Rivers of Hope

The headwaters of the Jordan

The headwaters of the Jordan

Yael Mason, an Israeli friend of mine from my UCLA days, is an environmental chemist with years of experience at Israel’s Ministry of the Environment. During my trip to Israel, Yael set me up on a river tour with the nation’s premier watershed management and river restoration expert, Eyal Yaffe.

Yaffe and I explored the small Soreq River, which winds through farmland not too far from the city of Rehovot. He has been leading the effort to enhance the river, hoping to transform it from being a straight irrigation ditch (with farmland to the riverbanks) into a meandering stream with buffer zones of swales and olive trees.

A pragmatist, he readily admits that this Herculean effort is not a restoration.

Among the obstacles preventing a true rehabilitation: farming to the river’s edge, enormous water supply needs and strict drainage management (a separate drainage authority is a strong agency here).

By the end of the tour, I’m impressed by Yaffe’s efforts to provide some life to the Soreq. He has created buffers in many places. He has persuaded farmers to change their drainage patterns to reduce soil loss and sedimentation in the river. He has replaced concrete armoring of near vertical stream banks with gently sloping banks made of rip-rap that allows some native vegetation to thrive along the banks. Numerous straightened lengths of channel have been replaced with meanders. And ugly concrete monstrosities called flow dissipators have been forsaken for more natural stone waterfalls and pools with downstream riffles and runs.

Despite all of these physical improvements, Yaffe knows that the water in the river, nearly black from effluent from Jerusalem, has nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations too high for a healthy river ecosystem.

But Yaffe is a patient man and he understands that true restoration is measured in decades, not years.

His passion for watershed management and stream restoration is contagious and consuming. He walked me through numerous Powerpoint presentations on the efforts to fix Israel’s most polluted river, the Kishon. He also shared plans to rehabilitate the Jordan River, which flows to the Sea of Galilee (the birthplace of Christianity) and provides most of Israel’s water supply, as well as a significant portion for the nation of Jordan.

Water quality at these rivers has improved dramatically, but still has a long way to go to reach health levels. After spending the afternoon and evening with Yaffe, I couldn’t envision a promising future for Israel’s rivers. Those who want to revive them face constant pressures on such a small water supply, and the relentless needs of farmers, industry and all Israelis and Palestinians. Even Yaffe’s relentless optimism was not enough to give me hope.

The next day, Yael and her husband Tony, took me and my son Jake to the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights. When I first saw the mighty Jordan River flowing from the algal-bloom impacted Lake Kinneret, my pessimism was affirmed. After all, the lake has been pumped far below healthy levels and the consequences of a eutrophied lake are clear.

Above the lake, the Jordan seems in better shape, but not exactly a health river. Not until later that day, as we drove to the border of Lebanon and up the Golan Heights overlooking Syria, did I truly understood the potential for river restoration in Israel.

The upper Jordan is a river. There are riffles, runs and pools. In fact, river rafting has become very popular in the Galilee. Willows and other native plants dot the river banks. As we moved closer to the source of the Jordan in the Golan Heights, the river became more wild. The view of the river’s source, the 9,000-foot, snow-capped Mount Hermon, made me realize that Yaffe has cause for optimism. If they can get the upper Jordan restored, then there is hope for the rest of Israel’s rivers.

Success won’t come easily, but nothing ever does in Israel. Clean water laws need to be tightened to protect aquatic life in fresh water. Industrial waste programs must improve. Regulatory frameworks need to be created that foster watershed management rather than prevent it. Sewer infrastructure must be built or replaced and sewage treatment plant improvements are needed.

Most important, nature needs a place in the water supply equation. As long as people like Eyal Yaffe continue to tirelessly advocate for river protection and lead by example, then Israel’s rivers have a fighting chance.

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