By EHUD ZION WALDOKS
One hundred and thirty-five thousand residents of the Galilee could turn on their taps as early as next week and find nothing coming out.
The Water Authority is supposed to be implementing a price hike on January 1. There's just one problem - all 220 Water Authority employees have been on strike since the beginning of December. If the price increase does not go through, several water corporations - including those servicing the Galilee - will not have the funds to buy water from Mekorot, the national water company.
"If the water prices are not adjusted at the beginning of January, there's a very good chance that the Peleg Hagalil corporation will not be able to pay Mekorot, which will lead to irregularities in supplying the region's residents with water," Peleg Hagalil CEO Amos Rudin said Tuesday.
The corporation supplies water to 100,000 residents of Safed, Hatzor Haglilit local council, Rosh Pina, Gush Halav, Beit Jan and others.
Yanai Regev, CEO of Hatanur water corporation, which serves 35,000 residents in Kiryat Shmona, Metulla and Katzrin seconded Rudin's concerns on Tuesday.
Water Authority employees have been on strike since the beginning of December to protest the organizational restructuring they say was forced upon them by Water Authority head Prof. Uri Shani without consultation three years ago.
At that time, the Water Commission was transformed into the Water Authority and given much more responsibility for the water economy.
Employees contend that Shani started a process two years ago of expanding the offices of the deputy heads, who were all granted large salaries, from two to seven. However, they say he failed to secure the requisite manpower and the required salary conditions to support the massive increase in work which resulted.
Amir Shisha, head of the employees union, called on the national infrastructures minister and the finance minister to get involved and quickly bring the strike to a favorable conclusion.
"We are surprised that even after 27 days on strike, not a single ministry official has come forward to find solutions," Shisha said in a statement.
The National Infrastructures Ministry referred the matter to the Finance Ministry.
The Finance Ministry expressed their disbelief that the workers were demanding higher wages in the midst of the global financial crisis.
"Israel is still dealing with the ramifications of the global financial crisis and is expected to end 2009 with a NIS 40b. deficit. The ministry does not understand the Water Authority employees' impertinence in demanding thousands more shekels per month when the private sector is dealing with layoffs and companies going out of business," the ministry scathingly replied to a request for comment.
"What's more, the Water Authority is a government agency whose employees generally have large salaries," it added.
According to the employees, Finance Ministry officials have refused even to sit down with them unless they recognize the organizational restructuring Shani implemented.
The strike also has larger implications for the future development of the water economy, Shani warned Monday in a detailed report he sent to all relevant government agencies describing the potential effects.
As much as 30 million cubic meters of fresh water are not being brought into the system because the planning processes for new wells, cleaning old wells of contamination and building rain run-off reservoirs have been brought to a standstill, he wrote. That's the same amount of water the Palmachim desalination plant is providing annually.
What's more, no one is monitoring the water to prevent contamination, thus presenting a threat to the country's water quality. In addition, no one is monitoring the levels of Lake Kinneret and the aquifers - a crucial task during the current period of drought, he warned.
The water sources could be irreparably damaged without constant monitoring.
Sewage treatment plants intended to begin operating in 2010 are also on hold, as well as repairs to some of the current ones. That means that sewage is flowing straight into nature, Shani wrote.
According to the employees union, sewage is running into the Yarkon river, threatening to contaminate the Rosh Haayin spring because of a problem with Rosh Haayin's sewage line. Beit Jan's sewage is flowing straight into Chziv Stream as well, according to the union's data.
Both Shani and the union noted that the water aerators project was also put on hold, thus retarding conservation efforts in a time of crisis. The tender for the aerators for faucets was set to be completed in the coming days.
Shisha responded to Shani's report by saying he was being too conservative in his assessment.
"The picture which Prof. Shani paints is correct but too delicate. The damages to the water economy are even greater and every day that passes makes them worse," he said.
Shisha estimated it cost the Treasury NIS 93 million for every month the price reform was delayed.
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