Uri Shani, Head of the Water Authority, Is Another Drought Tax on the Way?

Shani: At the moment were are not planning to raise the price of water but to fix a larger basic amount that the consumers can use without there being a price hike.

The head of the Water Authority, Prof. Uri Shani, made his way to a cabinet meeting yesterday in the middle of a storm. His purpose was to explain to the cabinet ministers that they should not be impressed with what they were seeing outside and that Israel's water reservoirs continue to be in bad shape. Together with National Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau, he presented an emergency assessment of the water situation that includes plans to set up desalination plants, increase drilling for water and change the water rate.

Will we have to pay a drought tax again?

Head of the Water Authority Uri Shani
Tomer Appelbaum

At this stage, we are not talking about a return to the drought tax. We have prepared a number of scenarios. According to the scenario where the amount of rainfall is 70 percent of the annual average, there won't be additional regulations and it seems probable that we'll continue with the step of cutting the quota of water to farmers. If the amount of rainfall is smaller, we will have to take additional steps like drying out gardens.

What about a change in water rates?

At the moment were are not planning to raise the price of water but to fix a larger basic amount that the consumers can use without there being a price hike. On the other hand, a level will be fixed beyond which... there will be a significant hike in the rate. We haven't yet decided exactly what this threshold will be for which people will have to pay the higher rate. Altogether it is possible to say that the public won't pay more unless people really begin to waste water.

Have you succeeded in maintaining the countrywide drop in water usage?

Three years ago, and even two, the consumption of water was up to 110 cubic meters per person annually. We succeeded in bringing it down to 87 cubic meters. We did this with the aid of an information campaign, the drought tax and of course, raising prices. Last month there was a significant hike in consumption, but that was because November was especially hot and most of the increase was in the use of water for agricultural irrigation.

What's happening with the desalination plants?

Currently we are already desalinating some 300 million cubic meters, and together with the drop in consumption, this should make it feasible for us not to impose additional regulations - as long as the quantity of rain is not too small.

There are now plants that are operating in Ashkelon, Palmachim and Hadera. We intend to expand the operation of the existing facilities by adding working hours to the plants. There is a price to pay for this because it makes the plants more vulnerable to maintenance problems. In another two years or so, another large plant will begin operating in the Nahal Sorek area, which will desalinate some 150 million cubic meters, making it the largest facility.

Are you planning these actions so that the level of the water sources doesn't drop below the red and black lines? Can you explain the dangers of such a drop?

We believe the levels of the water sources have to be above what we define as the bottom red line. Below that level, the dangers that arise find expression in gradual processes. We are talking mainly about saline and polluted water getting into the good water sources.

For example, the western mountain aquifer is connected by an underwater river spring to the sea. If we lower the level of the aquifer, it will enable seawater to penetrate and salinate the aquifer. The drop below the black line, which is lower, means exposure to a very serious and irreversible danger. It's true that it's less clear when there will be a risk to the Kinneret when the level goes below the black line, but what we know from experience in the rest of the world is that there were lakes where, below a certain level, the lake turned from a blue water source with plentiful fish into a foul-smelling lake with dead fish at its bottom.

We don't know at what level exactly that could happen in the Kinneret, but we can point at a direction, and therefore we've also placed a black line there.

Wasn't it difficult for you to explain to the ministers how serious the situation is while it was raining outside?

I think the ministers are intelligent enough to understand the significance of a prolonged drought. I have to say that I was disappointed by the last event because I thought we were talking about a mega-rainstorm but it was mainly mega-wind and the amount of rain was smaller than what they had forecast. At the same time, we must remember that in Israel there is a situation where there are storms of 200 milliliters that can change the picture of the rainfall.

You announced that you are also planning to carry out drilling because of the drought. What about the danger of drying up nature sites as a result of these drillings?

When there is no water, we have to drill more. We are talking about drilling in which we take water from the top of the stream to the groundwater. If the desalination plan doesn't materialize, the drought drilling will increase the shortage because we are currently taking water that we weren't supposed to drill until a much later stage. I believe it's possible to plan drillings in a precise way so that they won't cause nature sites to dry up. What is clear to me is that the Water Authority has people who are very sensitive to this issue.

You and the authority have promised many times that in 2013 we'll be finished with this crisis. Do you still believe that?

I still believe that. Our objective is to double the amount of desalinated water by that year, compared with what we have now, and I think we should be able to get close to that target. That will make it possible for us to gradually rise above the red lines to which we have been sinking in the past two and a half years. It will be difficult, but nevertheless I think we have no choice.

You announced a few months ago that you're planning to leave your post. What's going on with that?

I did indeed plan to do so, but then it transpired that this drought is continuing and I very much wanted to leave the system working in orderly fashion. We'll see how the winter develops and then we'll decide. In any event, we're talking about another few months that I'll remain in the job.