A section of the Jordan River containing Israel's first Kibbutz and important archaeological sites has been plagued by sewage for years, but work has now begun on a NIS 60 million Bitanya treatment plant due to open in about two years. Treated wastewater will combine with salty springwater from the Kinneret and freshwater from the Yarmuk River to be used for agriculture in the Jordan Valley.

The plant, a joint project of the Jordan Valley Regional Council and the Tiberias water corporation, will supply 19 million cubic meters of water a year, according to regional council head Yossi Vardi.

The Jordan serves as something of a sewage canal for Tiberias and the Jordan Valley; this week the Environmental Protection Ministry filed pollution charges against Vardi, who scoffs at the move.

"We took care of our environment before the [ministry] clerks [did]," he said. "They can't teach us about environmental protection. We residents of the Jordan Valley are taking care of our home."

The plant will be the first step in saving the downriver section of the Jordan that stretches from Kibbutz Degania to Menahemia. Several organizations have been trying for nearly 10 years to turn the area into a tourist attraction, but the delay in building the water-treatment plant has slowed things up.

The Jordan is one of the last Israeli rivers to serve as a sewage canal. The water flows clean just a kilometer past the Degania Dam, which is open nearly year-round to supply water for agriculture and the Yardenit baptismal site. This water is blocked by the temporary Alumot Dam, after which sewage from several kibbutzim spills into the river along with saltwater pumped from springs north of the Kinneret.

The section of the Jordan between the Alumot Dam and Menahemia cannot really be called a river; the sewage has to be removed if that area is going to be rehabilitated. The flow of sewage even violates the terms of the peace agreement with Jordan, under which water must be usable for agriculture.

Important historic sites are located near the downriver area, including Umm Juni, where Kibbutz Degania A, Israel's first kibbutz, was built. Not far away is Ubeidiya, where traces of the earliest migrations out of Africa have been found.

Preparations have been made to restore both sites and combine them with a larger tourist project. The site of an ancient flour mill and the attaching of Nahal Yavne'el to the Jordan will provide promising tourism opportunities. The two sides of the river are due to remain undeveloped, and tourist facilities including holiday villages will be set up in neighboring communities.