Israel's Natural Water Sources Are Drying Up

While desalination plants supply two-thirds of household water use, natural water sources are essential to cover the rest. Severe cuts proposed

New island created as a result of the low water level in the Sea of Galilee, December 7, 2016
Gil Eliahu

The Water Authority is proposing the most draconian cuts in water usage of the last decade, because as of the end of September, only one of the Israel’s three largest natural water sources was still usable. The other two were below the red line, which means that pumping must stop.

The decision was also prompted by predictions of below-average rainfall in the coming year.

Both Lake Kinneret and the Western Mountain Aquifer were below their red lines in September, which is considered the end of the hydrological year. The Coastal Aquifer was still usable, but it, too, had only a small amount of exploitable water left, located in its southern section.

When a water source falls below the red line, the water quality is endangered, because brackish water can move in from the sea or nearby aquifers.

Collectively, according to the annual report put out by the authority’s Hydrological Service, Israel’s natural water sources are a billion cubic meters below their optimum levels, meaning the level at which water quality is maximally preserved. Lake Kinneret fell below its red line months ago.

The Coastal Aquifer is 618 million cubic meters above its red line, but of this, only 63 million cubic meters in the southern section is actually usable, because the rest has already been polluted. That amount is roughly half the annual production of a desalination plant and less than a tenth of Israel’s annual household consumption.

Although more could theoretically be pumped from the aquifer, doing so would further endanger the water quality.

Currently, desalination plants supply two-thirds of household water use. But since the natural water sources are essential to cover the rest, the Water Authority is very worried by their decline. This worry is compounded by predictions of below-average rainfall this winter, possibly significantly below average.

Last week, the Water Authority’s executive committee met to draft recommendations on water use for the coming year. Its decision, which will be sent to the authority’s governing council for approval, was to slash 130 million cubic meters from last year’s water allocations.

Of this, 80 million cubic meters would be taken from farmers, representing a decrease of dozens of percent. The rest would come from municipal irrigation of parks and gardens.

Farmers are furious over the proposal. The Israel Fruit Growers Association, for instance, said the cut would force growers to uproot their orchards.

But experts told the executive committee that pumping from Lake Kinneret will have to stop almost completely – and even if it does, the lake is expected to fall to its lowest level in history. They also said most drilling in the western Galilee would have to be stopped if damage to natural water sources is to be averted.