Last updated April 28th 2015

Four years of devastating droughts in California have pushed cities and counties in the Golden State to seriously consider turning to the one drinking source that is not depleting anytime soon – seawater. With the Pacific Ocean abutting their shores, water desalination may be the much-needed solution for Californians. But desalination has its disadvantages, the chief ones being the high costs and the potential environmental damage.

To address these challenges, California is turning to the world leader in cutting edge desalination technology – Israel. A $1 billion desalination project is already underway in San Diego County – which will be the largest seawater desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere – and Israeli engineers have been called in for their expertise.

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Currently under construction in Carlsbad, 35 miles north of San Diego, the plant could potentially provide Californians with 54 million gallons of water a day. The plant is using technology Israelis have been using for years, reverse-osmosis, which involves forcing seawater through a film with tiny holes that allow only water molecules to pass through, while the larger salt molecules cannot.

San Diego area

“A complete game changer for desalination in the US”

2014 was California’s third driest year in 119 years and according to the US Geological Survey; it was also the warmest year in recorded history, leading California to declare a drought state of emergency last year. Earlier this month, another frightening figure was published: The California Department of Water Resources measured the statewide water content of Sierra snowpack (which provides about one-third of the water used by California’s cities and farms) at 5 percent, the lowest level since 1950. In response, the governor recently announced mandatory State-wide water cutbacks.

Despite this, the Golden State has only a handful of small desalination plants. But with the help of Israel Desalination Enterprises (IDE Technologies), the $1 billion desalination plant San Diego is due to become reality next year. According to IDE – which is also working on desalination projects in China, India and Australia – the Carlsbad project is a “complete game changer for desalination in the US.” This project is expected to provide clean water to 300,000 people and generate roughly $50 million annually for the regional economy. “The plant overcame significant practical, regulatory and economic hurdles to deliver a cost-effective and environmentally friendly water supply,” IDE said.

Critics of the reverse-osmosis technology have claimed that it is too cpstly and requires too much energy, making it environmentally damaging. But IDE Technologies says its production costs are among the world’s lowest and that it can provide an average family’s water needs for roughly $300-$500 a year. Israel’s largest desalination plant, for example, sells desalinated water to the Israeli government for about 60 cents per cubic meter, which is lower than traditional water purification methods. Using highly efficient pumps, the plant also consumes less energy than similar desalination stations around the globe.

Carlsbad desalination project

Necessity is the mother of invention

Israel, a land that is two-thirds arid, has long been forced to come up with creative ways to conserve, recycle and desalinate water. Over the past several years, it has become a leader in the field of water preservation, coming up with industry-changing technologies such as drip irrigation in 1964. In fact, the serious attention Israel has paid to its water supplied now means that the country now has a water surplus – a first in its history. About 40 percent of Israel’s tap water is desalinated sea water – a figure expected to reach 50 percent by 2016 – and so is a large quantity of the water for agriculture.

And with an estimated 1.8 billion people around the globe who don’t have adequate access to clean water, desalination technologies developed in Israel are in high demand.

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Sorek desalination plant

Israelis quench the thirst of Marshall Islands residents  

In the Marshall Islands, for example, an island country located near the equator in the Pacific Ocean with a serious shortage in drinking water, Israeli company GAL Water Technologies has introduced a one-of-its-kind emergency water purification vehicle, called the GalMobile. According to the company, the main challenge when large scale natural disasters or terrorist attack strike, is lack of fresh clean water in the first 72 hours. The GalMobile is then highly efficient as a self-contained automatic vehicle that can connect to any possible water source – like rivers, lakes, oceans, brackish water and wells – and produce drinking water at WHO water standards.

For the past two decades, GAL has also provided water treatment technologies on a humanitarian basis to African nations.

GAL's desalination vehicle

But despite its past achievements, Israeli desalination technology will largely be measured on the success in San Diego. If that reverse osmosis plant achieves its goals, we can expect to see many more Israeli engineers teaching the world about the benefits of desalination.

Israel's Negev Desert

Photos: IDE Technologies, GAL Water TechnologiesGodot13Stefan LinsIsrael_photo_gallery

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