Will Israelis Ever Be Able to Swim in Tel Aviv’s Yarkon River?

You can bathe in the Danube and other great European rivers, but wild swimmers will be waiting a long time before they can dive into Tel Aviv's deadly river

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A bend in the river as the Yarkon winds its way through parkland in north Tel Aviv.
A bend in the river as the Yarkon winds its way through parkland in north Tel Aviv. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

In my dream, the Yarkon River was turquoise. I had no doubt it was the Yarkon, but it looked just like the Asi Stream in northern Israel. Tel Aviv was Kibbutz Nir David without the yellow gate. Clear water flowed; kids paddled from the north bank to the south on an inflatable mattress. Two couples sat in the water sipping cold drinks. The eucalyptus trees cast a broad shade across the water.

Then I woke up and drove to Ganei Yehoshua Park, in the city’s north. Mothers and children sat on the grass and cyclists whooshed by. No one, heaven forbid, was taking a dip in the water. The park looked lovely but the simplest idea in the world – to jump into the Yarkon – sounded ludicrous.

A friend explained to me that we’re too set in our thinking.

“What’s the problem?” he asked. “Why can’t we turn Yarkon Park into Gan Hashlosha National Park [aka Sakhne]? Instead of everyone schlepping to the Jezreel Valley or the Galilee in search of some tiny spring every weekend, we’ll go to our local municipal park and kick back in some sweet water. Let’s change the water, build a dam, clean the filth, do something dramatic – damn the cost! It’ll be good for the environment, it’ll be excellent for nature spots in Israel that will enjoy less demand, and it’ll be wonderful for Tel Aviv. Write it up in the paper and within a minute you’ll have an investor wanting to build a fantastic water park. They’ll call it ‘Joshua Walks on Water.’ Think big for once. Loosen up!”

I tried. I closed my eyes and pictured myself jumping into the Yarkon from the bridge on Ibn Gabirol and then wild swimming to the Daniel Center, where I got out and sat on the café’s patio.

The Yarkon River in Tel Aviv. Without additional wastewater, it wouldn't flow.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

I recalled Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, who precisely 10 years ago had jumped into the Yarkon, declared it clean and rushed off to take a shower. Precious little progress has been made since that leap of faith, rich in publicity and poor in meaning. Swimming is still strictly forbidden, though Huldai is alive and well.

A moment after opening my eyes, I recalled a summer day in the Swiss capital of Bern, where I swam in the Aare River that bisects the city. The water was freezing, the current swift – and we screamed with delight. The banks of the Danube in Vienna also have plenty of spots sanctioned for swimming.

I called experts in the field and asked them all the same question: What needs to be done so we can swim in the Yarkon?

I made it clear that I’m not looking to swim in the upper, eastern part. That’s easy. I specifically want to swim in Ganei Yehoshua Park, in the city. Where it’s like the Sakhne.

An aerial view of the Yarkon River winding its way through Tel Aviv toward the sea.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Water, water everywhere

Yarkon River Authority ecologist Yonatan Raz says the river has two sources: natural, or spring, water; and treated wastewater (sewage and industrial water treated to enable reuse, usually for agricultural irrigation). The spring water allocation has grown considerably in recent years, currently standing at 16 million cubic meters annually. The river’s natural flow is 25 million cubic meters, so it needs half as much water again for it to actually flow and not stagnate.

It gets this when treated wastewater from Kfar Sava, Hod Hasharon and the rest of the southern Sharon region is added to the spring water. As a result, the Yarkon waters reach the Sheva Tahanot tourist spot on the south bank of the park at a standard below the acceptable level for wild swimming. At this point, the water usually contains 1,500 to 3,000 fecal E. coli bacteria per 100 milliliters; the accepted standard for swimming water is less than 400.

Another problem, according to Raz, is the amount of other toxic materials also present in the wastewater: drug and medication residue, hormones, plastic particles, etc. And this is just on a good day. The problems really begin when there is a problem of any kind.

The length of the western stretch in which I’m interested, from Sheva Tahanot to the Mediterranean Sea, is some 4 kilometers (about 2.5 miles), and Raz has a backhanded compliment for the water: “If I have to choose whether my child swims in the Yarkon every day but lives outside the Greater Tel Aviv area, or breathes in Greater Tel Aviv air but never swims in the Yarkon – I’ll take the first option. The Yarkon water will harm that child less than the Greater Tel Aviv air. Air pollution here is several times worse than the water pollution. We don’t always address the right problems.”

Do you think we’ll ever be able to swim in the Yarkon?

“While the condition of the water has improved a lot in recent years, I don’t think it will be possible to swim in the river in the near-future,” he concedes. “The main reason is the wastewater source. A wild swimming site needs water that comes only from springs. In order to turn the Yarkon into a swimming facility, you need to deepen the riverbed a little and, mainly, stop putting in wastewater and add spring water. End of story.”

And what if money were no object? What would need to be done?

“Desalinate the wastewater before streaming it into the Yarkon – 2 shekels (60 cents) per cubic meter. By desalinating the wastewater, you can even drink it, and release spring water into the river. Right now, Israel is pouring wastewater into the sea and then desalinating seawater. That’s more expensive than desalinating wastewater. The question is less technological and more psychological: Are people willing to drink desalinated wastewater?”

Rowers on Yarkon River in Tel Aviv, near the port.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Separation of sources

Dana Tabachnik, head of the rivers and streams restoration unit at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, suggests various solutions which all have one thing in common: keeping wastewater away from the river. A separation of sources. Currently, as mentioned above, 16 million cubic meters of spring water are streamed into the river. But what’s stopping us from sending a lot more? The solution, she says, lies with the Israel Water Authority, which allocates the amount of spring water to the Yarkon.

“This is water we’ve taken from the river and we have an obligation to give it back,” Tabachnik says. The wastewater, she suggests, should be separated and streamed, following purification, into the sea, where she says the ecosystem is much better equipped to deal with it than the river is. We currently harm two ecosystems: the river and the sea. If we stream the wastewater directly into the sea, we’re only polluting the one that can handle it better.

Avi Uzan, a wet habitat ecologist at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, is the most optimistic figure in this tale. Initially, he explains that, historically, the parks authority wanted only spring water to be used in the river. He claims it was the Yarkon River Authority which decreed that the water should come from wastewater as well as spring water.

“We are categorically opposed to using wastewater to restore rivers,” he says. “Source water must be used. I know it won’t happen in the Yarkon in the foreseeable future – I don’t think the Yarkon will return to its natural flow. But maybe we can get source water from the mountain aquifer through drilling. The Water Authority has no problem these days to give another 15 million cubic meters of water to the Yarkon every year. Think what a crazy change that would bring to Tel Aviv: to have a living river crossing it. I think it’s completely possible and reasonable.

“We’re in this situation because of the River Authority’s historical distrust, which has set it so that half the river’s flow is wastewater. This is a financial debate, and that’s why it’s a completely different conversation. Today, the discussion is about ‘How much will it cost me to desalinate?’ It’s about money, not values.”

The estuary, where the Yarkon River meets the Mediterranean Sea. At least the sky is blue.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Water Authority chief Giora Shacham is the man at whose feet everyone else throws the problem, but he is more skeptical than the others.

“It’s a nice vision, but the Yarkon can’t be the Asi for a simple reason: It crosses the most densely populated urban space in Israel. Qaneh Stream [a tributary of the Yarkon] carries sewage from Qalqilyah [in the West Bank]. This is a problem we’re solving as we speak. Raba Stream [another tributary] carries sewage from Kafr Qassem, Rosh Ha’ayin, Ramat Hasharon, Hod Hasharon and Kfar Sava. All the other [local] cities – Bnei Brak, Ramat Gan, Tel Aviv – all sit by the Yarkon. With every malfunction, the sewage overflows into the river. In order to turn the Yarkon into the Asi, you would need to lay two collector ducts alongside it so any overflow goes into them and not the river.”

For Shacham, the environmentalists are inconsistent. “In the past, they said that if we streamed good quality wastewater into the river, it will recover. Now the agenda has changed. There’s a government decision regarding the Yarkon recovery, and that’s what we’re working by. You can’t wake up every day and say ‘No, we don’t like this.’ Things will improve in a few months; we’ll be able to increase freshwater allocations and maybe another politician will dive in for a photo op because the wastewater is more diluted. But the Yarkon will never become a swimming pool.”

The problem, according to Shacham, is not the infrastructure. “The problem is that if there’s a problem in Petah Tikva tomorrow and some contamination flows into the river, then everything we’ve done goes to waste. The infrastructure solution is expensive: creating a barrier between the urban space and the river. That way, even if there’s overflow, it won’t reach the river.”

The Asi Stream at Kibbutz Nir David, northern Israel.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Prof. Shai Arnon, from the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research at Ben-Gurion University of the Desert, Be’er Sheva, has been studying the Yarkon’s water quality for many years. He says the wastewater being streamed into the Yarkon today is the best it’s possible to get from existing purification facilities – and it won’t improve anytime soon. The next step, if we want to take it, is to desalinate that wastewater.

“You can debate whether or not to stream wastewater to the river or not. If you don’t stream wastewater, the river won’t have any flow. To stream, someone has to pay. Even I, as an environmentalist, am telling you it won’t happen. It’s a bit loopy, too expensive and impractical.”

So how come we can swim in cities like Bern and Vienna?

“Other cities stream wastewater into their rivers too. The percentage of wastewater there may be lower, but they have a bigger problem than us. We have an alternative for wastewater: we water crops with it. Europe makes no such use. The dilution there may be greater because the rivers are mightier, but in principle there’s no difference.”

The Yarkon River in Tel Aviv. Not quite as turquoise as the Asi in northern Israel.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

What do you suggest?

“You say: let’s make a swimming pool that’s like a river. It’s simpler to make a 500-meter-long artificial river and stream good water into it. Nothing good will come from all this messing with the Yarkon. You’re talking about enormous volumes of water, and you won’t be able to handle them. The people of Tel Aviv are better off bathing elsewhere.”

Twenty-four years ago, a temporary bridge erected over the Yarkon collapsed in what became known as the Maccabiah Games Disaster. Four members of the Australian delegation were killed and 69 others injured or contracted infections from the heavily polluted water.

This deadly memory, of course, will encourage no one to take a dip in the Yarkon. But perhaps it is this very trauma which shows that a deeper and more significant change must come in our approach to the most important river in Israel (along with the Jordan).

Its pollution came from us, after all, and its salvation must come from the same source. We just have to remember that 100 years ago, this was a clean and abundant river.

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