The Be’er Sheva River looked like a vision from an apocalypse. Piled garbage sat on the remains of the dry riverbed. from which land had been illegally dredged for construction. Sewage from neighboring towns had oozed alongside.
That was how it was. Now the river, located near the southern entrance of the Negev city, is undergoing a makeover to create the Be’er Sheva River Park, from the Arad Valley westward to the Be’er Sheva Valley. The 8-kilometer long park features green lawns, groves of trees, a botanical garden, footpaths and bicycle paths, and a promenade. And, still, despite all, garbage and various other eyesores.
The Be’er Sheva River Park, which the Jewish National Fund fondly calls the “ecological park of the Negev’s capital," encompasses two smaller parks, Bell Park and Beit Eshel Park, as well as an archaeological site dating from the early Bronze Age. Work has also begun on an artificial lake.
It's a work in process. And meanwhile, environmental hazards − primarily sewage seeping from the West Bank city of Hebron − continue to threaten the Be’er Sheva River.
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One environmental eyesore is a thriving business selling used car parts. It looks like one big dump. So while on one side of the river a promenade is being built, on the other side sits this monstrosity. The Environmental Protection Agency has ordered the owners to remove the massive piles of used car parts that form a sort of wall overlooking the riverbed, but as of last week they were still there.
The Be’er Sheva municipality says it's working on an agreement to evacuate the site and move the car parts elsewhere.
But the more serious hazard is the Hebron River, which meets up with the Be’er Sheva River, bearing the sewage of Hebron residents.
“We encourage people to visit here,” said Eyal Yaffe, the Environmental Protection Ministry official responsible for river rehabilitation. And when they do come, they're greeted with pollution, stench, mosquitoes and foul water, he says.
That said, he feels confident that: "The more successful the program is and the more people come to the park, the greater the pressure will become on decision makers to act to resolve the problem of the sewage flow and get rid of the car parts junk yard.”
Water, water everywhere except here
The Be’er Sheva River is actually a seasonal riverbed that is dry during most of the year. But the planners feel that since the river is meant to be a tourist draw, it should have water running through it year round. The park might even offer boating eventually, said Yaffe.
“The river is in a desert region, but near an urban area. Therefore we decided that we have to make it possible for there to be a certain flow of water, that simulates how it flows after winter flooding.” Where is this water to come from? The sewage purification facilities, which will also be a primary source of water for the artificial lake.
There's a snag. The sewage treatment facilities in place have proved insufficient. Israel has set up water purification facilities near the Green Line to purify the Hebron River sewage, but their capacity is too small to be fully effective. The existing purification system could be upgraded and an agreement could be reached an agreement with the Palestinians about setting up another purification facility near Hebron − something the European Union has already agreed to fund, but which has yet to get off the ground. In the meantime, large amounts of sewage continue to flow from Hebron to Be’er Sheva.
The real breakthrough in developing the area took place four years ago, when the government allocated NIS 300 million to fund the project. Only half the funding is meant to come from the government itself. The other half is coming from donations, primarily funds raised by the Jewish National Fund in the United States.
The drainage authorities in the area began working on cleaning up the river a decade ago. At the same time, the municipality and Environmental Protection Ministry began preparing the ground for the hiking spots and other tourist draws near the river that would make up the Be’er Sheva River Park. Since then, several parts of the promenade have been built, as well as an amphitheater on the western side of the park. A bridge offers pedestrians an easy way to cross the river, and work has begun on preparing the ground for a large man-made lake that will be partly situated on land that had been contaminated in the past and will now be rehabilitated.
A boost to property values
Although it is not yet complete, the Be’er Sheva River Park has already changed both the look of the area and the real estate market, said Yaffe.
He said the Be’er Sheva municipality is working harder to maintain the smaller parks that run alongside the Be’er Sheva River Park and fix damage caused by vandals. The benches and garbage cans have been replaced as well, and are now made of cement, to make them less susceptible to hoodlums' whims.
The government and real estate agents appear to be betting that the sewage problem will work out somehow, and that the Be’er Sheva River Park will become a major attraction for visitors to the Negev, according to Yaffe.
“The Housing and Construction Ministry realized the change that this plan will engender in the municipal area. It built neighborhoods here and invested in building the boardwalk,” he said. “Apartments in Be’er Sheva are being sold in part on the basis of their proximity to the park.”
Park planners would do well to learn from the challenges encountered by builders of the first man-made lake in the Negev, located near Yeruham. It was intended as a place for floodwaters − and tourists − to go, but ended up as a sewage collection point rather than a hot spot for visitors. Then the city built a sewage treatment plant a few years ago and planners decided to revive the lake project, making sure it was used only for excess rainwater and treated sewage that had undergone a high-level purification process, and once more are aiming to attract visitors.
But Yaffe and Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz are looking further afield than Yeruham. They hope to replicate the successful model implemented in large desert cities in the United States like San Antonio, Texas, and Phoenix, Arizona. Last week Peretz visited the San Antonio River Walk, a public park along the San Antonio River that is lined with hotels, restaurants and other tourist attractions. He has fond hopes that Israel can build a similar venue near its major desert city, making Be’er Sheva the next San Antonio.