Though there are still more than two months left in the rainy season, the writing is already on the wall: Expect another dry winter that will worsen the state of Israel's water economy.
To date, most parts of the country have received only 60 to 80 percent of their normal rainfall for this time of year. The situation is particularly grave around Lake Kinneret, which is Israel's principal water source. The last time the lake was this low, six years ago, we were saved by an exceptionally rainy February that raised the water level by several meters in the space of a few weeks. The chances of that happening a second time, however, are slim. And barring such an occurrence, the lake is likely to remain so low as to virtually preclude pumping from it.
On Wednesday, Water Authority director Prof. Uri Shani told the Knesset Internal Affairs Committee that, so far, this has been the driest January since regular rainfall measurements began. "We are at the height of a water crisis whose like we haven't seen for 80 years," he warned.
The Water Authority believes the easiest way to save water is to ban watering lawns, both public and private. Shani said an order to this effect will be issued soon. The authority also intends to cut the water quota for farmers by another 100 million cubic meters. For now, however, it does not intend to forbid watering gardens, nor does it intend to initiate short-term cutoffs of the water supply to households, having concluded that this actually does little to save water.
In an effort to increase supply, the authority plans to expand drilling in areas such as the Golan Heights, the Hula Valley and the eastern Galilee. The drilling sites are slated to include nature reserves and natural parks, a proposal that has upset green organizations - not only because these sites will receive less water, but because the drilling itself, plus attendant work such as constructing access roads, could harm these sites.
Even without new drilling, some nature reserves are already suffering severe water shortages that have harmed their native flora. Lake Kinneret has been suffering ecological damage as well.
"We understand that the situation is grave and action must be taken quickly, but it is still necessary to give thought to nature and open spaces," said Itamar Ben David of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. Drilling in nature reserves, he argued, should be "a last resort."
In a discussion on how best to counter the water crisis, Shani said that the Water Administration is considering anchoring desalination boats off the coasts of Israel.
"The gap between demand and availability, as well as the condition of the aquifers being in the bad shape, suggest that the peak of the crisis is still ahead of us in 2009," Shani added.
In 2008 water allocation for farming was already at its lowest point since the establishment of the state, at 450 million cubic meters.
Committee chairman MK Ophir Pines-Paz acknowledged that "the crisis is severe, but there is no sense of crisis and no one is behaving as if it were a crisis. We expect the government to adopt a determined, aggressive police of enforcement and punishment, including criminal charges [against violators of water restriction regulations]."
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