The lawyers unsheathed their knives last week in the continuing dispute between the Union of Local Authorities (ULA) and the Water Authority over the drought levy.
Even as ULA head Shlomo Buhbut geared up for a potentially protracted education strike, he found time to send a letter to all local authority heads last week telling them not to collect the levy until November.
The levy imposes a NIS 20 fine on usage above 32 cubic meters for two months per four-person household. Large families receive a higher allotment of water.
The levy was supposed to go into effect retroactively from July 1. It was introduced to reduce usage among households in response to five consecutive years of little rainfall. Households are the largest consumers of fresh water in Israel.
In response, the Water Authority and Treasury legal advisers sent out an urgent letter late last week informing all of the local authority heads that Buhbut's orders contravened the law and would only generate massive fines upon the water corporations and municipalities who are supposed to collect the levy.
The ULA has been adamantly opposed to the levy since it was first proposed, calling it a tax on the people for the mistakes of the government and the Water Authority. They say the water economy has been criminally neglected because not enough desalination plants have been built.
They also decry the levy as needlessly complex and a disaster for the gardening industry. They've petitioned Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz to investigate the Water Authority and its head, Prof. Uri Shani, and also petitioned the High Court of Justice against the levy.
The ULA has also recently launched a new Web site where residents can plug in the data from their water bill to see how the levy would affect them, as well as a proposed hike in water prices scheduled to start in 2010 (http://watercalc.co.il/watercalc.aspx). The calculator shows prices from 2007, current prices, and what they would be in 2010 if the price reform goes through.
Complaints aside, the levy seems to be having an effect: the National Infrastructures Ministry released numbers last week that showed a significant drop in water usage during August, compared to the same period last year. Thirteen million cubic meters of water had been saved as compared to August 2008, according to the figures.
Household use in August 2009 stood at 61.2 mcm, whereas in August 2008 it was 74 mcm. In August 2007, it was 78.6 mcm. Between August 2007 and August 2008, the Water Authority launched its water conservation PR campaign which resulted in a savings of 4.5 mcm.
National Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau (Israel Beiteinu) pointed out, "The big difference between the numbers for August 2008, where it was just the PR campaign running, and 2009 where the drought levy was added, are clear, definitive and proves its effectiveness despite the inconvenience and difficulties it entails."