Water crisis to water surplus?
Seawater is flowing through pipelines reaching almost 4,000 feet off of Israel’s coast and, once in Israeli soil, buried almost 50 feet underground. After 90 minutes of a filtration process, it is ready to run through the taps of Tel Aviv.
Israel’s Sorek Desalination Plant is gearing up to provide up to 26,000 cubic meters – or nearly 7 million gallons – of potable water to Israelis EVERY HOUR. When it’s at full capacity, it will be the largest desalination plant of its kind in the world.
“If we didn’t do this, we would be sitting at home complaining that we didn’t have water,” said Raphael Semiat, a member of the Israel Desalination Society and professor at Israel’s Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. “We won’t be dependent on what the rain brings us. This will give a chance for the reservoirs to fill up.”
The new plant and several others along Israel’s coast are part of the country’s latest tactic in its decades-long quest to provide for the nation’s water needs. Advocates say desalination — the removal of salt from seawater – could be a game-changing solution to the challenges of Israel’s famously fickle rainfall. Instead of the sky, Israel’s thirst may be quenched by the Mediterranean’s nearly infinite water supply.
Until the winter of 2011-’12, water shortages were a dire problem for Israel; the country had experienced seven straight years of drought beginning in 2004. The Sea of Galilee (also known as Lake Kinneret), a major freshwater source and barometer of sorts for Israel’s water supply, fell to dangerous lows. The situation got so severe that the government ran a series of commercials featuring celebrities, their faces cracking from dryness, begging Israelis not to waste any water.
Even as the Sea of Galilee has returned almost to full volume this year, Israeli planners are looking to desalination as a possible permanent solution to the problem of drought. Some even anticipate an event that was once unthinkable: a water surplus in Israel.
IDE opened the first major desalination plant in the country in the southern coastal city of Ashkelon in 2005, following success with a similar plant in nearby Cyprus. With Sorek, the company will own three of Israel’s four plants, and 400 plants in 40 countries worldwide. The company’s U.S. subsidiary is designing a new desalination plant in San Diego, the $922 million Carlsbad Desalination Project, which will be the largest desalination plant in America.
In Israel, desalination provides 300 million cubic meters of water per year – about 40 percent of the country’s total water needs. That number jumped to 450 million when Sorek opened, and will hit nearly 600 million as plants expand in 2014, providing up to 80 percent of Israel’s potable water.
Like Israel’s other plants, Sorek will work through a process called Seawater Reverse Osmosis that removes salt and waste from the Mediterranean’s water. A prefiltration cleansing process clears waste out of the flow before the water enters a series of smaller filters to remove virtually all the salt. After moving through another set of filters that remove boron, the water passes through a limestone filter that adds in minerals. Then, it enters Israel’s water pipes.
But desalination does have its critics. Some environmentalists question whether the process is worth its monetary and environmental costs. One cubic meter of desalinated water takes just under 4 kWh to produce – that’s the equivalent of burning 40 100-watt light bulbs for one hour to produce the equivalent of five bathtubs full of water. Freshwater doesn’t have that cost.
Some see a water surplus as an opportunity. Orit Skutelsky, water division manager at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, says desalinated water could free up freshwater to refill Israel’s northern streams and raise the level of the Sea of Galilee.
“There’s no way we couldn’t have done this,” she said of desalination. “It was the right move. Now we need to let water flow again to the streams.”