As Sea of Galilee’s level lowers, concerns rise over saline in the water

A view of the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, which provides a significant percentage of northern Israel’s water. The water level in the freshwater lake has been dropping after four consecutive winters of below-average rainfall. Photo by Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

Almost every weather forecast in Israel ends with the level of the Sea of Galilee, or Kinneret, in Hebrew. Children learn songs and poems about it, and tourists take boat trips on the lake where Jesus was said to have walked.

The Sea of Galilee also provides a significant percentage of northern Israel’s water. Today, with the sea at one of its lowest levels in a century, Israel has cut back on the amount of water it gives to farmers, and there are fears that there will be ecological damage that may be irreversible.

“As the water level drops, the salt remains the same and it gets more saline,” Clive Lipchin, the Director of the Center for Transboundary Water Management at the Arava Institute, said. “In the south of Israel, farmers have access to treated wastewater but in the north, they still rely on fresh water.”

Israel already has five desalination plants, mostly in the south and along the coast. Until now there had always been enough rainfall in the north to ensure a reasonable supply. Rainfall all over Israel, but especially in northern Israel, is down significantly. At this time of year, after the winter, the water should be gushing into the Sea of Galilee, but it is hardly moving.

Earlier this month, the level of the Sea of Galilee was 13 centimeters (a little more than 5 inches) below the lower red line, the lowest level at which water can be safely pumped from the lake without endangering the pumps.

The salinity level is 298 milligrams of chloride per liter. Experts say that the natural salinity level was once 350 milligrams of chloride per liter, which made it difficult to use the water for irrigation. But a special water channel built in 1967 diverted the saline springs away from the lake, causing the salinity to decline and the water to be usable. Experts say that the current level of salinity will continue to rise until the next rainy season and is expected to reach 320 milligrams per liter.

One result has been that the shallows, which is where many of the fish lay eggs, have retreated. The number of St. Peter’s fish, one of the most important fish for maintaining the Kinneret ecosystem, is falling.

The Society for the Protection of Nature (SPNI) this week called on Israel to urgently address the growing water crisis in the Sea of Galilee by building a desalination plant in the Western Galilee. That would reduce dependence on the sea’s water, but it is an expensive solution. SPNI also called on the government to cancel plans to expand agriculture in the Golan Heights and the Upper Galilee as long as there are no alternate water supplies.

Israeli water experts say the main culprit is climate change.

“Of course it’s climate change,” Doron Markel, the manager of the Lake Kinneret Watershed Monitoring and Management Authority, said. “The annual amount of precipitation in the north is decreasing year after year. Rainfall has decreased over time in the eastern Mediterranean — Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. This is the fourth successive weak winter.”

The low level of the Sea of Galilee comes as Israel already supplies 50 million cubic meters of water to Jordan as part of their 1994 peace agreement. Markel says Israel has no intention of reneging on this commitment despite the current water situation.

The main danger is ecological. Greater salinity could cause more algae blooms and cyanobacteria, Markel says.

“This type of algae makes it harder to filter it and could release some toxins in low concentrations,” he said. “Once you chlorinate and disinfect the water, you eliminate the toxins totally. However, we still treat it as a water quality issue and we don’t like this phenomenon.”