Power (and Water) to the People

Finding Water in the Desert
by Jessye Waxman -- October 4th, 2013

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Kibbutz Ketura from Electricity Mountain

I never thought I would live some place that wasn’t green. I’ll take the lush landscapes of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the red rocks of Sedona any day. But this past January, as I climbed the mountain overlook to see what was to be my home for the next five months, I saw Kibbutz Ketura, a shockingly green oasis in an otherwise rocky and barren desert landscape.

Located in the south of Jordan Valley, the Arava Valley is an unforgiving environment. With a hyper-arid climate (annual rainfall less than 30 mm (1.2 inches)), some of the highest levels of solar radiation in the world, and summer temperatures frequently topping 110 degrees, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could conceivably, let alone voluntarily, live there.

Not surprisingly, adapting a modern lifestyle to this isolated, arid climate presents interesting challenges, especially when it comes to water.

Most Israelis are supplied with water from National Water Carrier, Mekorot’s system of freshwater pipelines (Mekorot is Israel’s national water company). The National Water Carrier brings water from Lake Kinneret in the north of Israel to the northern tip of the Negev desert. But, Kibbutz Ketura (see red arrow on map)—and the other communities in the Arava Valley—is too isolated to be connected.

Instead, the regional kibbutzim are connected to a second pipeline, Pharan, which sources its water from the non-renewable aquifers in the Arava Valley. However, these waters are brackish, water with a salinity somewhere between freshwater and seawater. Providing water to communities in the Arava Valley therefore requires desalination, an energy-intensive process that, although now affordable in developed countries, is by no means cheap. So why desalinate more than necessary?

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Photo from Wikipedia page National Water Carrier of Israel

As such, every building has two sets of taps – ones for drinking water, and ones for everything else. The drinking water taps receive desalinated water, while the non-potable taps receive brackish water. When we forgot to use the desalinated tap to make ice, we would find a layer of salt at the bottom of our glass. And though our dorms had never been used, by the end of the five month semester centimeter-think salt deposits had formed around the faucets in the bathroom and kitchen.

It took almost two weeks after I left the kibbutz for me to stop looking for that second tap.

It’s hard to believe that, even though I was in a developed country, I couldn’t always drink what came out of a tap. The United States is much more an exception than the rule; we tend to take for granted that we can go anywhere and drink the water. I know I certainly do. That’s why I was genuinely shocked this past week when I was stopped from filling my water bottle by a security guard at the Old Post Office Pavilion in Washington DC. He told me  I would glow if I drank water from the building’s 123-year-old pipes.

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SWDA) of 1974 regulates drinking water quality in the United States. It sets limitations for concentrations of certain contaminants and requires frequent quality testing (though frequency is dependent on the contaminant, the water source, and the size of the population served). But SWDA only regulates the water in municipal systems; it speaks nothing to problems from the country’s aging water infrastructure, like in the Old Post Office Pavilion, or private well water, which will be the topic of future blog posts. Stay tuned!

1 Comment

  1. Erika Zambello
    Erika Zambello
    Oct 10, 2013

    Faucet salt deposits! I never would have thought that could happen, even with salt water coming out of the tap. That must have been really interesting to see.

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