Beit El spring - Emil Salman - August 12, 2011
Teens enjoying the new pools built over Beit El's mysterious spring. Photo by Emil Salman
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Springs in the Judean Hills that were the basis for agriculture as far back as the Second Temple era are drying up due to successive drought years and have become polluted, according to a study carried out this year.

The study, conducted this spring by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority under the direction of the Water Authority, was the first of its kind in 30 years. It included 67 of the almost 90 springs in an area from Jerusalem in the east westward almost to Beit Shemesh.

Water quality and quantity, as well as the area surrounding each spring, were examined. The survey included the Sataf, Ein Hindak and Ein Lavan springs, all popular hiking spots, as well as the spring in the center of Abu Gosh.

The surveyors found water in only two-thirds of the springs. Of the springs with water, the flow rates were lower than in previous years and in one out of three springs the water quality was poor or fair.

The surveyors pointed to several consecutive low-rainfall years as the main reason for the low water levels.

Six of the past eight years met the criteria for drought years. Last winter, for example, saw only 60 percent of the average annual rainfall in the region.

In some cases, intensive construction near the springs contributed to the dearth of water: The increase in paved surfaces, such as roads and even gas stations, means rainwater cannot percolate through concrete and asphalt on the surface down to the water-bearing layer from which it would otherwise emerge as a spring.

Water quality is affected by pollution, mainly sewage. The surveyors say they believe fertilizer runoff has compromised the water quality in the Ein Kobi spring.

The springs in the Judean Hills have been essential for traditional agriculture for thousands of years, beginning with the first inhabitants who dug tunnels and channels to bring the water to the crops they grew on the terraced hillsides.

Last year the Israel World Heritage Committee recommended that the terraced fields in the Judean Hills be classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The proposal has not yet been submitted.

The authors of the spring survey want the health and environmental protection ministries to improve sewage treatment facilities to minimize contamination of the springs. They also recommend increased protection of the vegetation near the springs as well as conservation management.