What Water’s Worth

By Elisa Lurkis

USD program brings students to Israel to study water management

Benjamin Franklin once said, “When the well is dry, we will know the worth of water.”

That well is not likely to be in Israel, as students from the University of San Diego (USD) recently learned. Some 17 engineering students from USD’s Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering spent their spring break in Israel, as part of a semester-long course, taught by the Chair of Mechanical Engineering, Professor Frank Jacobitz. The course, entitled “Water in California and Israel: Challenges and Solutions,” required students who signed up for this course to participate in the spring break trip. Donations received from the Murray Galinson San Diego Israel Initiative, along with an anonymous matching donor, funded most of the travel costs. Only 1 of the 17 students had ever been to Israel previously.

The reason that the proverbial well is not likely to run dry in Israel is because of Israel’s cultural focus on the importance of water conservation. One needs only to look at children’s nursery rhymes in Israel to notice a real difference from the U.S. American children grow up with the proverbial nursery rhyme “Rain, rain, go away; come again some other day!” By contrast, Israeli children have a nursery rhyme that, when translated, is equivalent to “Rain, rain, from the skies; all day long, drops of water; drip, drop, drip, drop; clap your hands!”

A total of 80 percent of Israel’s drinking water comes from one of Israel’s five desalination plants, while 95 percent of the water used in Israel’s agriculture and industry comes from recycling wastewater. Motivated by years of drought and the shrinking of the Sea of Galilee in the early 2000s, low-flow toilets and shower heads were installed nationwide, along with water restrictions [and real-cost pricing], all of which helped. Due to its extensive use of desalination, Israel is currently the only country in the Middle East that is not facing a water crisis.

Contrast this information with California, which has similar weather patterns, drought-prone conditions, and proximity to ocean water, where there is currently only one desalination plant. The Carlsbad Desalination Plant, in north San Diego County, took 15 years to be approved, built and placed in full operation. The Carlsbad Plant, built by IDE Technologies (the same company that built some of Israel’s desalination plants), provides 8-10 percent of the drinking water in San Diego County. Clearly, California can learn a lot from Israel on the subject of water.

In addition to learning about Israel’s desalination efforts, USD’s students also visited some of Israel’s historic water sites, such as the City of David water tunnels, created by King Hezekiah in the 8th Century BCE to protect the water source from the encroaching Assyrian army, Caesarea, an ancient port city built by Herod the Great in about 25 BCE, an ancient aquaduct, also built by Herod in the 1st Century BC. And they visited Hatzerim, one of Israel’s oldest kibbutzim, which founded the drip-irrigation technology company, Netafim. They also spent time touring Jerusalem’s Old City and visited the Yad Vashem museum (The World Holocaust Remembrance Center).

The course is part of an ongoing partnership between USD and the Azrieli College of Engineering in Jerusalem. USD’s students spent time on the Azrieli campus, hearing from water experts and partnering with Azrieli students on joint water projects. Dr. Yaal Lester, Azrieli’s faculty expert on water research, co-leads this partnership.

USD and Azrieli students were placed into project teams together, to address water contamination challenges from water sources in Israel. Together, they analyzed and treated water from the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s coastal aquifers, aquifers in the Negev, water from the Jordan River, and wastewater. Students then identified a similar water issue at a specific location in California.

After spending nearly a week together in Israel, the USD/Azrieli students met up again, this time in San Diego, for a week of joint classes and connection-building.  Of course, part of the excitement for USD’s students was connected to the history of the three Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Islam and Christianity, which are all rooted in Israel.

 “The history that fills every crack of the cobble stone in this city [Jerusalem] breathes life into you as you splash through the puddles of these streets in search for the root stories of so many religious traditions,” Elise Riccio, one of the student participants, said.

USD hopes to bring another cohort of students to Israel during the 2019-2020 academic year.

Dr. Jacobitz, when asked about the importance of this course, said, “This course started with two visions: The academic goal was to learn about water technology developed in Israel to sustainably address our challenges in California. A more personal aim is to build bridges between students from Israel and California. I hope that the first offering of our course made small steps towards both goals.”

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