Rock on!

Surprisingly, one resource that can help save our diminishing water sources is relatively cheap and readily available.

gravel 88 224 (photo credit: Daniella Ashkenazy)
gravel 88 224
(photo credit: Daniella Ashkenazy)
When most of us think of gravel, we think of ugly quarries, construction sites or half-finished roadbeds that mar the landscape. But can gravel be beautiful? Is it a 'lost' natural element? Should 'tree-hugger' environmentalists embrace gravel? Yes! In fact, we all should, says Revital Shoshani - one of the first proponents for embracing gravel as a green element in landscaping and today a consultant to the National Infrastructure Commission and the National Roads Commission. It's an early spring, and the writing is already on the wall: Israel faces an extended and, some would say, existential, water crisis as global warming hits the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. The country's traditional "wet season" has been replaced by surges of heavy, sometimes torrential, rains preceded and followed by extended periods of little or no precipitation. This change in weather patterns is compounded by more rain falling in the center of the country and less in the North, where Israel's most important natural reservoir - the Kinneret - is located. Moreover, when precipitation in central Israel is concentrated in heavy rainfall, much of the water is lost to runoff rather than being absorbed into the soil to replenish the coastal aquifer - a strategic part of Israel's overall water resources. As a result, the Kinneret has barely risen at all this winter. At the end of August 2007, the water level stood at -212.0 meters, while at the end of the wet season in late March 2008, it stood at -212.06 meters. In the dry season, the Kinneret's water level will drop to -113 meters - the Red Line below which pumping water out during the summer becomes an ecological risk. Water Commissioner, Prof. Uri Shani, revealed in an emergency meeting of the Knesset Interior Committee in mid-March that Israel expected to hit that dangerous line this July. Shani has already warned that the country's gardens will be the first to feel the water crunch. Must we mourn the loss, or is it a wake-up call and an opportunity to embrace a truly "green" garden element - gravel? Yes, gravel. Ask Shoshani. A graduate of the Technion - Israel Institute of Techonolgy, she was the architect behind the first major public landscaping project to use gravel: two major interchanges on the Geha Highway, the Aluf-Sade and Bar-Ilan junctions. The 50-dunam (12-acre) Aluf Sadeh interchange features an amphitheater-like triangle between the road and the exit ramp, filled with expanses of gravel marked by patches of foliage that range from indigenous Cyprus to South American bougainvillea. In road landscaping, gravel can be not only aesthetic, but also practical. Gravel saves water and other green elements. The use of stone as a cover reduces areas that need to be irrigated, cutting upkeep costs. Beyond its stunning visual effect, gravel is a readily available commodity that can cover large areas economically. "Wherever there is an interchange, there's a bridge, which means an embankment, and gravel is very effective in holding the soil on slopes. Nurturing foliage and maintaining it requires an army of gardening contractors even when one plants economical species that originate in arid and semi-arid climates," Shoshani says. "With gravel, there's less green area to be mowed or weeded, and the graveled areas can simply be sprayed against weeds." But Shoshani argues that gravel's suitability for local landscaping extends beyond practicality. It's the most natural element around - and not just for major road junctions, where she believes gravel blends well with the texture and ambience of the adjacent cityscapes. The Zionist vision of creating a "new Jew" tied to the soil is a legacy that leads many Israelis to consider the city an "adversary" of the environment. In the country's aspirations to make the desert bloom, Israelis have come to view Israel's natural semi-arid ecosystem as an unnatural state. But in fact, cities are a natural environment for the growth of the hi-tech economy that is one of the only alternatives for a semi-arid country, if one demands a high standard of living in a sustainable environment. "Gravel not only doesn't guzzle up water, stone is an integral part of the landscape of Eretz Israel. It's really ironic. Look around at the landscape," says Shoshani. "The foliage is sparse. Stones protrude from almost every hillside. So what could be more natural than to integrate stone as a beloved 'member of the family' in Israeli landscaping?! "Embracing gravel can reunite us with the real Eretz-Israel," she says, pointing out that the predominant gardening standards are based on European ideas of beds of water-gorging ornamental flowers and lawns. "The natural building materials here are stone. While in the coastal plain stone is less common, in [other] areas it's omnipresent. "When one travels through the Jerusalem Hills and Judea and Samaria, [one] sees stone on the slopes, in the ravines. Everywhere. I came to the conclusion that such integration of the inanimate rock and the living flora was very fitting to the country and the solutions we needed in landscaping," Shoshani says. Yet she admits that gravel as a "greener" substitute for grass has yet to take root. Indeed, the local sale of sod has remained as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar despite growing awareness of Israel's fragile ecology. According to Kibbutz Givat Brenner's sod farm, Marvadeshe, over the past decade, six to seven thousand dunam of sod have been purchased - almost half for public lawns or parks. According to Shani, public and private gardens drink up 140 million cubic meters of water a year. What has the response on the ground been to the water crisis? Rishon Lezion has constructed a rainwater reservoir that it uses to irrigate grass, with two more runoff containment areas on the coast under construction (potable water that ought to be enriching the depleted coastal aquifer). Tel Aviv Municipality officials told Yediot Aharonot they would ban watering grass on Tuesdays and were looking into channeling two cubic meters (2,000 liters) of daily condensation from city hall's air conditioners for use in flushing the building's toilets, or at least to water plants. The city is also considering requiring all new buildings to collect condensation. Perhaps its high time municipal leaders in the Dan Region and everywhere else re-examined the value of gravel in their water-saving measures.