Sea of Galilee hits highest water level since 2004; dam opening mulled

Israel’s main source of freshwater swells to just 47.5 centimeters from upper red line, where it could overflow; level continuing to rise as snow melts in Golan Heights

The promenade in the northern Israeli city of Tiberias, by the Sea of Galilee, on January 30, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)
The promenade in the northern Israeli city of Tiberias, by the Sea of Galilee, on January 30, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Amid all the bad news about the coronavirus pandemic, Israelis can find some solace in the Sea of Galilee, which is in better shape than it’s been for the past 16 years.

According to officials who measure the level of the country’s largest source of freshwater every day, the level was at 209.275 meters (686.6 feet) below sea level Tuesday, the fullest it has been since July 2004.

It is just 47.5 centimeters (18.7 inches) below the “upper red line,” above which the sea would be in danger of overflowing.

If flooding looks possible, authorities will intervene. If water nears the upper red line of 208.8 meters below sea level, they will open a dam at Kibbutz Degania, allowing water to flow into the Jordan River.

Rain since early January has been so plentiful that the water level rose by 2.63 meters (8.6 feet), and is continuing to rise even without rain, as snow melts on peaks in the Golan Heights and steadily flows to the lake.

View of the Sea of Galilee as it seen from the beach promenade in the Northern Israeli city of Tiberias, on January 30, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Even though little rain is expected from now on — no more than a drizzle is forecast for later this week — the water level could continue to rise for weeks or even months, meaning authorities could still make the decision to open the dam.

Uri Schor, spokesman for Israel’s Water Authority, told The Times of Israel last month that the chance of the dam being opened was 50%.

As recently as 2018, the Water Authority warned that the Sea of Galilee was drying up as a result of low rainfall, and warned that it was approaching the “black line,” after which damage to the water quality from silt and other problems is likely to begin.

Schor said that Israel generally has a water shortfall, but the situation was getting worse due to population growth and other factors. Blaming climate change, he said, “We get less and less rain on average in recent years, and before last year there were five years of severe drought, mainly in the north and the Sea of Galilee.”

But the recent surge has caused local residents’ joy to overflow.

“I’ve lived in Tiberias all my life and I can’t remember weather like this. It’s a feeling of wonder, like something magical is happening,” said Shimi Ben-Nissim.

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