T’heilet Valley Park near Safed. Has development damaged the spring?
T’heilet Valley Park near Safed. Has development damaged the spring? Photo by Gil Eliahu
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Some of the most popular Israeli travel guides invite hikers to visit natural springs. The success of these books may be attributed to the draw that bodies of water have in an arid land, as well as to the fact that many natural springs have, in recent years, undergone some form of construction. This has made them less natural and more like manmade tourist attractions, which makes them more popular. Their popularity, of course, comes with an environmental price tag, because during the various renovation projects at the springs, the surrounding landscape and nature are inevitably damaged.

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel is now engaged in a concerted effort to protect the springs. This month, it published a guide for visitors to springs and the institutions interested in developing them. The new document is entitled "Israel's Springs: Recommendations for effective management of recreation activities in Israel's springs as a unique ecosystem for the benefit of man and nature." It discusses the ecology of springs and includes recommendations for protecting them. It's goal is not to keep visitors away, but rather to try to curb destructive development.

While there are springs from which only a tiny trickle of water flows during certain periods of the year, they still provide a year-long refuge and habitat for a host of flora and fauna, including amphibians, insect varieties, birds and even insect-eating bats. Surveys taken recently in the upper part of the Kishon River have shown a surprising range of animals and plants at the springs along the river.

Springs have long been diverted to serve human needs, but many have been allowed to flow unimpeded, thus maintaining the vitality of the natural assets that are dependent on them. While such springs are endangered by pollution, it seems that in recent years, the main threat has come from private and public initiatives aimed at renovating them and turning them into travel destinations.

Various forms of diversions at the springs, such as putting up structures and building pools, often transform, and even destroy, the character of the spring and its surroundings. "The problem is most severe in the Jerusalem hills," according to the SPNI's new document. "There are virtually no springs left that have not been interfered with in some way."

From development to neglect

The organization says that in some cases, the spring's natural environment has been changed "in a very aggressive way to modify it for its new purpose. For example, Ein Motza, a spring near Jerusalem just off the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway, is a small spring that underwent construction and became an improvised men's mikveh (Jewish ritual bath ), consisting of three immersion pools. As in other cases, this spring suffered from neglect after its conversion and is now full of debris and waste."

Even institutions such as the Jewish National Fund are liable to cause ecological damage during efforts to turn springs into public-friendly sites, says the SPNI document. It cites, for example, the T'heilet Valley Park near Safed, which has several springs, which was developed by the JNF without environmental planning and oversight. The result: Some of the natural habitats were destroyed, and instead there is a series of concrete pools and artificial waterfalls.

The JNF insists it has not harmed the site. "Working for nature is important to us, as is making it more accessible to the public at large," the organization said. "We have the most experience in the field of rehabilitating natural springs.

"We make use of outside experts, such as Ran Molcho who has a tremendous amount of experience in the ecological rehabilitation of springs and served as our consultant during the T'heilet Valley Park reconstruction. The work done at the site did not change any of the natural processes. On the contrary: We increased the flow of the springs by installing drainage to the benefit of plant and animal life.

We reconstructed ancient pools and built additional pools to slow down wintertime flooding and increase output in the summer, when the natural gushing slows down. The assertions made by the SPNI indicate a lack of familiarity with the location and are belied by studies and observations done over the course of many years."

The SPNI is not looking to quarrel with the JNF or with any other group doing work on springs. Instead, it wants to issue recommendations for development and for public tourism at the springs, in order to prevent damage to nature.

According to the environmental organization, professional ecological consultants must be part of the team developing springs. During such work, natural areas must be left untouched; sites such as manmade pools can be built near these areas, for the enjoyment of visitors. Both the continuity of water flow and the physical complexity of the site must be maintained. For example, rocks of varying sizes and shapes must cover the floor of the pool in order to create a range of biological niches.

The SPNI also recommends that springs of great ecological value should be preserved as they are, and the number of visitors allowed should be limited. The inherent natural value of these springs must outweigh considerations of public access, says the organization.

For the public at large, the document presents its "ten golden rules for conduct at a spring." It suggests that construction not be undertaken without the necessary permits from the various authorities, such as the Israel Nature and Parks Authority or drainage authorities, and that nothing at all be done without an ecological consultation.

Another recommendation is to avoid entering the wellspring itself, as it is extremely vulnerable ecologically. The SPNI also asks the public to avoid disturbing the muddy spring bottoms as much as possible, in order to protect the sensitive breathing apparatus of the animal life.