Ways in which Colorado and the West can learn from Israel about water
by Allen Best
Who would have thunk? It turns out that the last two Colorado governors have been to Israel, at least in part to study how a country with so much desert manages to be so fruitful and prosperous.
This connection between Colorado and Israel was on full display at a conference held Tuesday at the Temple Emanuel in Denver. Keynote speaker for the conference, which was sponsored by the Jewish National Fund, was Seth Siegel, author of “Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World.”
Both Gov. John Hickenlooper and former Gov. Bill Ritter have visited Israel, and both governors spoke, emphasizing how much Colorado has to learn from the Israelis, how we in Colorado put too little value on water, and how much climate change may upset the apple cart.
Innovation and technology were mentioned often. In 1948, said Hickenlooper, Israel was a third-world country. The transformation since then has been vast, “and now it’s a world leader in so many areas, especially water technology.”
Colorado’s new state water plan came up frequently during the day. It’s 380 pages long, full of information and ideas but ultimately can best be seen as a conversation piece. There are worse things in life.
“Words matter; written words matter,” said Travis Smith, of the Rio Grande Cooperative Project.
Smith is a member of the Interbasin Compact Committee, or IBCC, the sort of central nerve center for thinking among various parts of the state. Smith said that stitching together the state water plan after a number of years of meetings kicked off in 2005 has had the effect of defining commonalities instead of differences.
“Once we got over talking at each other and started talking to each other, we could start listening to each other,” he said. That listening yielded an understanding of commonalities, which is reflected in the state water plan. “There’s more that we agreed upon than we disagree upon,” he said.
Even people from Maybell and Littleton have something in common, he said. (Where is Maybell? It’s a town of 72 people along the Yampa River, in northwest Colorado, an hour from Dinosaur National Monument. Littleton is a suburb of 44,275 people south of Denver.)
Bill Ritter recalled that he went to Israel in 2010. “There were so many things we were trying to think about in Colorado that they were already doing in Israel,” he said.
As did other speakers, Ritter emphasized the need to put a higher value on water. “We don’t put an appropriate price on the cost of getting water to the end user,” he said.
Ritter, who now directs the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University, dwelled on the nexus between energy and water. The world is going through an energy transition, but the water component needs to be understood thoroughly. In some places, 25 to 30 percent of all energy is used for the processing, transmission and treatment of water.
Among the projects of his think tank, said Ritter, is an effort to get energy regulatory commissions in Western states to build in water into the energy planning. In other words, what are the water implications of different energy choices?
“The thing that concerns me is the water conflicts that are possible as we go through this energy transition,” he said.
Hickenlooper, folksy and personable, as is his habit in speaking, nonetheless suggested problems ahead. Colorado probably won’t double in population, but it will grow. Meanwhile, the water infrastructure that has got us this far will be less reliable.
He pointed to the phenomenon of dust on snow. Snow provides roughly half of water storage in Colorado, melting rapidly in spring but then at a more measured way into summer. But dust blown from deserts onto the snow hastens the melting, because of the heat-absorbing albedo effect of darker particles.
Too, there is the effect of greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere. Even Exxon Mobile has now conceded that it represents a problem.
While it’s unclear how the future will unfold, said Hickenlooper, rising temperatures and dust on snow together suggest “we will have to look at other ways of storage. It’s a very complex puzzle.”
Some of the most interesting presentations were those about what is already going on in Colorado. Sheldon Rockey, a third-generation potato farmer in the San Luis Valley, told about the experiences of his family’s operating on 640 acres near Center.
His grandfather, Floyd Rockey, established the farm in 1938 and had advice for his heirs. “You have to take care of the soil before the soil can take care of you,” he said.
But the soil on Rockey Farm LLC has been troubled. In 2000, the family began to recognize soil compaction, which made harvesting of their specialty potatoes difficult. As well, there were issues related to withdrawal of water from the underlying Confined Aquifer.
Rockey and his brother have changed their approach to farming. They pay more attention to adding compost to the soil and found ways to reduce the amount of water that must be added, from 18 inches each summer to 9 inches.
That’s one farm. But the Confined Aquifer has been dropping. To address that over-mining, 6,000 acres of marginally productive land in the San Luis Valley have been taken out of production. The upshot is that last year the aquifer, instead of falling, actually gained water, reported Rockey.
Much was made of the advantages of drip irrigation, not only in Israel, but also in Colorado. Drew Damiano, vice president of operations for United Water and Sanitation District, explained a project involving sorghum. Water is delivered via pipes 10 inches below the surface, to the roots of the plants.
Another project , by Netafim, uses drip irrigation to reduce the amount of water used for fields of corn, onions, beans and wheat in a field at Eaton by 30 percent. The new techniques also lessen the amount of fertilizer needed by 30 percent and increase the yield by 30 percent.