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Water from the Sea of Galilee is pumped to the Central Filtration Plant, where it's filtered at a rate of 61/2feet/hour and goes on to supply most of Israel's drinking water. Photo: Mekorot

Wouldn't it be great to start all over again with a blank slate? That's essentially what Israel, created in 1948 by the United Nations, has done.

As we assembled this issue's coverage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, I toured infrastructure sites as a guest of the Israel Export & International Cooperation Institute. I arrived with my brain filled to bursting with facts and figures regarding our most significant investment in public works since the Great Depression and the national highway system. I left with a profound appreciation for what happens when infrastructure is everybody's business.

I mean “business” literally. Israel's exporting intellectual property developed to solve its own water shortages. In many ways, utilities operate like ours; the government-owned national water company charges customers based on consumption and issues bonds to support capital improvements. But it also recently spun off an “Initiative and Development” subsidiary to explore and develop technology to make creating (as in desalination and cloud-seeding), collecting, treating, and delivering water more energy-efficient.

The company belongs to one of 24 “incubators” created to drive innovation among and between high-tech industry sectors and academia. The state pays up to half the cost of projects so researchers don't have to worry so much about when funding will run out, while the incubators seek venture capital and partners at home and abroad. Israeli infrastructure managers are thus very involved in developing operational solutions.

A 3,000-ton/day solid waste operation uses water to separate garbage into wet and dry waste streams, an approach the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation is considering (www.arrowbio.com). Chicago's wastewater and drinking water utilities are testing a biomonitoring system that identifies contamination within four hours (www.checklight.biz) that's been approved by the EPA's Environmental Technology Verification (ETV) program.

The country's holistic approach to water management is catching the attention of a world struggling with water and energy shortages. In November, Michigan signed the first technologies partnership agreement with Israel. The head of Israel's water-technology incubator (www.kinrot.com) was keynote speaker at last month's Milwaukee 7 Water Council Water Summit III in Wisconsin. Both governors plan to attend Israel's second annual conference on water and the environment in November (www.watec-israel.com) in search of partners.

Amazing things happen when infrastructure is a matter of survival and not just convenience. It was fascinating to see how a young, tiny nation with no state- or county-level government delivers public works. As we here at PUBLIC WORKS explore the implications and ramifications of the economic-stimulus package, I must say I feel a bit envious.