Pipe Dreams

Government approves plan to pump desalinated water into Sea of Galilee

Plan also includes NIS 105 million to rehabilitate 7 northern streams, instructs Water Authority to find ways to connect entire country to desalinated water

Hikers near the Sea of Galilee, Israel's largest freshwater lake (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Hikers near the Sea of Galilee, Israel's largest freshwater lake (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Cabinet ministers approved a NIS 105 million ($30 million) emergency drought recovery program on Sunday in an effort to rehabilitate seven streams in northern Israel, taking the unprecedented step of bringing desalinated water directly to the Sea of Galilee, which is dangerously low.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it was “an urgent plan to deal with the drought problem,” stemming from climate change.

“Over the years, Israel has shown an amazing ability to deal with the water problem, which has caused endless conflicts in our region for thousands of years, also in the new era,” he said, at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting. “But thanks to technology, initiatives, and creativity, we have succeeded in overcoming it.”

Netanyahu also offered Israeli water technology expertise to Iranians in a video message.

According to the Israel Water Authority, a five-year-long drought has plunged water tables to the lowest level in at least 98 years, since scientists first began taking taking measurements in 1920.

Northern Israel is experiencing one of the worst droughts in 100 years, leaving the country’s water tables with a deficit of 2.5 billion cubic liters of water, compared to non-drought years.

That deficit is the equivalent of one million Olympic-size swimming pools, water that would normally flow through Israel’s streams and underground water tables toward the Sea of Galilee and other water sources.

Visitors top up their glasses with treated sea water at a desalination plant near Hadera (photo credit: Shay Levy/Flash90)
Visitors top up their glasses with treated sea water at a desalination plant near Hadera, Israel (Shay Levy/Flash90)

The plan approved on Sunday also includes two new desalination plants, to be constructed on the coast in the Western Galilee. The Energy and Water Resources Ministry also set desalination goals through 2030 that will double the current output of desalinated water to 1,100 million cubic meters (some 3,885 million cubic feet).

Additionally, the plan will bring desalinated water directly to the Sea of Galilee to deal with the lake’s plunging level. “We are turning the Sea of Galilee into a reservoir for desalinated water,” Netanyahu said on Sunday. “This is innovative and important, at least to the extent we are doing this, and has not been done until now.”

The Sea of Galilee is currently at 213.46 meters (689 feet) below sea level, half a meter below the danger zone of the lower red line. In 2001, the Sea of Galilee was at an even lower level, 214.87 meters (705 feet) below sea level, which was christened as the lake’s “black line.”

The black line is a dangerously low level that can create irreversible ecological problems, including an increase in the water’s salinity and algae blooms that can do permanent damage to the water quality, and flora and fauna. Last year, the Water Authority had to pump 17,000 tons of salt out of the Sea of Galilee to ensure that the lower water levels did not cause the water to get too salty.

Within four years, up to 100 million cubic meters of desalinated water could be pumped directly into the Sea of Galilee.

Hikers near the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s largest freshwater lake (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

After the advent of desalination plants, Israel diverts just 30 million cubic meters of water south of the Sea of Galilee to the national water system, which is the minimum needed to keep the water network functioning.

However, many communities north of the Sea of Galilee are not connected to the national water system and rely on diverting streams. The program approved Sunday instructs the Water Authority to develop a plan by the end of 2018 to connect the remaining parts of the country to desalinated water, so that they are no longer diverting about 150 million cubic meters (5,297 million cubic feet) of water from the lake.

The NIS 105 million ($30 million) will be invested in seven of Israel’s northern streams, including the Kishon, Hadera and Zippori streams. Part of the rehabilitation of the streams will include pumping desalinated water directly into them. Increased flow into the streams and the Sea of Galilee may also enable the Water Authority to allow more water to run through the Jordan River to the Dead Sea, which is receding by a rate of approximately 1.1 meters (3.6 feet) per year.

Illustrative: Wadi Og, a stream which runs from near Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, November 26, 2014. (Maxim Dinshtein/Flash90)

Scientists are still studying the effect of pumping desalinated water directly into Israel’s natural waterways. As late as last year, that plan was still considered a distant emergency stopgap measure, but after northern Israel fell far short of the average rainfall for the fifth year in a row, experts decided to revisit the proposal.

“This strategic plan will address the exceptional situation of the last five years of continuous drought, which has brought Israel’s water economy to the greatest natural water shortage in the past 100 years and the water resources in the north to an unprecedented low,” Water and Energy minister Yuval Steinitz said on Sunday.

Last month, the Water Authority launched a multi-million-shekel campaign of public service announcements to remind the public that desalinated water is not a “magic bullet” and Israelis still need to save water. 

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