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Sea Sees Water Slipping Away

October 15, 2009 By:
Dina Kraft, JE Feature
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Shuli Chen of the Israeli Water Department stands in the Sea of Galilee to measure its level in early 2007; the water's since gone down.

Kibbutz Mashabe Sadeh, Israel

From deep below the sands of the Negev Desert, water is being drilled for irrigating crops and even supplying water for fish ponds.

In Israel, struggling with the most severe water crisis in its history, every tiny drop of water counts. This summer marked its fifth consecutive year of drought, its main reservoirs have dipped below their red lines, and demand for water only continues as the population swells.

The Israeli Water Authority is completing its third desalination plant with hopes that by the year 2020 most of the needs for Israel's fresh water will be met. But in the meantime, a dramatic shortfall needs to be filled, and this is where the Jewish National Fund, which is holding its national conference in Philadelphia later this month, is stepping in.

Water will be a major focus of the various meetings and speeches to be given during the two-day conference here, scheduled for Oct. 25-26, at the Marriott Philadelphia Downtown. In addition to a number of American and Israeli notables, the guest speaker during the closing plenary will be Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States.

JNF is working to raise $100 million as part of a new project called the Parsons Water Fund, to work for the next 10 years with the goal of investing in water projects, especially those which could lead to new water sources of water. Among the fund's projects are new techniques for preserving and recycling water, drilling for new aquifers, educating schoolchildren about conservation, and even creating wetlands where they never before existed by recycling treated sewage water.

"We are looking for creative solutions," said Sharon Davidovich, the JNF professional heading the Parsons Water Fund.

There has long been talk, for example, of pumping water from Turkey to Israel, but the cost was seen as prohibitive.

However, JNF has found a potential economical way to ship fresh Turkish water here by filling up old single-hulled oil tankers with water and bringing them to Israel.

This would be done at "a price equal to desalinated water, in enough amounts and for as long as needed, to get over the crisis," said Mort Mower, chairman of the new fund.

Other JNF-funded projects in the works include the prospect of new drilling in an aquifer along Israel's border with Lebanon, which could be used for spas, commercial fish farms and, once treated, even fed into the Sea of Galilee -- with the hopes that it could raise the lake's level by about 18 inches a year.

By the end of October, a technique of using sewage water to create wetlands will be running at the country's largest air-force base, which is located in the Negev Desert. The plan is to use the same technique for other bases in the area.

JNF is also working to help introduce as many schools as possible to collecting rainwater.

"These projects will be crucial in averting hardships and severe potential ecologic damages," said Mower.

Adding to immediate concerns are the fact that water levels have become so low that sinkholes are developing in some areas. The aquifers themselves are, in turn, at risk of salt and other pollutants leaking into them, which could make them permanently unfit for drinking in the future.

To help cope, the government has instituted some water rationing and a special tax on families who use an excess amount of water in their homes.

'Created New Resource'

Over the past six to eight months of intensive fundraising by JNF, they have managed to do relatively well in getting money, despite the financial crisis in the United States.

A mainstay of JNF's efforts since it began its involvement in water issues has been the construction of reservoirs.

Investing some $70 million over the years, it has been behind the construction of 204 of the country's 350 reservoirs. Much of the water collected in them is sewage water that is then treated and recycled for agricultural purposes.

Because of the shortage, there have been unprecedented cut-backs by the government on allocations of water to Israel's agricultural sector, so this option of recycled water has become more critical than ever, stress Israeli water officials.

"With the 66 billion gallons of water collected in reservoirs we built, we have created a new resource and increased the availability of drinking water by 12 percent," said Davidovich.

'Fields Going Unwatered'

Israel is the world leader in using recycled sewage water for irrigating crops, treating about 75 percent of sewage water and then using it for agricultural purposes.

By contrast, Spain -- which is second to Israel in the field -- recycles only 12 percent of its waste water.

One of the most recent such reservoirs being built is one that will recycle the sewage water from the southern town of Sederot for nearby kibbutzim and moshavim.

"Today, without that reservoir, many fields are simply going unwatered," said Meir Brukental, who manages the company constructing the reservoir. "So this reservoir is what is saving our region so we can hold on to the agriculture we have there."

In the north of the country, another project in the works to receive JNF assistance is the drilling for water near the northern town of Kiryat Shemonah.

Michael Steifman, manager of Israel Funds, which invests in water and agriculture projects, including this one, says that drilling in the new aquifer would go down about a mile deep, and could provide enough water to irrigate at some 2,500 acres of local fields.

Looking ahead, Uri Schor, spokesman for the Israel Water Authority, said that even if all efforts pan out, the situation remains dire.

"No one knows how the coming winter will be," he said. "We all pray for lots of rain, but even a year of heavy rainfall will not be enough to lift us out of this crisis. And if we have another year of drought, we will have a very serious problem on our hands."

To learn more or to register, call Beckey Palley at 212-879-9305 or log on to: www.jnf.org (look for link at bottom right to national conference).

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