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Israel is launching a project aimed at saving its water, wracked by concerns that one of the country's vital sources of underground water might become salty.

The National Water Authority has authorized the national water company, Mekorot, to begin a NIS 500 million rescue program to counter salination in the coastal aquifer.

The plan, supervised by Yossi Gutman and Ido Negev, will include a series of 35 drillings from the north of Ashdod to Sderot. The drilling will allow Mekorot to pump out up to 40 million cubic meters of water carrying salts and other minerals.

The water will be desalinated in special plants and used as drinking water. The salt residue from the process will be pumped out to sea.

The coastal aquifer, which stretches from Caesarea to the Gaza Strip, is one of Israel's most important sources of groundwater. But it is seriously threatened by chemical and microbial pollutants, salination, nitrates, heavy metals, fuels and toxic organic compounds.

According to the most recent report by the hydrological service, about 15 percent of the total amount of water pumped from the coastal aquifer does not comply with drinking water standards for chloride and nitrate concentrations.

According to the Environmental Protection Ministry, nitrate concentrations in the coastal aquifer have increased considerably due to intensive use of fertilizers in agriculture and the use of treated effluents for irrigation. Since 1950, average nitrate concentrations have risen from 30 mg/liter to 63 mg/liter.

Overpumping - pumping exceeding the replenishment rate - subsequently reduced water levels by six to 10 meters and changed the direction of water flow. This disturbed the delicate balance between the entrance and exit of salts and pollutants, increasing chloride concentrations.

"The goal is not only to pump saline water, but to stabilize water levels and prevent pollution," said Dr. Negev.