Israeli project works to make global cities’ water good to the last drop

Click photo to download. Caption: A July 2014 Planet Labs satellite image of a reservoir in California’s Lake County that supplies water to nearby Yolo County. In a non-drought year, according to Planet Labs, the visible water would cover roughly twice the area as it does in this picture. Credit: Planet Labs via Wikimedia Commons.

 

By Maayan Jaffe/JNS.org

California headlines this month scream “water shortage”—but the shortage is not limited to the western United States. According to a recent report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, while the demand for freshwater resources is increasing, the supply remains constant and many regions are starting to feel the pressure. The report states that water managers in 40 of 50 states expect water shortages in some portion of their states within the next 10 years.

Amid this grave prognosis, a new Israeli research project might make the Jewish state an important part of the solution. 

In what is arguably one of the most innovative water research consortiums to date, researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Australia’s Monash University are working to develop “water sensitive cities.” The description for the project, which is funded by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), says that water sensitive cities adopt and combine decentralized and centralized water management solutions to deliver water security. The data gathered from the project may be used to support development of urban master plans in cities in Israel and around the world.

Researchers are grouped into teams, each focusing on a different aspect of creating water sensitive cities. Eran Friedler, senior research fellow and head of the Water Forum Project at Technion, leads a team whose objective is to develop a holistic vision for water sensitive cities in Israel encompassing scientific, economic, and societal aspects, and accounting for the potential effects of global warming on temperatures and rainfall regimes. The analysis seeks to quantify the effect of urbanization and changing urban texture on storm water harvesting potential. 

Evyatar Erell, a professor in the Bona Terra Department of Man in the Desert at BGU, is responsible for water sensitive urban planning and design. He tells JNS.org that his role is to examine conventional hydrological planning of cities and to see how it can be improved. This means reducing impermeable surfaces (sidewalks, parking lots, driveways, etc.) in favor of more permeable surfaces, sometimes innovative ones such as green roofs or the infusion of small bits of garden along footpaths. 

“We are trying to determine how to use water as effectively as possible, to maximize its benefits to pedestrians, reduce energy consumption by our buildings, and ensure environmental sustainability,” says Erell. 

Rony Wallach, a professor in the Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment at Hebrew University, is leading a team that is measuring the chemical contents of water.

“We want to measure the pollution of water, how many chemicals are in the water, and then assess if this water can be reused or should be treated by any means so it can be reused,” Wallach says.

Yaron Zinger, a researcher in the faculty of engineering at Monash University in Melbourne, is working with a team from BGU to develop and test hybrid biofilters for storm water harvesting and treatment during Israel’s wet season. Zinger, who is Israeli, first developed these biofilters with a colleague in Australia. Friends of JNF Australia made possible his bringing this technology to the project in Israel. 

On their own, says Wallach, “the individual technologies are very common. The targets of how to combine our data and understanding to create a cohesive process that accounts for rainfall, runoff, and the chemicals that get into the water—that is very unique.”

The consortium has been in the works since 2011, when the group was assembled during a workshop convened at the initiative of BGU’s Prof. Asher Brenner as well as Profs. Anna Deletic and Tony Wong from Monash University. Motivated to work together, the group applied for JNF funds, which they were granted on April 1, 2015. Wallach says he hopes the team will be ready to put some ideas into action before the first rainfall this coming fall season.

Israel is an ideal location to test these theories, Erell says. With the Jewish state’s long dry season (May through September) and its small number—but heavier—rains in the winter, researchers have a difficult task. But if the desired model is achieved, notes Zinger, it could be replicated for the entire Middle East and other arid regions worldwide.

Working with three Israeli cities—Ramle, Bat Yam, and Kfar Saba – the project consortium will develop a detailed mapping of topography, surface coverage, infrastructure, and building typology, and then provide effective strategies for application of storm water harvesting in these urban locations. 

The cities involved are each being asked to contribute to the new technologies and other support they are receiving, so that water sensitivity will become part of their annual budget and be sustainable even after the grant runs out. 

Tracy Quinn, a water policy analyst for the National Resources Defense Council in California, gives context for the challenges the Israeli project is addressing.

“One of the most incredible things about storm water is that we have taken one of our largest resources—rain—and designed cities to take that resource away as soon as possible,” Quinn tells JNS.org. “We put in storm sewers to get it to the nearest river or ocean, and we’ve transformed our greatest resource into our greatest source of pollution.” 

Quinn notes that as the water picks up trash, pet waste, and chemicals, it pollutes surface waters and becomes unusable for human consumption. She says studies indicate that with better water-sensitive urban planning—including conservation and efficiency, capturing storm water, and making better use of treated water—“we could increase our water enough to support all the cities in California for a year. … We need to make the most out of every drop we get.”

Monash University’s Zinger agrees.

“Rain is life,” Zinger says. “It brings life to us, the animals, the vegetation. My goal is to try to bring it back to its important place—as our life source.”

Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.

Posted on May 18, 2015 and filed under Features, Israel.