The Science and Politics of Wastewater Reclamation in IsraelEPA Grant Number: U915662
Title: The Science and Politics of Wastewater Reclamation in Israel
Investigators: Albert, Jeffrey A.
Institution: Yale University
EPA Project Officer: Edwards, Jason
Project Period: January 1, 1999 through July 16, 2002
Project Amount: $102,000
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (1999) RFA Text | Recipients Lists
Research Category: Academic Fellowships , Economics and Decision Sciences , Fellowship - Environmental Decision Making
The objective of this research project is to examine in detail a single option for augmenting the water supply in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan: the treatment and recycling of sewage effluent. There is a growing deficit between the volume of freshwater used by these countries and the volume of freshwater that is jointly available to them on an interannual average basis. This deficit has led to myriad adverse consequences; among them, the steady depletion of both freshwater and groundwater stocks, acute human suffering, and the exacerbation of diplomatic tensions. With regional populations projected to continue their rapid growth for decades to come, the deficit will grow wider still, even if water conservation measures are pursued vigorously, unless freshwater supply augmentation measures are implemented. Wastewater reclamation (most commonly in agricultural irrigation) has been practiced in Israel on a more widespread basis than in any other country worldwide, with well-documented benefits in pollution abatement and water use efficiency. However, the approach is not without its dangers; among them, risks to human health, crops, soils, and groundwater.
I provide a history of the water management challenges in Israel and among its neighbors, an overview of the evolution of wastewater reclamation, and the Israeli strategies for regulating its use. I then examine one particular risk of using treated effluent in agriculture: the salinization of groundwater underlying wastewater-irrigated areas. It has been suggested that this side effect of using treated effluent in agriculture is so serious that the practice might necessitate, at worst, banning the practice, or, at best, heavily regulating it via the requirement of desalinization. Using a variety of spatially explicit data sources, I use a pair of empirical studies to determine whether wastewater irrigation significantly influences the spatio-temporal pattern of salinity in a portion of coastal Israel where the practice is widespread. The data indicate that, although the salinity of the "so-called" Coastal Plain aquifer is indeed rising (and doing so in a decidedly nonrandom spatial pattern), that wastewater irrigation is not the central culprit. Conventional irrigation, seawater intrusion, and natural background sources of salinity (whose import into the system is enhanced by human activity) are all major factors. This finding suggests the eliminating wastewater irrigation is not a reasonable means of combating groundwater salinization in the Israeli coastal plain, and that measures for salinity control should sensibly be applied to all irrigation sources, not only to treated sewage effluent. This implication is not trivial, because Israeli agriculture is expected to be dominated by wastewater irrigation in the coming decades.