Israeli ingenuity: Sewage treatment and reclamation

The Herzliya sewage treatment facility was recently upgraded to Level 3 treatment, which makes it suitable for agriculture.

A big part of the emergency plan to solve the water crisis involves an unpleasant but extremely useful resource - sewage. The country has made a major push in the last decade to wean agriculture off freshwater and onto treated sewage water. There are also plans to encourage public parks and gardens to be watered with treated sewage water. At present, the country recycles about 75 percent of its sewage water, and the goal is to raise that to the high 90s by 2020. Israel leads the world in this area by far. The next closest country is Spain, which recycles about 12%. Aside from enabling more freshwater to be diverted to household use, treating sewage water prevents the contamination of water sources when industry and communities dump their sewage into nearby streams or the sea. Because of a lack of treatment facilities in Palestinian villages and Israeli settlements, the Nature and Parks Authority has found that every major stream in the West Bank is highly polluted. While Meir Ben-Meir, water commissioner in the late 1970s to late '90s, did offer the radical solution of using treated sewage water for drinking, there has been absolutely no indication the Water Authority is seriously considering such a possibility. All current plans indicate treated sewage water would be used to reduce agriculture's freshwater use. Ben-Meir made the suggestion during testimony last month to the national investigation committee on the water crisis, which is probing the entire water economy. The National Infrastructures Ministry has presented plans to assist local authorities build and upgrade sewage treatment plants at a cost of one billion shekels over the next four years. According to the law, responsibility for sewage treatment lies with the local authority, but the ministry has provided expert consulting and funds since 2000. It, however, has not yet been allocated sufficient money to complete the projects. There are about 135 sewage treatment plants around the country which treat 355 million cu.m./yr. (the Shafdan plan treats 150 million alone) or 75% of all sewage. Total sewage will rise from 475 million cu.m./yr. today to 600 million in 2020, according to authority estimates. Agriculture's freshwater allocation for 2009 is 356 million cu.m. That has been cut down by 100 million from last year because of the continuing drought. Over the course of the last decade, the government has been able to more than halve agriculture's freshwater allocation and partially replace it with treated sewage water. At the same time, farmers have become far more efficient and less wasteful in their irrigation techniques. However, lack of funds and the new law which mandates local authorities to create a separate corporation to handle water and sewage brought new construction to a standstill in 2008, according to Alexander Kushnir, head of the Sewage Infrastructure Development Administration in the National Infrastructures Ministry. According to a position paper he wrote for the national investigation committee on the water crisis, several projects are on hold until the cities create these corporations. He also charged that over the last eight years his administration has never been given enough funds to complete its projects. He wrote that with financial backing, sewage treatment could have been far more advanced. Even once a sewage treatment plant is built, there remains the question of finding clients for the water and then transporting it to them. For example, the Herzliya sewage treatment facility was recently upgraded to Level 3 treatment, which makes it suitable for agriculture. However, the pipes to bring it to the North are not yet ready, so the water is still being pumped into the sea. As with desalination plants, the Israel Lands Administration has been reluctant to grant land for building reservoirs to store treated sewage water during the agricultural off season, the Kibbutz Movement wrote in a position paper to the committee. However, the Jewish National Fund has stepped in over the last several years. It's built more than 200 reservoirs and helped build the piping infrastructure to bring their water to kibbutzim and moshavim. For example, it built a 1.25 million cu.m. capacity reservoir for Moshav Lachish, which grows the "Tali" grapes. Roughly 6,000 dunams are irrigated with water from the reservoir, according to the JNF.