06/11/2010 22:20

Country’s waterways have many ecological problems.

Much has been done to improve the state of Israel’s rivers and streams over the past decade. But virtually all of them still have their share of ecological problems – most notably the ones in the western part of the country that empty into the Mediterranean Sea.

Metro went out to investigate the current situation of these waterways, beginning with the Kishon River, near Haifa, and ending with the Sorek stream, which begins its journey just outside Jerusalem and ends at Palmahim, south of Rishon Lezion. Although the ecological situation of some of them, most notably the Kishon and Yarkon rivers, has improved recently due to intense efforts on behalf of local and national authorities, others have not, deteriorating to the point where they are no longer “living rivers.”

The Kishon River: From sewage and industrial waste canal to nature park in just a decade

The 7-km.-long Kishon River, which begins in the Western Galilee and ends where it empties into Haifa Bay, was until recently considered a “dead river,” according to Sharon Nissim, general director of the Kishon River Authority.

Besides being a receptacle for raw sewage and other waste from villages along its banks, it also was a “dumping ground” for industrial waste from factories and industrial sites in the Haifa Bay industrial area – which resulted in the controversy surrounding Israel Navy sea commandos who allegedly contracted cancer from being exposed to the river’s polluted waters during military exercises.

“The situation of the Kishon is much better now; factories no longer dump their waste into it,” Nissim tells Metro. She adds that scientific investigation did not prove that the Kishon’s condition was responsible for what happened to the naval commandos.

“During the past 10 years, the Kishon has changed from a ‘dead river’ to one where wildlife, including birds and fish, are once again present ,” she says.

“The main issue still remaining with the Kishon’s rehabilitation is the storage of containers in lots next to the river, with some containing chemicals which occasionally leak into the river,” notes Moshe Perlmuter, field ranger at the Society for the Preservation of Nature in Israel (SPNI). A nature park and river walk is currently under construction along the Kishon’s shores, and recently a nature walk was sponsored by the authority so people could see for themselves the river’s continuing transformation into a “living river.”

Asked how much money has been invested in rehabilitating the Kishon during the past 10 years, Nissim replies: “Millions of shekels has been spent by the Kishon River Authority, as well as other bodies (including area industries) to improve the quality of the river’s water; and to construct the River Park, which includes bicycle and walking paths.

“The government provides the authority with an annual operating budget of NIS 4 million, approved by the Environment and Industry ministries. At present, however, we are still owed, overall, NIS 4m. by various government offices, and another NIS 2.5m. by the Israel Ports Authority for projects during this period to restore the river to an improved condition. We have even begun a court case against the Ports Authority in order to receive the sums it has pledged.”

Funds recently pledged or already paid for restoring and improving the river’s condition include NIS 1.5m. on behalf of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) for the construction of the River Park and fishing restoration. Another half million shekels has been allocated for improving the channeling of the river; along with NIS 600,000 for work on a smaller water park, called the Nahal Gidora Park (a tributary of the Kishon).

“The entire cost of the Kishon Water Park, which will include a new marina for fishing boats, is NIS 21 million,” says Nissim. Money to complete this project has so far been raised by several local entities – including NIS 2m. by the Kiryat Bialik Municipality.

“The authority plans to solicit NIS 3m. from the National Highway Authority for the compensation due to construction of a new road in an area that circumvents the river,” she adds.

The Hadera River: ‘Still a very sick river, but slowly improving’

The Hadera River (Nahal Hadera), on which settlements have been located since ancient times, begins in Northern Samaria and flows through the city of Hadera until it reaches the Mediterranean alongside the Orot Rabin power plant, Israel’s only coal-fired power station.

Formerly known by its Arabic name, Nahr Mufjir, this river is still very polluted despite efforts by the Hadera Municipality and other bodies to restore it; then there is the construction of the Hadera Water Park, created by damming part of the river.

“The situation of this river is very bad all the time, and it still receives a lot of pollution from Arab villages in the Wadi Ara area, as well as from local industries,” says SPNI’s Perlmuter. He says the river is still referred as “one of Israel’s most polluted”; until recently, when a large-scale dredging project was carried out by the Hadera Municipality, the stench from this river could be smelled by people crossing it on Israel’s Coastal Highway.

The water park, although attractive, has not done much to return the river to a “living river,” according to Perlmuter.

Nissim Almog, managing director of the Alexander Stream Rehabilitation Authority, which also deals with other area rivers including Nahal Taninim (Crocodile River), the Hadera River, and Nahal Poleg, tells us that the rehabilitation of the Hadera River has undergone several stages, and has been undertaken on sections of the river.

“Most of the sewage and other waste that now flows into Nahal Hadera comes from Arab villages such as Baka el-Gharbiya and others in that area. Regional sewage treatment plants like the one in Ein Shemer simply cannot deal with the amount of waste it has to clean. As as a result, the ‘overflow’ finds its way into both Nahal Hadera and Taninim (by Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael).”

Industrial waste from factories such as the Hadera Paper Mills are no longer channeled into the river, Almog says.

“The paper company now has special water treatment and recycling equipment that enables it to reuse most of its water allocation. This has been going on for about 10 years and has become even more intensive in the past three or four. The big current problem with Nahal Hadera is that raw sewage is still reaching it from locations within the Green Line,” Almog says.

Taking the new river walk that has been constructed just opposite the power plant, one can see how much improved this site is aesthetically over what it was previously, before the Israel Electric Company completed the plant, and made a large contribution toward the construction of the park.

“I understand that the IEC alone has spent more than NIS 36m. in compensation for ‘using’ the Hadera River and constructing the park,” the Kishon River Authority’s Nissim notes.

Other participants in trying to improve the river’s ecological infrastructure include the Hadera Municipality, which spent a large sum in the late 1990s to dredge and clean sections of the river, the JNF and the Ministry of the Environment.

“The Orot Rabin power plant appears to be getting some benefit from its ‘investment’ in restoring and beautifying the section of the river that the plant borders; water used to power and cool the plant’s turbines is afterwards ejected into the river via two large viaducts.

“The big question is what effect this infusion of warm saline water, taken originally from the sea, is having on the ecology of the river’s freshwater aquatic life,” Almog says.

The Alexander River: Still polluted despite much being done to revive it

Our river walk continues with the well-known Alexander River, located a few kilometers south of Nahal Hadera. This river has become a very popular picnic spot, despite continuing to be very polluted; most of the pollution comes from West Bank Arab villages. A large West Bank olive oil processing plant is also partially responsible for the river’s pollution, notes Perlmuter.

“A lot of work and money has been invested in trying to clean up this river; but despite everything, it is still very polluted.” he says.

Near one of the area’s kibbutzim, Ma’abarot, a picnic area called Italy Park has been constructed alongside the river. And despite its continued pollution, the river is still home to a population of giant soft-shelled turtles now located in a nature reserve managed by the Israel Nature Reserves Authority.

Almog, whose Alexander River Authority is very much involved with the river’s rehabilitation, says that the river is contaminated with salt water “all the way from the sea to Road No. 4. In addition, a lot of raw sewage and other waste enters the river from West Bank towns like Tulkarm, whose residents don’t seem to mind that their waste is being sent in our direction.”

Almog notes that a sewage treatment plant built by Israel near Tulkarm before it became part of the Palestinian Authority is not being properly maintained even though the Israeli government pays money toward its upkeep.

“[The Palestinians] receive the money to take care of the facility but do not use these funds to maintain it. Because of this, their sewage finds its way into the Alexander and even into Nahal Taninim. I have no idea how much money is involved, but whatever it is, it is obviously being used for something else” Almog says.

The part of the river containing the giant Nile turtles is called “Leyad Hanahal” (by the river) and is now a park with picnic tables, a river walk with bike paths, and an observation tower which gives visitors a beautiful panoramic view of the river and surrounding countryside.

In addition to the giant turtles, the river has coots and other waterfowl, nutrias, swamp cats, and various indigenous fish such as catfish, tilapia, river eels and mullet. Signs posted in various locations forbid feeding the turtles and fishing in the river.

When this reporter visited the site recently, however, numerous people could be seen feeding parts of their picnic lunch to the large reptiles.

Contributors toward the restoration of the Alexander and Hadera rivers, Nahal Taninim, and Nahal Poleg include the JNF, the Israel Environment Ministry, and the Emek Hefer Regional Authority.

“The Alexander River Authority has invested more than NIS 18m. in rehabilitating the Hadera and Alexander rivers, and we receive an annual budget allotment of NIS 3m. – which just isn’t enough to do our job properly, Almog laments.

The Poleg River: Pollution, nature reserve and sea turtle estuary all in one

Nahal Poleg, a river originating also in the West Bank, is now in the process of being turned into a nature reserve, in the parts known as the Poleg River Estuary, between the Wingate Sports Institute and one of Netanya’s most upscale neighborhoods, Ramat Poleg.

Until recently, the river was extremely polluted; and it still has a long way to go before being considered to be a truly living river again – as anyone living in the area can testify.

The river flows into the Mediterranean only during the winter rainy months, when there is enough fresh water flowing through it to enable the water to reach the sea. During heavy rainstorms, the river also carries large amounts of debris and rubbish from destinations upstream, including citrus orchards from area moshavim, as well as pollution from Arab cites on the West Bank.

“Nahal Poleg’s overall ecological situation has very much improved although it still receives a lot of sewage and other waste from the West Bank. There are also occasional ‘breaks’ in the industrial waste disposal systems of local industries – such as that which occurred at the Abir Brewery in Ramat Poleg, when the system broke down and a lot of waste reached the Poleg River via a smaller tributary, Nahal Udim.”

Almog adds that a safeguard system has now been constructed into Nahal Udim to prevent future such occurrences from channeling waste into Nahal Poleg.

The Nahal Poleg Estuary is a nesting spot for green and loggerhead sea turtles, which come there during the nesting season to lay their eggs. Schools of gray mullet also go upstream during the winter to spawn when the river flows into the sea.

The Netanya Municipality has plans to turn the area of the estuary into a marina and hotel resort area. Environmental groups such as the SPNI and Greenpeace have been fighting this move, however; currently these plans have been put on hold. The question is how long until the building contractors finally get their way.

“The rehabilitation of Nahal Poleg involves a cost of nearly NIS 30m., of which very little has come from the government ministries, which prefer to use available funds to maintain and repair roads and other facilities in the Negev due to occasional heavy rains there,” Almog says.

The Yarkon River: Waterway with an unsavory past in revision

The Yarkon River is one of Israel’s shortest, as well as one of its most publicized. It begins at Tel Afek, also known by its Greek name Antipatris, near Rosh Ha’ayin. Its total length is only 27.5 km., with an actual “straight distance” of only 17 km.

The Yarkon has a very colorful and sometimes tragic past; it is where four Australian athletes lost their lives when a bridge they were crossing collapsed into the river during the opening ceremonies of the 1997 Maccabiah Games. This tragedy was instrumental in bringing the environmental issues of the Yarkon to the attention of the Israeli public.

Since then efforts have been made by the Yarkon River Authority and government bodies to find ways to reduce the amount of pollution in the river, caused mainly by industrial and storm waste, and by the diversion of most of the river’s natural supply of fresh water into the country’s National Water Carrier.

As has occurred with the Lower Jordan River, less than 2 percent of the Yarkon’s original flow reaches the sea.

Established in 1988, the authority is now headed by David Pergamant, whom we spoke to concerning its efforts to improve the quality of the river water, as well as make the river safe for activities such as boating and fishing.

Both Pergamant, and his assistant, Yonathan Raz, insist that the Yarkon is now much less polluted than it was in previous years.

When asked about the deaths of the Australian athletes, Pergamant says that three of them actually died from drowning. What did cause many athletes to get sick, he says, including a young Australian named Sasha Elterman, was a river fungus that attacks the lungs and causes a condition similar to severe pneumonia. Elterman survived the accident but suffered permanent damage to her lungs.

Raz notes that the fungus involved “is a very common one often found in the silt of slow-moving rivers and streams.” The athletes’ deaths “had nothing to do with actual pollution,” he adds – though investigations conducted in the aftermath of the Maccabiah tragedy appear to indicate otherwise.

Both Pergamant and Raz insist that since the completion of the Hod Hasharon sewage treatment plant the water quality of the Yarkon has greatly improved, and that now “no industrial waste is intentionally channeled into the Yarkon.” The new sewage treatment plant enables a “three-time use” of the water, and the amount returned to the river is much cleaner.

Projects the Yarkon River Authority is presently involved in include the construction of a water park and recreational area in Hod Hasharon, as well as projects in the greater Tel Aviv metro area.

“The Yarkon is now safe for all kinds of boating activities including those like kayaking, where secondary contact with the water is made,” Pergamant insists.

A number of local and national entities are involved in the upgrading and maintenance of the Yarkon, including local city councils (Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Bnei Brak, Ramat Gan, Hod Hasharon, Ramat Hasharon and Petah Tikva); the Agriculture, Environment, Health and Infrastructure ministries; The Israel Highways and Railways authorities, the Israel Electric Company; and the Mekorot Water Company, a very big “contributor” to the river’s extremely low natural flow.

The Yarkon River Authority’s annual operating budget for 2010 amounts to NIS 4,445,000. According to data in the authority’s annual report, the amount of funds allocated for its use has not increased significantly since 2003, and has even decreased by 22% in real terms.

“For this reason, we requested a budget increase of 37%, including 17.75% for increases in the cost-of-living index. Without such an increase, we will not be able to successfully complete the projects we are currently undertaking,” Pergamant adds.

Of the current operating budget, nearly half, or NIS 1,880,000, is earmarked for upgrading and strengthening the Tel Afek river source area as well as the area of the new Hod Hasharon River Park. As with the Kishon River Authority’s annual budget, a significant part (NIS 1,675,000) goes toward paying salaries and administrative expenses.

Information about projects the Yarkon River Authority is currently engaged in can be found on its Web site:

The Sorek – perhaps Israel’s most polluted river

The last river on our virtual river walk, the Sorek, is one of Israel’s longest. Beginning just outside Jerusalem in the West Bank, the Sorek meanders across the countryside, passing Rehovot, Yavne and Ness Ziona until it finally reaches the sea just south of Palmahim.

According to SPNI’s Perlmuter. “The Sorek is, for all practical purposes, a “very sick river.” It receives a lot of sewage and other forms of pollution from cities and towns it passes, especially the city of Yavne. The Sorek’s biggest problem is pollution from human sewage; although it also gets quantities of industrial waste.”

The river wasn’t always in the sad state it is in now; this reporter remembers walking alongside it 30 years ago with one of Ness Ziona’s original settlers, who said that he and his friends “used to swim and fish in the river when we were kids.” Of course he was referring to the early 1900s, and not even the late 1970s, when my visit was made.

A biological survey conducted by the Ministry of Environment in 2007 found the Sorek to contain a number of serious pollutants, including cadmium and other metals, as well as high amounts of E-coli bacteria. According to the survey, the quantities of sewage released into the river from Yavne are the worst of the pollutants flowing into the river. Attempts to treat the water in the river include the introduction of hypochlorous acid, often used to treat water in swimming pools, and the installation of artificial river “bunkers” to help filter the water.

Funds to maintain and rehabilitate the river come from the Environment Ministry, the JNF, and regional councils. But despite the efforts being made, the Sorek is, according to SPNI field ranger Perlmuter, still in a “very sad state.”