Mideast, U.S. scientists find common ground in aquifers

The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory may be a world away from the Middle East, but scientist Lee Davisson is getting to know the faraway region isotope by isotope.

The chemist is part of a collaborative project between Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian and American scientists aimed at maximizing the region's precious water resources.

Davisson and other participants met at the San Francisco home of Israeli Consul General Daniel Shek on Wednesday of last week for a reception honoring the project.

Mingling over wine and hors d'oeuvres, they spoke with excitement of their combined efforts to understand the makeup of Jordan Valley aquifers — underground layers of earth, gravel or porous stone that yield water.

Shek hailed the project, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as a promising sign of collaboration in the troubled region. He called it one of many "clandestine peace operations" underway in the area — clandestine, he explained, because too few people know about them.

"Each of them is a small stone," Shek said. "These stones are slowly coming together into a mosaic."

The diplomat then raised a glass to peace, to which Jordanian hydrogeologist Mohamad Al-Atrash uttered, "Shalom, Salaam," the Hebrew and Arabic words for "peace."

The collaboration got its start at a July workshop in Amman that produced several regional and bilateral proposals. Another transnational group of scientists, for example, will address solar energy desalination.

Scientists involved in the aquifer endeavor are studying groundwater flow with the ultimate goal of sustaining and maximizing water stores in the arid region. Lawrence Livermore Lab, a Department of Energy national laboratory, will serve as the program's operating agency.

"When you overuse groundwater, you damage the aquifer," Davisson explained. "Saltwater encroaches. You have to bring it into balance."

Too much saltwater can not only destroy an aquifer, but render drinking water so salty it has to be desalinated — a costly process generally utilized only as a last resort.

Davisson's work focuses on isotopes, which are traceable forms of natural elements. Tracking these in water helps determine the source of its salinity. Once that is ascertained, steps can be taken to reduce salt levels.

The project gives Davisson and his American colleagues a chance to apply their laboratory work in the field.

"As an American scientist, this is where I feel my real career goals are met," Davisson said, adding that he hopes to travel to the Middle East as part of the project. "I feel I'm making tangible effects with my expertise."

For their part, scientists from the Middle East said stalls and tensions in the peace process have not impeded the group's work.

"Surprisingly, it works very well," said Uri Moshe Shavit, a professor in the department of agricultural engineering at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. "The six researchers are working together in a professional manner with no political differences."

Omar M. M. Zayed, a Palestinian geologist from the West Bank, agreed. "We're scientists. We don't like to be on the political side."

Still, added Zayed, who works for the Palestinian Water Authority formed as a result of the Oslo Accords, the project has given him new hope for the region's political future.

"Any type of collaboration on any level will contribute to the peace process."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.