Pollution: How well is the water?

Two hundred and eighty-six wells have been sealed up since 1980 because they became contaminated, according to Ben-Gurion University Prof. Alon Tal, founder and director of research for the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. It has gotten to the point, Tal wrote in his position paper to the national investigation committee on the water crisis, that the nature of the pollution has changed. Instead of pinpoint problems caused by dumping, contamination is slowly seeping into the water sources on its own. Chronic overpumping of Lake Kinneret and the aquifers have brought them dangerously close to the point where they could be severely compromised by salt water and contamination, experts have said. There is a real danger that the coastal aquifer could be lost to contamination unless active prevention is initiated. The Water Authority has been anxiously monitoring the water levels during this particularly arid year, the fifth in a row. Israel Union for Environmental Defense experts presented the case of the air force base at Hatzor in their position paper to the committee. The base sits above the coastal aquifer and it was discovered in the early 1980s that airplane fuel had leaked into a portion of the aquifer and covered it with a film of oil. Twenty years later, the experts wrote, the pollution has yet to be dealt with. Moreover, the Environmental Protection Ministry and the Water Authority have had very little luck getting the Defense Ministry to take responsibility and begin cleanup efforts. The IUED maintained that it had been told by Environmental Protection Ministry officials that the attorney-general had forbidden it to go after government agencies, in violation of the Water Law. IUED experts also pointed to a cost-saving measure inherent in cleaning up contaminated ground water. According to the Water Authority's water quality report for 2006-7, 212 wells have been closed because of pollution in Israel over the years. That amounts to about 80 million cubic meters per year or one decent-sized desalination plant. According to the IUED's calculations, efforts to encourage conservation cost 30 agorot per cubic meter of water. Cleaning up contamination costs between NIS 0.50 and NIS 1 per cubic meter. Desalination costs NIS 3 per cubic meter. Therefore, they argued, encouraging conservation and cleaning up polluted wells is actually cheaper than building desalination plants. Both Tal and the IUED pointed to the scattered responsibility for water quality among the various ministries as a handicap to efficient enforcement. The Health, National Infrastructures and Environmental Protection ministries and the Water Authority all have some say in the matter. The IUED found that this severely retarded enforcement efforts. With no clear decision whether enforcement lay within the jurisdiction of the Water Authority or the Environmental Protection Ministry, many cases of severe contamination of water sources went unprosecuted. Both Tal and the IUED also argued that fines for polluting were way too low and rarely enforced - making it worth it to pollute rather than treat sewage to the required levels. A recent comptroller's report severely criticized the Environmental Protection Ministry's enforcement efforts, noting that cases took several years to make their way through the courts and many never made it to the final stages of fines and imprisonment. Finally, Tal also noted that dumping into streams and using insufficiently treated sewage water had increased the salinity of the country's drinking water. No serious efforts were being made by the government to tackle the problem, he wrote. Instead of pressuring the government, the public preferred to buy vastly more expensive bottled water if they could afford it.