Troubled waters

Residents of Shavei Zion are fighting to keep a proposed desalination plant away from its beach.

Desalination Plant 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Desalination Plant 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Only months after the beach in Shavei Zion, in the Western Galilee, was voted one of the five most beautiful beaches in Israel, an Interior Ministry sub-committee has recommended that a water desalination plant be built in agricultural fields less than a kilometer away. The plan has alarmed area residents who vow to fight it “by all means possible,” according to Yehuda Shavit, head of the Mateh Asher Regional Council, in anticipation of the National Planning Committee’s final vote in the next few weeks.
The subcommittee has proposed that the desalination plant be built in an agricultural zone just minutes from a coastline that has been listed by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority as a possible nature reserve. The proposal comes despite warnings by experts who say that the desalination plant would cause extensive damage to the agricultural land, to the area’s current water supply, the beach, the air and the sea.
“The desalination plant is a factory with a power station that must be built in an industrial zone and not in a residential, agricultural and tourist area,” says Shavit. The four other desalination plants in Israel are located in industrial zones, he says, and there are several unused industrial sites nearby that would be “much more suitable” for a desalination plant.
The Interior Ministry’s sub-committee has been looking for a site for a desalination plant in northern Israel since 2009 when a proposed site in Kibbutz Shomrat was rejected. According to Yohanan Darom, Northern District director of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the Israel Water Authority eliminated Kibbutz Shomrat as an option because of the cost of running a line longer than two kilometers from the kibbutz to the sea. Darom says the kibbutz had suggested the site and was in favor of building it. “That has always been our first choice,” Darom says.
“But it came down to an issue of money and from there the saga began.”
The sub-committee then received instructions from the Water Authority to find a location in or next to an industrial zone in the North that was closer to the shoreline. Darom says that other sites that were considered were the Haifa Bay, Acre, Bustan Hagalil, Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot and an area on the southern edge of Nahariya.
Some of the sites were rejected by local communities while other sites were rejected by the Health Ministry. At the end of October, after 17 meetings, the sub-committee announced that it had chosen the fields of Shavei Zion for the plant.
Manny Socolovsky, chairman of Shavei Zion’s local committee, says that there are industrial zone lands near Acre that should still be considered. He says that while the seawater off the shores of industrial zones is currently substandard, “the cost of purifying it to a level that would be satisfactory for desalination is less than the potential damage that will be done to the regional environment by chewing up a valuable ‘green lung’ and turning it into a heavy industry site.”
There are other options for finding cleaner water that can be pumped into those industrial zones, such as additional purification or drawing the water from farther out at sea.
According to Darom, to set up a plant there, a pipe would have to run at least six kilometers into the sea. “The cost and time to remove not only salt from the water but also sewage and chemicals would be prohibitive,” he says.
Desalination is the process of reverse osmosis, by which water is removed from the sea, forced through a permeable membrane which then removes salt and other minerals from the seawater to convert it into drinking water. The leftover residue – which contains three times more salt and other minerals than regular seawater – is then dumped back into the sea.
“It defies logic to put a massive factory close to residential homes in an agricultural zone,” says Yaacov Asraf, manager of the business side of Shavei Zion, the cooperative moshav that owns and works Shavei Zion’s fields. “This is the antithesis of the pastoral, agricultural environment of the Western Galilee, which draws thousands of visitors each year,” he says.
Asraf says that he was approached in January with the idea of building a desalination plant on Shavei Zion’s northern fields, which are situated on the city line of Nahariya. But as soon as he paid a visit to the desalination plant in the industrial zone near Kibbutz Palmahim, he knew immediately that “this kind of plant is totally unsuitable for Shavei Zion.”
The Palmahim plant pumps 45 million cubic meters of water and the plant in Shavei Zion would pump more than double that amount. Asraf says that the plant would take up more than 35 hectares (86.5 acres) in the center of the village’s 80 hectares of agricultural fields. He says that the plant would require the creation of new roads, electric lines and other infrastructure. In addition, a power station would have to be built that would gobble up more agricultural lands, therefore turning the area into a de facto industrial zone.
“Why build another industrial zone in a residential area when there are enough industrial zones nearby that are not being used?” asks Sharon Drori, leader of the Shavei Zion committee that has been set up to block the desalination plant plans. She says that the committee approached the Interior Ministry’s subcommittee with questions but the subcommittee has not responded to their request to participate in the meetings. Moreover, out of the 20 meetings that were held, a representative of Mateh Asher was only able to attend one, to which he was not invited but forced his way in to represent the local council’s views.
More than a month and a half ago, the Shavei Zion Committee and the Mateh Asher Regional Council also asked the subcommittee for a copy of all the minutes of the proceedings. To date, the minutes have not been provided.
The Interior Ministry spokeswoman has yet to offer a response to these objections. Once the ministry’s National Planning Committee approves the subcommittee’s proposal, the plan will go back to the regional council, at which point it will be presented to the public. After that, once the plan is approved by the ministry,the building would get under way. Opponents want to stop the process at the National Planning Committee.
According to the Israel Water Commission, Israel’s primary freshwater resources are Lake Kinneret, the coastal aquifer along the coastal plain of the Mediterranean Sea and the mountain aquifer under the central Carmel Mountain Range. Mekorot Water Company Ltd. is a government-owned company that produces and supplies about two-thirds of the total amount of water used in Israel. Environmental Protection Ministry scientist Yeshayahu Bar-Or warned as early as 2008 that global warming would cause 35 percent less rainfall, which would mean contamination of underground water sources and a decrease in water in Lake Kinneret. Currently, the water level in the Kinneret has been depleted to a critical stage. Over the past decade, the Water Commission has set about trying to find alternative ways of supplying water to the population.
There are currently four water desalination plants in other parts of the country. The first plant built was in Palmahim, then Ashkelon, Nahal Sorek and Hadera. The Water Authority claims that a fifth plant, which is supposed to convert 100 million cubic meters of water each year to serve the needs of the residents of Haifa and northern Israel, is needed.
“We have to choose between a bad choice and a less bad choice as to where to put this plant,” says the SPNI’s Darom. “We’ve pushed for desalination because otherwise our rivers and other waterways on land will dry up.”
Dr. Rachel Einav and Fredi Lokiec, environmental consultants who have studied the desalination plant in Ashkelon, wrote in a 2006 study that any desalination plant would cause “damage to soil usage, damage to the marine environment, increased use of energy and damage to underground water.”
According to Einav and Lokiec, the desalination plant would dump high levels of salt, chemicals and minerals such as mercury back into the sea, turning it a “dark hue, black or red.” The addition of these chemicals causes grave concern “for damage to marine fauna and flora in the area,” Einav and Lokiec said. An Interior Ministry spokesman says that the plant would dump the excess waste far away from the beach and at a depth that would not harm the natural water systems.
In addition, the desalination plant would cause a substantial increase in noise pollution in the area, researchers said. The factory runs on high-pressure pumps that perform the reverse osmosis process.
Einav and Lokiec state that the noise level the pumps create is too great for residents closer than 600 meters, such as Shavei Zion. In Kibbutz Palmahim, for example, the plant is situated in an industrial zone far enough from the kibbutz to maintain quiet for its residents.
The final concern for nearby residents is the threat of attack on the plant from neighboring countries and terrorist organizations. During the Second Lebanon War in 2006, more than 30 Katyusha rockets fell within the perimeter of Shavei Zion. A plant so close to homes provides a clear target and residents worry that it would place them in mortal danger. No studies have yet been done on this matter.
Desalination plants have already begun a media campaign in which they tout the new water system as providing water that is cheap, bountiful and available. The companies create an illusion that there is a lot of water to be had, further worsening the water crisis by giving residents the idea that they can use as much water as they want. Darom says that the government should invest now in conservation and planning in order to save money – and the environment – in the future. As the government privatizes Mekorot, Darom believes that the new water suppliers will focus more on their own profits than on safe and sound long-term environmental planning. “In the long run, the people and the environment will suffer from this process,” he says.
During the 1985 drought, the Water Authority educated the public on water conservation and decreased water usage in Israel from 105 cubic meters to 93 cubic meters per person. But in 2002, during another drought, the Finance Ministry thwarted a similar Water Authority plan. If the plan had been implemented, Israel could have saved approximately 700 million cubic meters of water within six years.
The water shortage would have been greatly reduced, thereby stabilizing water prices.
In a report, Australian water researcher Stuart White, director of the Institute for Sustainable Futures at Sydney’s University of Technology, said that almost every location that has a desalination plant could have saved 20% of its water simply by following conservation methods. He said that local authorities should practice “desalination readiness” by drawing plans to build a plant, but should only build them in the event of a severe drought and as a last resort.
The village of Shavei Zion has long been known as an attractive vacation spot. Hotels and bed and breakfasts have catered to foreign visitors as well as Israeli heads of state. There is a scuba diving center with a reef that attracts visitors interested in kayaking, swimming, surfing, and fishing.
Residents in the Shavei Zion area say that they are pursuing all avenues to stop the desalination project.
“This isn’t the case of NIMBY — not in my backyard,” says Drori. “This is a clear oversight, an ignoring of basic facts and not using available resources.”
The residents of the village have organized several committees consisting of engineers, lawyers, urban planners and media consultants to fight the proposal.
They are prepared to bring the case all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary. They are now petitioning the Interior Ministry’s sub-committee for a hearing and working on suggestions for more suitable places for the plant. Residents have posted videos of the village on YouTube, Facebook and other sites. Drori says, “The plant would be a tragedy in Shavei Zion and the committee will do what it can to stop it.”