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