L.A’s Sister River

Tel Aviv's Yarkon River mirrors L.A.

Tel Aviv's Yarkon River mirrors L.A.

Many Americans first became aware of Israel’s polluted rivers after a horrific bridge collapse on the Yarkon River near Tel Aviv in 1997.  An Australian athlete who fell into the toxic waters actually died from exposure to pollution. The catastrophic event catalyzed a movement to clean up and restore Tel Aviv’s major river and others in Israel. 

That terrible event played in my mind as I sat with my Israeli colleagues during the recent L.A.-Tel Aviv environmental exchange, which I have been posting about over the past week. There are many connection points between the L.A. River Revitalization Plan and the Yarkon River Authority’s efforts to restore its waters. Both rivers run through major cities, both are sewage effluent-dominated in dry weather, and both bodies have been engineered to the point that restoration is impossible.

 A pony-tailed outdoorsman named David Pergament serves as the head of the Authority, a section under the Ministry of the Environment. Pergament gave us a personal tour of his domain, describing the authority, the watershed, pollution problems and hydrologic conditions. We started out on the 18-mile river at a park near the headwaters. The park, run by the Natural Park Service, contains dozens of picnic tables, play grounds, grass lawns, and scores of invasive eucalyptus trees. The slow- flowing silty river has nary a riffle, pool or run.

Restoration efforts have included removing eucalyptus, planting willows and starting a breeding and reintroduction program for Mirogrex (a small native silvery fish). Because the species gets outcompeted by introduced mosquitofish, a separate manmade pond hosts the breeding program, which has shown promise.

Over the rest of the day, we drove or walked along much of the lower Yarkon. The section is much wider, but remains more an urban aquatic feature and linear park than an actual river. There are countless bridges, armored stream banks and bike paths. Grass is planted right up to the river banks. Rowing clubs use the lower Yarkon for their workouts.

Like the L.A. River, urban renewal, flood control, irrigation, water supply and sewage disposal are the priority uses of the Yarkon. A master plan, completed in 1995, recommended minimum flows three times those alloted by Israel’s Water Authority, the true power on all freshwater issues in the country.

The Authority only has jurisdiction of the river and 20 meters on each side of its banks, hardly a recipe for effective watershed management. Every inch of the measly dry weather flows is pumped into the Yarkon. In essence, the 1,000-square mile watershed only acts as a watershed during a major rain.

The good news is that water quality (save a two- month sewer line break) has improved dramatically because of upgrades in the two sewage treatment plants that discharge to the river. Both facilities have improved from less than secondary treatment levels to tertiary treatment (filtration and disinfection), with nitrogen removal.

The river serves well as a recreational and aesthetic attraction, but too many nutrients and irrigation demands preclude creating a healthy stream with a biologically diverse population of flora and fauna.

The Yarkon situation sheds light on Israel’s overall water quality and stream protection problems.

The Water Authority makes the water supply decisions for Israel, and its power seems to trump the government’s environmental and park departments. Drinking water and agriculture irrigation supplies are what matters most in the small nation of 7 million. As a result, Israel’s rivers are all highly degraded and many largely serve as irrigation ditches and disposal sites for wastewater.

Tomorrow: Israelis fight to breathe life back into their rivers

One Response

  1. It should be emphasized that the Yarkon – a big river in biblical (and Israeli) terms – has deteriorated over the years so much because of Jews immigrating back to their homeland in masses after 2000 years of suffering in exile (remember the Romans? Masada?) and mainly after the II WW (Holocaust). A huge increase in population and those who wanted to become farmers (after 2000 years of not being able to do so in Europe) required masses of water for domestic and agricultural needs. The newcomers sitting around the Yarkon “contributed” in return – masses of sewage effluent and runoff, rich in pesticides and fertilizers, from agricultural areas – which put major stress on the river making it almost a sewage canal. Also, sewage from westbank Palestinians who refused to build wastewater treatment plants “contributed” to the poor situation of the Yarkon. This together with very little freshwater allocated by the Israeli Water Authority (known as “water commissioner” – a title remnant of the good (or not so good) British Mandate/ruling in this country). Anyways, the top part of the Yarkon gets some freshwater now and is considered the “clean part” — which it is, except for large amounts of estrogen from bathers. (Note: people walking in rivers and streams during Israel’s many hot days is a national way of getting acquainted with nature. Wading and other sources, such as treated sewage, have been shown to contribute to hormone and emerging contaminant levels in rivers.) What should be emphasized too is that although a lot more river basin restoration actions could be done, mega-steps were taken and the Yarkon became a “green lung front yard” and not a stinking (literally) backyard infected with billions of mosquitoes as it used to be. Yarkon is not the only river that brought restoration of rivers to the top of the priority list of Israel’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MoEP). The Kishon River near Haifa suffered from discharge 3 times the natural flow rate of untreated industrial wastewaters. Navy soldiers who dove in the terrible water pollution got all sorts of tumors. Here, drastic improvement has also occurred – but that’s another story. In general, Israeli rivers (majority are creeks or streams) still suffer from secondary (minus effluents) extras that are not used for agricultural irrigation along with raw sewage from Palestinian regions (they insist on not treating their sewage and reusing it for irrigation as Israel does). It should be pointed out that various countries such as the US, France, Sweden & Germany and Israel, of course, are willing to donate hundreds of millions of dollars to build wastewater treatment plants with no success. That’s it for today.

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