June 10, 2002, Updated September 14, 2012

With a dry climate and a rising population, Israel has been a pioneer in finding ways to grow more crops using less water and Americans living in the more arid portions of the United States are taking advantage of these water-saving innovations.

These breakthroughs in drip irrigation technology developed on Israeli farms have helped Israel increase its agricultural output by 12 times, using the same amount of water, since the nation was founded in 1948. Much of this work has been done on farming research stations in Israel sponsored by the Jewish National Fund.

Many U.S. farmers, particularly in the Southwest, are also looking at methods developed in Israel of combining drip irrigation with the use of treated wastewater to irrigate crops so that more fresh water can be channeled to homes, schools and businesses.

Israel is a few steps ahead of the United States in finding ways to use less water to grow food, according to Jobaid Kabir, manager of water resources planning for the Lower Colorado River Authority in Austin, Texas, who has visited Israel to study its water-saving technologies.

In recent years, Kabir has been the recipient of two grants from a program known as the Texas-Israel Exchange Fund, an innovative project sponsored by the Israeli government and the Texas Department of Agriculture under a larger national program called the Israel-U.S. Binational Agricultural Research and Development Fund. The grants have helped him study Israeli methods of wastewater reuse and are now enabling him to test approaches to growing rice using drip irrigation.

The exchange fund was created to “maximize (agricultural) production with minimal use of resources such as water and labor by sharing information and expertise,” according to the Texas agriculture department.

“Today, 20 percent of Israeli farmers’ water supply comes from wastewater,” Kabir said. “In 20 years, it will go to 80 percent. The population is rising and taking up a larger and larger share of the fresh water, which is a similar situation to what we have in Texas.”

According to Kabir, Israel takes treated wastewater from plants in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and pumps it south to the Negev Desert, where it’s then pumped into sand dunes where the sand filters the water further. The water is collected after it filters through the sand and then channeled into the underground drip irrigation systems on farms.

“Wastewater can be used for agriculture when it goes directly to the root systems of the plants, which filter out the remaining impurities,” Kabir said.

Other recent grants under the exchange fund include studies on growing crops in demand in the United States, including cotton, vegetables, cut flowers, and ornamental plants, using drip irrigation methods developed in Israel.

“The use of drip irrigation has risen greatly in Texas,” said Ric Jensen, of the Texas Water Resources Institute at Texas A&M University. “Because of work funded by the exchange we’re seeing farmers continue production of high-value crops, whereas before that wouldn’t have been possible.”

Kabir’s latest project involves growing rice using 30 to 50 percent less water using underground drip irrigation. A key partner in the project is the Israel-based drip irrigation innovator Netafim, owned by a handful of kibbutzim, which has donated the irrigation equipment for Kabir’s rice-growing experiments.

Netafim began selling its systems of aboveground and underground pipes that allow water to percolate to the roots of plants, in 1965. The Israeli farmers and agronomists who founded the company borrowed the concept from archeological remains of systems used 3,000 years ago by tribes who settled the arid region between the Jordan River and the Negev. Netafim owns and operates a manufacturing facility in Fresno, Calif., and now sells nearly $200 million worth of drip irrigation supplies in the United States annually.

Surface drip irrigation works by a slow drop-by-drop application of water from a grid of plastic hoses just above the soil. In underground drip systems, pipes are buried about 6 inches to a foot and a half below the soil surface. Drip irrigation saves water by reducing the size of the wet soil surface, thus decreasing the amount of direct evaporation and loss through excess seepage of water through the root zone.

Unlike sprinklers, drip irrigation is practically unaffected by wind and soil conditions. Soil is maintained in a continuously moist condition. Nutrients can be applied through the drip systems, thus reducing use of fertilizers and improving the quality of returned water, said Rebecca Hall, marketing manager for Netafim in Fresno.

Several other Israeli research programs, including the Water Research Institute at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, are working to maximize the mileage farmers the world over can receive from each gallon of water at their disposal.

The WRI, based in Haifa, Israel, carries on extensive research on water resource demand management, including conservation and recycling, conflict mediation and resolution related to water use and allocation, market-based redistribution, and water demand forecasting. In addition, researchers are studying national water markets, genetic engineering and agricultural technology.

Israel21c editor Rick Radin contributed to this story.

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