Sea of Galilee may have to be removed from the water supply

Israel enters 6th year of worst-in-a-century drought, girds for even worse

Israelis, as yet largely unaffected due to mass desalination, urged to conserve in Water Authority ad campaign as officials warn water use may be curtailed next year

Illustrative photo of Israelis enjoying the beaches of the Sea of Galilee, northern Israel, on April 1, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of Israelis enjoying the beaches of the Sea of Galilee, northern Israel, on April 1, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Israel is entering its sixth official year of drought, the Water Authority said Sunday.

Many of Israel’s lakes, riverbeds and aquifers are at unprecedented 100-year lows, with the Sea of Galilee dangerously close to its “black line,” the level below the intake pipes of the water pumps that send the lake’s water to nearby towns.

Israelis have not felt the current drought as acutely as past dry spells because Israel in recent years constructed five massive desalination plants on the Mediterranean coast that now provide some 70 percent of the country’s drinking water directly from the sea. The state also recycles some 86% of its waste water for agriculture. Two more desalination plants are in the planning stages.

But all these efforts may not be enough to keep the water flowing as it does during years of plenty. In May, the Water Authority rolled out a public ad campaign entitled “Israel is drying out… again,” aimed at reminding Israelis that saving water at home is still important.

To emphasize the point, the authority said if the drought continues for another year, it would start imposing limits on Israelis’ water consumption.

The Sea of Galilee, Israel’s largest natural water source, is now some 214.2 meters (703 feet) below sea level, the authority said, fully 80 centimeters lower than at the launch of the ad campaign some four months ago. That places it over a meter below the danger zone of the lower red line. In 2001, the Sea of Galilee was at an even lower level, 214.87 meters (705 feet) below sea level, which was christened as the lake’s “black line.”

Children play in the fountains at Teddy Kollek Park in Jerusalem on July 26, 2016 (Zack Wajsgras/Flash90)

The black line is a dangerously low level that can create irreversible ecological problems, including an increase in the water’s salinity and algae blooms that can do permanent damage to the water quality, and flora and fauna. Last year, the Water Authority had to pump 17,000 tons of salt out of the Sea of Galilee to ensure that the lower water levels didn’t cause the water to get too salty.

Officials now fear Israel’s major freshwater lake could drop as much as another centimeter per day before the first rains come in the fall, removing the Sea of Galilee from the water supply and causing serious ecological damage in the area. There are plans underway in the Water Authority to pump water into the Sea of Galilee from springs and other sources nearby.

The fall in water level in recent weeks has created a new island in the Sea of Galilee, off the coast of Kibbutz Maagan. If the forecasts bear out, the island may yet connect to the mainland.

According to Water Authority estimates, some 2.5 billion cubic meters of water are missing from the source reservoirs of the country’s natural water supply. The drought of the past six years has driven these reservoirs, and the streams that flow from them, to 98-year lows, according to Water Authority data.

In July, researchers who monitored nearly 200,000 people in Israel found that those who were drinking desalinated water showed an increased risk of heart disease as compared to those consuming natural water.

In a report published last month in the Environmental Research scientific journal, researchers wrote that over a period of six years, 178,000 people from the Clalit Health Services, the largest healthcare provider in Israel, were monitored based on the type of water they drank. Half of the people studied were in areas supplied with desalinated water, while the rest were from communities using natural water.

They found a six percent increase in the incidence of heart disease among those drinking desalinated water, according to a Hadashot television news report about the study on Wednesday night. Some researchers even estimated the figure could be as high as 10%.

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