Soil and Water: The Risks and Rewards of Recycling Wastewater

As early as a century ago, farmers in pre-State Israel understood that to develop meaningful agricultural production and feed the growing population, they would have to devise methods and methodology to overcome the country’s inhospitable geography and climate. More than half of Israel’s land area is desert and only 20 percent naturally arable. Water resources are scarce and the amount of rain fluctuates wildly from year to year.

Their pioneering solution – recycling wastewater for agriculture use – made a dramatic difference.
A staggering 95 percent of Israeli waste water is treated; 80 percent is used for agriculture and the remainder returned to nature clean. Impressive as it sounds, making this water clean enough to use is challenging. Treated water leaves a range of organic pollutants in the soil, including pesticides, herbicides and even antibiotics. Crops irrigated with treated wastewater absorb and accumulate pharmaceutically active compounds, which can then make their way into food.
“Even the highest quality recycled sewage has trace pollutant elements that are not regulated,” says Benny Chefetz, Professor of Environmental and Soil Chemistry, in the Department of Soil and Water Sciences he heads. He and his team from the Center of Excellence in Agriculture and Environmental Health, which he also heads, are deeply devoted to determining how these pollutants get into groundwater beneath agricultural fields and studying their resultant effect on plants, animals and people.

Their goal is to develop a reliable technique to detect and measure the pharmaceuticals people acquire from their drinking water, while working to increase the efficacy of the recycling process.