12/12/2010 06:58

Water situation has never been bleaker; higher costs should be covered by government, not public, Landau to tell cabinet today.

Despite this weekend’s rain, the water situation has never been bleaker, National Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau is due to tell the cabinet on Sunday.

Landau (Israel Beiteinu) will outline the current situation and present the measures he proposes to take to increase the water supply over the next two years. The goal is to have a detailed emergency water plan ready for government approval three weeks from now.

The rain forecast for the winter is looking increasingly grim, and is expected to rival that of 2008, the worst of the past six lean years. In 2008, just 62 percent of the average rainfall fell, and this year’s forecasts predict a similar amount, Landau will tell the cabinet. However, the situation is even more parlous than it was in 2008 since the nation’s water reserves are now totally depleted.

The current overarching goal is to protect Lake Kinneret and the aquifers from damage by not falling below the black line – the point at which irreversible damage is certain to occur – while still increasing supply. The latest forecast from the Mekorot national water company has the reservoirs falling to the black line by summer.

With the drastic drop in rainfall, the National Infrastructures Ministry, the Water Authority and Mekorot have had to scramble to find new sources of water to cover the shortfall. The main solution that will be offered in the emergency plan will be more desalination.

Landau is expected to tell the cabinet that an additional 211 million cubic meters a year could be produced by 2014 through the emergency measures. That amount does not include completing three more large desalination plants by 2013 – one producing 100 a year in Ashdod and two 150 ones in Sorek.

Total fresh water consumption by all sectors – residential, industrial and agriculture – stands at about 1.2 billion cubic meters annually. Average rainfall in good years, let alone lean ones, does not cover demand.

And while 211 is a great deal of water, it is not enough to completely cover the shortfall in rain expected over the next couple of years.

Elements of the plan that still need to be worked out – regarding which Landau’s office did not provide details on Saturday night – could increase the overall supply even more, or reduce demand. For instance, in the materials released by the ministry, there was no mention of public awareness campaigns asking people to conserve water. Landau’s spokesman said the details presented on Saturday night represented about 90% of the proposed plan.

According to the information released on Saturday night, 83 more could be produced already in 2011.

Landau will outline three ways to increase desalination. First, the plants will increase supply by producing water 24 hours a day.

Until now, the plants, which require great amounts of electricity, have operated when electricity prices were lower, such as at night. If the plants run all the time, another 27 a year can be produced immediately.

The Palmahim plant can produce another 7 per year, and the Hadera plant another 20

Having the plants run all the time, however, would significantly raises the cost of desalinated water because of the increased electricity prices. Landau will demand that the government cover the added expense rather than raise water prices yet again.

Water prices have risen 32% this year.

That option is dependent on an arrangement being reached with the Treasury’s Accountant-General Shuki Oren, which is expected to happen next month.

The second way is to increase the permanent output of the desalination plants, Landau will tell the cabinet. Another 75 a year could be produced that way: 10

from the Ashkelon plant, 40 from Palmahim, and 25 from Hadera.

That option can go forward as soon as the interministerial committee settles the terms of the tender, a process that is set to be completed within three months.

Once the decision to increase production is made, it will take a year to a year and a half to implement.

Landau will also strongly urge the government to resolve the dispute over the planned 100 desalination plant in Ashdod.

While Landau believes it is important for Mekorot to build and operate a desalination plant so that the country has in-house experts – all of the other plants are operated by private companies, some foreign – he is expected to tell the cabinet that it is high time to build the plant. The Treasury and Mekorot have been in dispute for a year over the cost of each cubic meter of water, and other issues.

The third option is to expand the currently limited desalination of brackish water. An additional 27 of water could be produced by 2014 if more desalination plants for brackish water were built. Right now, according to the National Infrastructures Ministry, environmental groups and the Environmental Protection Ministry are not happy with the idea because there’s nowhere to put the brine left over from the desalination process.

Moving on to other ways to increase the water supply, Mekorot will drill new wells to produce 20 for drinking and another 10

for agriculture. It will also clean up polluted wells for an increase of 22 available already in 2011.

Treating more wastewater would produce 30 a year by 2012. Drilling and wastewater treatment plants would require an expedited planning and approval process, Landau will tell the cabinet.

Finally, he will tell the ministers that he needs a decision about importing water and/or installing portable desalination plants. Portable desalination plants could be ready to produce 60-90 within nine months, but they are.