National Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau (Israel Beiteinu) called a press conference on Monday morning to announce that he will submit a government decision in the coming days to propose gradually increasing water prices rather than raising them precipitously on January 1. The other part of the decision would mandate that proceeds from the drought levy be used for water infrastructure purposes. As of now, drought levy funds go straight back into the Treasury's pocket.
According to a water price reform package being worked on by the Water Authority, prices were supposed to jump 50 percent on January 1. However, Landau, whose ministry oversees the Authority, will propose spreading out the increase over a much longer period. Nevertheless, he stressed the need for both the drought levy and an increase in prices.
"The purpose of the drought levy was never about the funds it brought in, but about saving water. It has proven itself by a 15% savings this summer. We will consider dropping the levy after the winter if the winter proves to be very rainy," he said. That has been the consistent stance of both the ministry and the Water Authority.
Landau pointed to the necessity of building desalination plants to end the water crisis in Israel. Building such plants and buying the water from them was very expensive, he said, and thus the real price of water has not been reflected in current prices. However, according to Landau's proposal the price could be increased over time, rather than in one fell swoop.
At the same time, Landau said the funds collected should go towards the water economy and not back into the general state budget.
In addition, uniform prices for water across the country have to be worked out, and assistance for weaker water corporations has to be found before the reform can be implemented, according to Landau.
Within the next five years, if all the plants are built, Israel will have created a significant bulwark against the vagaries of rainfall. By mid-2010, there would be 50% more water produced via desalination than was provided by Lake Kinneret, the Water Authority has said.
Meanwhile, Finance Committee chairman MK Moshe Gafni submitted a private member's bill aimed at freezing the levy during the winter months. Gafni had appointed a subcommittee to look into the levy, and it recommended lifting the levy during the winter and increasing the monthly water allotment per person in 2010 from 12 to 16 cubic meters.
However, Dir.-Gen. of the Prime Minister's Office Eyal Gabai told the committee it was too early to freeze the levy, and National Infrastructures Ministry Dir.-Gen Shaul Tzemach said the levy would be reconsidered only after the winter rains.
MK Ronit Tirosh (Kadima) also said Monday that she was putting a similar bill on the table next week, demanding that either the drought levy proceeds be reinvested in the water economy or that the levy be cancelled. She called it a test for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, to prove that the levy's purpose was really water savings and that it was not just another tax.