Israeli experts say water shortage is a catastrophe

JERUSALEM — Allison Pollack gazes at her green grass with a mixture of pride and remorse: She loves having a velvety lawn but regrets wasting water to keep it green.

"I feel so guilty letting Asaf run through the sprinkler," Pollack says.

She also lets her 3-year-old son play with the garden hose — but only if it's directed toward the lawn, not the patio.

The next few weeks, however, may bring an end to Asaf's water sports.

Israel is considering imposing a ban on watering lawns and washing cars after three consecutive winters of drought have devastated the country's water reserves.

Earlier this week, the government's water management committee — which includes experts from national water supplier Mekorot Water Company and the government's hydrological service — urged cutting an additional 8,750 cubic feet, or 10 percent, from the existing water supply to avoid what they termed "a catastrophe."

The committee is responsible for safeguarding the nation's water reserves and ensuring supplies of fresh water.

Israel's three main sources of fresh water are the coastal and mountain aquifers and the Sea of Galilee, also known as Lake Kinneret.

"Israel's water sources are empty," said Shimon Tal, the water commissioner. "The situation is so serious that we are living from hand to mouth. We have lost our ability to regulate flow."

Besides the ban on watering lawns, the committee has proposed prohibiting the establishment of new municipal parks and gardens and introducing water quotas.

This could cut down on Israelis' shower time as well as on the water for washing dishes and laundry.

Tal also is expected to call for at least a 10 percent cut in water supplies to industry.

Some legislators, meanwhile, are calling for compensation to farmers who don't use up their annual water allocations, which already have been cut by an average of 50 percent.

Locally grown tomatoes, cucumbers and avocados have always been staples of the Israeli diet, but the costs of watering these thirsty crops makes them not cost effective. Mekorot management has declared that Israel should import produce.

Tal agrees. He has said the main aim of water planning is to reduce water allocations to agriculture — which, together with industry, accounts for half of Israel's annual water consumption.

Crops and car washes aside, the government has to ensure that there is enough water for Israelis to drink this summer.

According to the hydrological service, only 3,045 million cubic feet of water can be drawn from the Kinneret this year, compared to the usual average of 14,700 million cubic feet.

Indeed, a glimpse of the Kinneret reveals a wide expanse of dense reed- and seaweed-filled sand several yards away from knee-high water. The water was visibly deeper just a few years ago.

"This is the first year we are pumping to a degree that risks irreparable damage to basic water supply to consumers," Tal said. "Our concern is to at least guarantee drinking water next year."

According to water experts, the level of the Kinneret ideally should not be allowed to drop under approximately 706 feet below sea level. That's just about 3-1/2 feet above its present level — and the red line already has been lowered several times.

Mekorot's Sapir pumping station draws water from the Kinneret and pumps it directly into the national water carrier.

If the level were to drop much beyond the committee's recommended cutoff, the station's three pumps would not be able to operate at the same time. All three pumps have to operate during the summer to ensure a steady flow of water.

The committee report shows that the coastal and mountain aquifers are similarly depleted, with water levels at or below red lines.

Two straight winters of average rainfall and unexpectedly heavy spring showers haven't been enough to alleviate the water crisis. Moreover, the current solutions have been criticized as stopgap answers to a mounting crisis.

Successive governments have contemplated potential solutions, from building desalination plants to recycling treated sewage, purifying polluted wells or importing water from Turkey.

One of the problems with desalination plants is deciding who will build them.

Mekorot is the obvious choice, but the monopolistic public utility is embroiled in an endless battle with its 2,100 workers over company attempts to reorganize and improve efficiency.

Workers are worried about lowered salaries and longer hours. But they're also concerned about preserving and protecting Israel's water supply from private companies that may not have Israel's best interests in mind, says Meir El Azra, head of the Mekorot labor union.

The most pressing reason for Mekorot's reorganization is the continuing drought. Yet any investment in pumping, importing or desalinating water will require large amounts of capital, and Mekorot isn't competitive enough to participate in the process.

Last year, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak's government approved the Turkish option. It took another year for the government to begin seeking bids from companies to ship as much as 1,225 million cubic feet of water annually from Turkey.

This week, the government said it is sending a delegation to Turkey to discuss prices and terms.

When negotiations began several years ago, Turkey sought 32 cents per 35 cubic feet, while Israel offered 8 to10 cents per 35 cubic feet.

In the meantime, there has been a sharp increase in shipping prices. All told, the cost of the water — including getting it into the national pipeline — could bring the total price to 65 cents per 35 cubic feet. That's not far from the cost of desalinated water, which is estimated at 60 to 70 cents per 35 cubic feet.

Importing water from Turkey seems to provide a quick and easy solution. But as local experts have pointed out, importing water has political and security downsides.

"Water isn't like telephone services or cable television," union leader El Azra said. "It's a life necessity. We don't want to further endanger our already precarious water situation."

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