of the year is dry.

The country cannot, therefore, rely on rainfall for all of their water needs. The primary source of water for the country is the saltwater of the Mediterranean Sea. Desalination plants, using chemical-free reverse osmosis, produce fresh water for the increasing population. New desalination plants are being added. The largest one, approved in December 2019, will bring the desalinated water up to 85-90% of the national residential and municipal need.

In an area where water is “liquid gold”, they use high tech monitoring to discover leaks in water systems so that they can be found soon and fixed. Water system leaks can occur at any point from main feeder lines to distribution and service pipes that convey water to homes and businesses. Leaks can range from tiny (at the time) pressure leaks to large cracks and can add up quickly. For example, a one-eight inch crack in a pipe at 60 pounds of pressure can lose more than 3800 gallons per day. Because of this, water leakage rates around the world are high (In the UK, it is estimated that water losses are more than 3 billion liters per day). Israelis have invented and applied technology to find and stop leaks when they are small. This commitment accounts for Israel’s leakage rate of 7-8% on average, the lowest in the world where the World Bank estimates an average of 30% is more typical.

With water such a precious commodity, Israel has made a commitment to recapture and reuse water. Over 80 percent of water used in the country is recycled, this is by far the highest reuse of water by any nation. Today, nearly half the water used for agriculture comes from highly treated wastewater, having gone through a process of natural filters over a period of about six months before it is ready for use.

Through the extensive use of drip irrigation, technology to monitor soil moisture, shade cloth covering large groves of bananas and other crops, and crop selection for lower water requirement, Israel has made the desert bloom, bringing partial fulfillment to the Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah that “Israel shall blossom and bud, and fill the face of the world with fruit.” Throughout the country, the desert is blooming with citrus groves, date palm groves, avocado fields, greenhouses and wheat fields.

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Dead Sea, approximately 1300 feet below sea level, is so salty that no life, except for some bacteria, exists in it.

Dairy farms, distributed throughout all parts of the country, are entirely dependent on water. Wheat, harvested as silage and to a much lesser amount as hay, is the primary forage for cows because it is planted before the winter rains and, and therefore, produces forage without irrigation. Corn silage needs irrigation and, therefore, is much less used, representing around 15 percent of the forage fed. Water is the first and foremost nutrient for dairy cows, who may drink 50 gallons of water per day. That is especially true for the highly productive Israeli dairy herds, where water is also used to cool cows multiple times per day during the hot summers.

In contrast to the hot, arid climate of Israel, Michigan has a moderate climate and plentiful access to fresh water. Water is something that we, with our abundance, seldom give much thought to. Yet, it is not an unlimited resource to waste, use unwisely or to pollute. While many farms struggle at times with too much rain in season, we should recognize the blessing of water in this region.

The lesson of the preciousness of water was brought home to me on this trip to Israel. Water makes the difference between cooled or heat stressed; between thirsty or satiated; between growing or shriveling; between food or hunger; between life or death. Having been blessed, we should preserve the quality of that resource.

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