Drilling Deep for Water Under the Golan Heights

Ancient water brings a measure of security to northern Israeli farmers, but can it last?

By Richard Banks | Photos By Jamie Cole

Whoever holds the Golan Heights has a decided advantage in securing the surrounding countryside, where four nations—Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon—abut and sometimes collide. Yet, it’s not just the commanding views that have proven valuable, one of the Golan’s most prized resources is actually underneath it.

Dan Fish Farms, an aquaculture facility in the northern Hula Valley.

Kibbutz Lehavot Habashan, as seen from the Golan Heights, use the warm waters from the Shamir Drills for its aquaculture facilities.

Deep below the Golan’s mountains and Israel’s adjoining Hula Valley, lies a 5,000-year-old aquifer. Until recently, it’s remained largely untouched due to its depth, but in 2010 a project involving local and national government and the U.S.-based Jewish National Fund, a private organization, began the processing of tapping the underground reservoir.

The result was the Shamir Drills—a complex of three giant bores that, at depths of 1,500 meters, are thought to be among the deepest such wells in the world. Now, the drills siphon that ancient geothermal water to the surface for use by farming and aquaculture operations in Israel’s north. Before it can be used, however, the water, which contains large amounts of caustic compounds, must be treated.

“The water is very corrosive,” says Shabtai Glass, the manager of the Galilee Water Association. “It’s full of sulfur and other minerals.” In the state the water reaches the surface, Glass says, “it can damage pipes and pumps.”

Shabtai Glass

Shabtai Glass

To soften the water, it’s first stored in an open reservoir above Kibbutz Shamir; hence, the name of the drill complex. There an aeration process helps to evaporate minerals and chemicals. The reservoir also helps cool the water, which is about 47 ° Celsius (about 117° F). However, some orchard farmers use that tepid water to warm their trees in hopes of lengthening the growing cycle, while aquaculture operations use it for raising fish in colder months.

Reviving Aquaculture

Dr. Avshalom Hurvitz is the R&D director for Israel’s Northern R&D organization and a biologist for Dan Fish Farms, an aquaculture facility in the northern Hula Valley. According to Hurvitz, the area was once one of Israel’s main fish-producing regions, but changing tastes led to a significant decline.

Dr. Avshalom Hurvitz

Dr. Avshalom Hurvitz

“The reason for this,” says Hurvitz, “is that the main fish species that was grown here was the common carp.” Yet, he explains that over the past decade or so carp consumption has decreased significantly in Israel in favor of tilapia. The latter, according to Hurvitz, can’t be grown as easily in northern Israel, due to colder temperatures during winter.

At a set of ponds that belong to Kibbutz Lehavot Habashan, the geothermal water from the Shamir Drills arrives at about 41° Celsius (about 106° F), enabling it and other area aquaculture operations to run even in winter, which, in turn, allows the fish to be sold no matter the time of the year. That ability to time sales to markets, as opposed to the seasons, allows producers, says Hurvitz, “to fetch the best prices.”

Sustainability Questioned

Swimming is prohibited near the reservoir above Kibbutz Shamir, but that doesn't stop these kids and cattle.

At a reservoir atop the Golan Heights, which is fed by waters from the Shamir Drills, no swimming signs are routinely ignored by kids and cattle.

In addition to orchards and aquaculture, the Shamir’s water—which has a potential to run at about 2,000 cubic meters (approx. 53,000 gallons) per hour—is used for field crops and vineyards, as well as to create increased flow in the Jordan (aka Dan) River and to raise water levels in the Sea of Galilee (aka Lake Kinneret). The aquifer is, however, a finite source or, more accurately, one that would require thousands of years to replenish. Glass says that’s a fact not lost on water regulators and farmers, saying usage can be decreased in years of good precipitation.

However, in dry years, such as 2014, which was one of the driest on record in Israel, the Shamir water can be the difference between crop failure and getting by. Some reports estimated it prevented an estimated 150 million shekel’s worth (almost $39.5 million U.S.) of crop damage.

<< See the full story, “Farming on the Edge: Raising Food in Israel”