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Lawmakers look to import some Israeli water policies to Utah

Israel vertical garden
Posted at 8:38 PM, May 16, 2023

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Legislature is considering importing some Israeli water practices as part of ongoing efforts to save the Great Salt Lake and ensure a continual supply of water across the state.

On Tuesday, members of the legislature's Water Development Commission were briefed on a recent trip to Israel by some lawmakers and state water officials. The Great Salt Lake Collaborative (of which FOX 13 News is a member) embedded a journalist on the trip to produce a series of reports about what Israel has done to become a nation that went from water scarcity to surplus.

"There are a few things we could do here," said Utah State Engineer Teresa Wilhelmsen, who leads the Utah Division of Water Rights.

The trip, taken in late March, included meetings with Israeli water officials, visits to research institutions and farms. Israel has a nationalized water system and the government sets rates based on water use which is much higher than Utah households pay. The country also leans heavily into water conservation measures, desalination and reuse for agriculture.

"They use a lot less water than we do," said Candice Hasenyager, the director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, who added: "They have a long history of water scarcity, so they've really having to innovate and use technologies to help their country thrive. They've been using drip irrigation since the 1960s."

Many of these methods have been looked at by state water officials as ways to help the Great Salt Lake and the state as a whole. The lake, which is a critical part of Utah's ecosystem, dropped to a historic low last year and presents an existential threat to the state with toxic dust storms, reduced snowpack and harms to public health and wildlife.

Not all of Israel's methods would work in Utah, the commission was told. Wilhelmsen said that while Israel has a nationalized water supply and the government there makes centralized decisions — that won't work in Utah where there are individual water rights holders and hundreds of water authorities.

But some lawmakers appeared skeptical about whether Israeli methods would work here.

"It seems to me like more of what 'The Utah Way' would look like is infrastructure and diversion and retention and then letting the various water districts manage that water," said Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding. "It feels almost like we're moving to more of a state water district model which is what Israel has."

Hasenyager said that would not work in Utah, but there are opportunities to look at improvements.

"I think there's a lot we can learn and implement in this state," she said.

Utah Department of Agriculture & Food Commissioner Craig Buttars told the commission he would like to see a dramatic expansion of drip irrigation in the state.

"I know there are areas of the state that could benefit from that," he said.

It is something Israel uses in crop growing and landscaping (they even grow alfalfa with drip irrigation that uses up to 50% less water). He also urged lawmakers to lean into research universities to innovate and solve problems.

Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, requested the committee open bill files for potential legislation surrounding streamlining water regulatory structure, research and innovation, infrastructure, distribution and how much people pay for it.

Rep. Scott Chew, R-Jensen, said his constituents have expressed concerns about having their water rights protected.

"That's totally reasonable," said Rep. Snider, adding of Israel's water policies: "Not everything is going to fit here."

Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, said he supported the efforts.

"I'm glad you went and thank you for directing this," he told Rep. Snider.

The commission voted unanimously to approve opening bill files. Rep. Snider insisted it was the starting point of a discussion and Utah is not looking to copy and paste Israeli water policies, but explore what best practices might be.

"There are things Israel does within their regulatory framework that we can mirror to some degree. Now are we going to nationalize our water system? Not a possibility. Not going to happen," he told FOX 13 News. "Are there ways we can clear some state regulatory hurdles to make water division more seamless?"

The language of the bills will be discussed over the summer and are expected to appear in legislation in the 2024 session that begins in January.

This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late.