Sea of Galilee about to fill up for 1st time since 1992; dam opening possible

Israel’s main source of freshwater swells to just 21 centimeters under upper red line; experts expect lake to be full by early May, but Water Authority casts doubt

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)
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)

Israel’s largest freshwater lake, the Sea of Galilee, rose by six centimeters (2.3 inches) over the rainy weekend, and after a particularly abundant winter could become full for the first time in 28 years.

According to officials who measure the water level every day, the level was at 209.01 meters (685.73 feet) below sea level Sunday, just 21 centimeters (8.26 inches) below the “upper red line,” above which the lake would be in danger of overflowing.

Rain since early January has been so plentiful that the water level rose 3.12 meters (10.23 feet), and will continue to rise over the next few weeks as snow melts on peaks in the Golan Heights and steadily flows into the lake.

Another factor is the week-long Passover holiday currently being celebrated, during which water isn’t pumped from the Sea of Galilee — the water is considered not kosher for Passover since the lake could contain leavened wheat products, or hametz.

Experts cited by Hebrew-language media said the water level was expected to hit the upper red line of 208.8 meters below sea level in the first few days of May, for the first time since February 1992.

That means authorities could intervene and open a dam at Kibbutz Degania, allowing water to flow into the Jordan River. That has only happened twice — in 1969 and in 1992 — since the dam was built in 1931.

But Uri Schor, spokesman for Israel’s Water Authority, cast doubt on that scenario Sunday, saying that barring an unexpected development, the dam wouldn’t be opened this year.

“We are in April, a month typically without serious rain. Only an event of unseasonable rain will maybe force us to open the dam, but according to our calculations that isn’t supposed to happen,” he told the Kipa news website.

“Soon the river flow will slow down and the weather will become warmer and the water will start evaporating,” he added. “This is a chance that soon the amount of water leaving the lake will be equal to the amount added to it, meaning the water level will stop rising.”

Schor recalled that in 2004, when the water level was eight centimeters below the upper red line, the Degania Dam wasn’t opened.

Schor in February told The Times of Israel 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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