Tel Aviv's battle with cleaning up the Yarkon River

The Yarkon River Authority has helped bring back two near-extinct species and improved wateer flow to the Yarkon River, but the cleanliness of the water is still a concern.

 A view of Tel Aviv’s Yarkon River. (photo credit: SHANNA FULD)
A view of Tel Aviv’s Yarkon River.
(photo credit: SHANNA FULD)

It all came back to Yonatan Raz: the Tel Aviv Municipality, the Water Authority, the Daniel Rowing Center. When researching and seeking experts who could talk about the history and water quality of the Yarkon River, the head ecologist of the Yarkon River Authority was the one with the story. 

And while Raz was happy to highlight his organization’s achievements – bringing back two near-extinct species; creating an improved water flow; inventing “fish ladders” to help finned creatures move from one side of a dam to the other – humans (or as Raz calls them, invasive species) – are still unhappy with the level of cleanliness of the water. 

The Yarkon River begins in Tel Afek, north of Petah Tikva, and flows west through central Israel’s Gush Dan and Tel Aviv’s Park Hayarkon. The 28-km. long body of water eventually filters out into the Mediterranean Sea. Today, hundreds of people frequent the river in shells (boats for competitive rowing), dragon boats, kayaks, paddle boats and motorized ones. 

With 300 rowers just in one of the various boat clubs, coach Dror Ottensooser of the Daniel Rowing Center said that for the first time his club, where he’s worked for 10 years, has nearly reached maximum capacity. “There is more activity on the river than ever before. From my point of view, more people are using the river because we [the club] have been focusing a lot on marketing the rowing. We have the largest number of rowers ever,” he said. 

However, the influx of people, combined with what Ottensooser says is a narrowing of the waterway, is causing more congestion.

 A ‘No Swimming’ sign next to the river. (credit: SHANNA FULD) A ‘No Swimming’ sign next to the river. (credit: SHANNA FULD)

“A lot of sand came into the water and now is making its way out to sea. It’s significant and makes a difference to the rowers when the water is low.”

Dror Ottensooser

“A lot of sand came into the water and now is making its way out to sea. It’s significant and makes a difference to the rowers when the water is low,” he explained. 

What is life like along the Yarkon River?

From his view, life alongside the water is thriving. Ottensooser commented on the park, which can be seen quite well from inside the boat. He noted that a variety of birds fly overhead, and new animals and plants seem to pop up every time he takes out a boat.

He also highlighted the jackals he has seen roaming freely in Park Hayarkon. This gray wolf/golden jackal mixed breed are often seen fishing and drinking from the river. In 2017, the Tel Aviv Municipality scattered hundreds of pieces of plastic bait around the park. When the jackals sank their teeth in, they ingested rabies vaccine. The experiment worked. Today, most jackals tested in Israel’s central area are rabies-free. 

While the surroundings are lively and green, data points regarding the health of the river are written in red on the Authority’s website. The bold colored text indicates that the water could be unsafe for secondary contact. Red indicates any amount of bacteria over 10,000, while blue (4,000 - 10,000) indicates medium levels, and green (under 4,000) shows a low (and safe) level of microbial bacteria in the water. The number is calculated by finding the amount of bacteria per 100 ml. of water. 

As of January 15, 2023, the Yarkon River stands at 77,000 in its testing of microbial criteria for one of the sampling locations which lay under the Ibn Gvirol Bridge in Tel Aviv. The site indicates the numbers specifically for boaters to reference when evaluating their risk for Yarkon water activity. For reference, the previous sampling taken on December 11, 2022, before the seasonal rains, was 16,000 in the same location.

In the winter, the water is sampled once a month. Raz said he sends out a constant red-flag warning to clubs that operate on the river, making its members aware of their risk. What risk, you ask? That the water contains sewage, which likely has bacteria and viruses from human waste, which could, if ingested, harm the digestive tract. In the rainy months, this risk becomes much greater. 

Raz explained that when the winter brings rains, sewage fills rivers and drainage canals because of overflow. Much of the issue comes from people who build homes and structures illegally and are carelessly connecting their drainage systems to sewage systems and vice versa. If these makeshift sewage systems are not sealed properly or there are illegal connections for the drainage, the waste ends up in the river. Raz said the main issue is that without enforcement, offenders continuously cause harm to society without any culpability or correction. A lot of sewage also enters the sea on a regular basis, which Raz said harms people who bathe in it much more frequently. 

“Surfers in the sea are catching waves in water that is polluted with a lot of sewage,” Raz said. “Sometimes they get eye and skin irritations because they are surfing in polluted seawater. But the rowers on the Yarkon don’t really come in contact with the water, so they don’t have to worry.” 

Nimrod Gavish, who has been rowing on the Yarkon River for two years for sports purposes, said that he observes the water changing constantly. He reported sometimes seeing a film of oil on the water’s surface, sometimes experiencing an unpleasant smell, and once even once knocking his oar into a human head that was floating on the water! He said that two days later, he heard on the news that a body had been found in that part of the river. Other people complain that people drive rented electric scooters into the water. 

“I think my dream is that we would be able to finish rowing and then jump into the water to get refreshed… but I guess that’s not going to happen,” Gavish lamented. “I know it’s not suitable for swimming.”

Why do Israelis fear the Yarkon River?

Currently, most Israelis have a negative association with the Yarkon River and even fear it. Raz said this attitude is based on a series of myths that have been embellished over time. In the 1997 Maccabiah sports competition, Jewish athletes from all over the world came to the Holy Land to compete. While pedestrians were crossing a foot bridge over the Yarkon to get to the stadium, the metal and wooden structure collapsed, and dozens of people fell into the water. Four people died. One person died immediately, and three others succumbed to infections they contracted from the water, which turned fatal. Sasha Elterman, a 15-year-old tennis player, suffered for more than a year following her fall. One of her ailments included an infection that was resistant to medication. It emanated from ingesting a fungus she ingested from the water as she was struggling to keep from drowning. Raz said that the fungus was not related to pollution in the river, but some published articles highlighted it as something she could only have picked up from stagnant, unclean waters. 

“People have the wrong idea about the collapse of the Maccabiah bridge,” Raz said. “The people who got hurt were not hurt from pollution. In 1997, the Yarkon was not a healthy river, but it was not poisonous. Nothing would have happened to you if you were to swim or drink the water,” he asserted. “The fungus that got Sarah Elterman is a natural fungus not related to pollution that was in the Yarkon river bed.”

Ten years following the incident, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai jumped into the Yarkon in an effort to prove its cleanliness. Shortly after, it was reported that he rushed off to take a shower. 

Israeli sewage is not the only sewage that has compromised the Yarkon. Published reports of sewage leaks from the Palestinian city of Kalkilya are an issue that few people are able to talk about. The Yarkon River Authority says that while they know the river is being polluted with sewage from Kalkilya (through tributaries and streams that filter into the Yarkon), it is really the Environmental Protection Ministry that should deal with the issue. The spokesperson for the ministry told The Jerusalem Report that it is actually Israel’s Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria that would be in contact with the Palestinian Authority over the matter. The Civil Administration told the Report that it is not aware of the issue at all, and a spokesperson said she had “never heard about it.” 

Raz, for his part, estimated that the Palestinian Authority is still operating on a small scale, comparable to how Israel managed its waterways when it was an emerging nation. However, he has never actually spoken with Palestinians about the sewage leaks. He reasoned that the reckless sewage release from the Palestinian city is due to a lack of resources and dedicated staff. He also noted that the Palestinian locals probably don’t pay attention to where the sewage is flowing, since it is sent downstream and away from their area. Israel, instead of attempting to collaborate to stop the sewage flow, has situated the sewage at its entry points into Israeli territory and independently diverted it to the 230 reservoirs that treat sewage. 

“We polluted our rivers, environment and natural resources. Now we’re fixing it. One day, they will fix it, too,” Raz commented. 

While the pollution levels of the Yarkon are not looking good in the winter, Raz said the Yarkon as a whole is significantly healthier than before the Yarkon River Authority was established in 1988. While no rower interviewed for this article said he or she would ever swim in the Yarkon, many fishermen were interviewed while their lines were cast deep in the water. They said they bring their catches home and cook the fish for dinner with no problem. One man pulled out a large fish and brandished it with pride. Most people interviewed spoke little to no Hebrew or English and appeared to come from places such as Russia or Asia. 

Raz insisted that the fish in the Yarkon are actually healthier than farmed fish, which are kept in pools of water that don’t get cleaned nearly enough. According to Raz, fish caught and tested from the Yarkon do not have hazardous metals or mercury in them. 

Since 1988, with careful conservation and rehabilitation, the Yarkon River Authority has been able to reintroduce into the river one plant species – the blue water lily – and one native fish species – the Yarkon Bream – that had been almost extinct. 

The Yarkon River feeds some people; it offers others exercise activities with a scenic view; and for die-hard ecologists like Yonatan Raz, the river’s improvement within the last 30 years offers him the chance to feel “over the moon,” as he put it, about his efforts and about Israel as a developing society.  ■