Come on In, the Water's Fine! Israeli Rivers, Minus the Sewage

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When Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai jumped into the Yarkon River two years ago to prove that its waters are not dangerously polluted, it seemed as if the act was little more than a public relations stunt. But the mayor’s jump into the river was not totally irrelevant: Israel’s coastal rivers have undergone a significant purification process over the past few years, which has indeed made them fit for activities like sailing and swimming. At the same time, some of the coastal rivers are still vulnerable to contamination and suffer from a lack of clean water to replace the dirty water that is gradually being used more for agricultural irrigation.

The Yarkon River is a prime example of the changes that have taken place over the past 20 years, after the Environmental Protection Ministry officially launched its river rehabilitation program. The most significant improvement can be seen where the Yarkon meets its primary tributary, the Qana River, which until a few years ago contained large amounts of sewage from Kfar Sava and Hod Hasharon.

The water flowing from the Qana into the Yarkon these days is almost completely clear, thanks to the purification process, which utilizes an artificial wetland facility that serves as a biofilter, biologically purifying the water with plants and a bed of stones. “Fish began to swim upstream in the Qana River after they hadn’t done so for a long time,” says Dr. David Pergament, head of the Yarkon River Authority, “so we built them a system of ‘stone stairs’ that helps them get upstream.”

Sewage still a threat

The Qana River connects to the clean section of the Yarkon, into which a small amount of clean, natural water flows. The Mekorot company allocated this water for the river after most of its natural water was redirected for other purposes.

Near the spot where the Yarkon meets the Qana, a young couple can be seen preparing for a swim. Next to them is a building under construction. “This building will pump the clean water and then send the water throughout the river, allowing us to have a continuous flow of clean water,” explaines Pergament.

Despite the impressive improvements in terms of pollutants, the river still faces many threats. First and foremost is the sewage treatment plant in the Sharon, which cannot always handle its workload and discharges low-quality water into the river.

Down river, within Tel Aviv city limits, sailing and swimming have been going on for many years. Sail boaters from Europe come to train in the winter, after the cold drives them away from home. Pergament points out that according to tests for concentrations of fecal matter in the water (which determines the water quality), swimming in the river is allowed.

At the same time, however, he is of the opinion that swimming in the Yarkon should not be encouraged. “In order to allow swimming in the water, there must be lifeguard supervision. There are safety concerns like the presence in the water of various objects that could be dangerous to swimmers. Events like triathlons could be hosted, where athletes would swim in small sections of the river. At the same time, we have an interest that people refrain from swimming in the clean parts of the river, because they might cause damage to the ecological system there. But we aren’t actually asking anyone to get out of the water.”

In the Lachish River, which flows through Ashdod, water samples have shown a steady decline in contamination levels. The Ashdod municipality has managed to effectively take care of all of the seasonal sewage that used to pollute the water every year. Dams were built on the eastern part of the river to prevent the contamination from seeping in. Also, city inspectors routinely check that pollution from the city’s industrial area does not make its way into the river.

“The municipality’s plan is to allow sailing in the lower part of the river,” says Boaz Ra’anan, head of Ashdod’s environmental forum and a leader of the river rehabilitation program run by the city. “According to water quality tests, we can allow sailing in the river even today, but we think it’s best to study the river for a period of a year or two in order to make sure that the improvements continue.”

“This is a river which has improved, but is still in a delicate situation,” adds Dalia Tal, from the environmental organization Zalul. “The water in the sections of the river designated for sailing is groundwater, and even a small amount of contamination can severely damage the water quality.”

The Alexander River is in a more complicated situation. Pollution and sewage continue to flow into the Alexander from Palestinian Authority territory. According to Sharon Drainage Authority head Nissim Almon, “the water flowing into the river, in the summer as well, comes from natural springs and recycled water from Nablus, the quality of which we intend to improve.”

In the future the river is supposed to receive a large amount of water from natural sources. In the meantime, the amount of water flowing in the river is indeed very low. Wastewater from beyond the Green Line comprises most of the flow in the central part of the river.

Like their counterparts in other regions, the staff of the Sharon Drainage Authority make sure to regularly check the quality of the water near the coastal areas, where the river is designated for recreational use. “The results show high water quality, and our opinion is that it’s okay to allow sailing in the western part of the river,” says Almon. “The Health Ministry has yet to allow this due to fear that wastewater from beyond the Green Line could be a health risk.”

In Haifa’s backyard

The Sharon Drainage Authority is also responsible for the Hadera River, which is in a similar situation to that of the other coastal rivers. “The water quality today is good, because all the water treatment plants near the ‘Iron River and the Baka al-Garbiyeh area have begun using purification facilities,” says Alon.

“The city of Hadera turned its back on this river, instead of taking advantage of it,” adds Tal. “They decided to divert industrial waste into the river and close it off, yet it has potential to be a recreational area.”

The section of the Hadera River near the coast has been cut off in recent years from the area upstream, which has been turned into a park. A dam was erected at its eastern end, to where waters which were used to cool a power plant were diverted. Until recently, swimming and fishing were allowed, but the river authorities do not encourage such behavior as there is no lifeguard on duty.

The Kishon River, which in the past was labeled the dirtiest of Israel’s coastal rivers, has also undergone comprehensive changes. A project to clean the polluted riverbed is set to begin in the near future. According to Sharon Nissim, director of the Kishon River Authority, when the project is completed in three years the public will be allowed to sail in the river. “A rowing club utilizes the Kishon even today, but its activities are limited mostly to adults,” says Nissim.

Once the riverbed is cleaned, and the nearby factories comply with demands to improve purification efforts, sport fishing will also be allowed in the river. Once families begin to fish in the river and relax by its shores, it can be said that the river is no longer Haifa’s neglected backyard.

Rowing on the Yarkon.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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