Water Drilling Plan in Golan Heights Draws Ire of Israeli Environmentalists

'If they want water for agriculture they should take it from Golan reservoirs or Sea of Galilee, but not harm springs and streams,' Israeli green activist says

Salukia Spring in the Golan Heights.
Dror Artzi

The Water Authority is planning to approve additional groundwater drilling in the northern Golan Heights over the objections of environmentalists, who argue that the drilling will damage springs and streams in the Golan and the Hula Valley.

A special Water Authority committee authorized to approve new drilling is to convene next week to discuss the plan to drill east of the community of Ortal. Over the past two years plans have advanced to establish four additional drilling sites, two near the Jilabun stream, one near Katzrin and a fourth east of Katzrin. All these plans are for deep drilling to produce water from the Golan’s basalt aquifer. The water will be supplied to Druze villages but could also be used for farming.

During the past four years there hasn’t been enough rain in the north, which is making it difficult to supply water for various needs, including farming. If the lack of rain is connected to climate changes, the assessment is it will get worse over the coming decades. Desalinated water isn’t piped to the north, so that isn’t a solution.

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel has filed objections to the drilling near Ortal, which is known as Mashtela 4, saying it and other drilling plans approved recently endanger the groundwater that feeds the springs and streams on the eastern side of the Hula Valley, at the foot of the Golan Heights.

“These springs provide a steady water source to unique natural habitats characteristic of the region,” the SPNI said. “Moreover, the Hula Valley and Golan Heights springs are a central attraction for hikers and are important to recreation and leisure in the area.”

“We argue that if they want to supply water for agriculture they should do so from the Golan Heights reservoirs, or perhaps from the Kinneret, but not to harm the springs and streams,” said Orit Skutelsky of the SPNI. “If there are no other sources, then they shouldn’t expand agriculture on the Golan Heights if it means harming nature.”

Migrating Cranes flock to the Hula Lake conservation area, north of the Sea of Galilee, northern Israel, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016. About 42,500 cranes are in Hula Lake conservation area today. More than half a billion birds of some 400 different species pass through the Jordan Valley to Africa and go back to Europe during the year.
Ariel Schalit / AP

Nature and Parks Authority also objects

The Nature and Parks Authority also objects to Mashtela 4. Nissim Keshet, the NPA’s water official, told the Water Authority that he objects to its declaration that the drilling will have ill effects only over the long term. “That’s like saying the next generation doesn’t deserve to have abundant springs and streams,” he said.

Water Authority experts argue that there is no proof that drilling deep into the aquifer will affect the northern streams, and that the drop in the flow is primarily due to lack of rainfall. According to a report by the Hydrological Service last year, the quantity of water flowing through the eastern Hula streams dropped 28 percent to 47 percent from 1985 to 2015. During that period precipitation in the area dropped nearly 25 percent.

Other experts disagree. Dr. Alon Rimmer of the Kinneret Research Laboratory wrote in the most recent edition of the journal Ecology and the Environment that the drop in water flow cannot be explained by lack of rain alone.

The Water Authority said, “Every drilling request must of course be examined and get the approval of the Water Authority’s drilling committee. Such a request has indeed been submitted, but discussion of it hasn’t ended. The issue is expected to be discussed by the committee next week and it will be examined with the necessary caution and professionalism, given the needs of the water economy and the state of the water sources. It should be noted that this drilling is aimed at supplying drinking water.”