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Sea Of Galilee*

Plans to make a shrinking Sea of Galilee rise again

Serge Schmemann

New York Times

Published Sep 15, 2002 GALI15

TIBERIAS, ISRAEL -- These days, even the lowest sinner can walk out onto the Sea of Galilee.

It is hardly a feat of faith. The water is simply not there anymore, at least along vast stretches of bottom laid bare by a precipitous drop in the water level in recent years.

To a visitor returning for the first time since 1998, when the storied sea actually a freshwater lake, called Kinneret by Israelis -- was still full, the sight is flabbergasting.

At one marina, Yitzhak Gal, an official of the Lake Kinneret Authority, walks out onto a dock where tires are still hung for mooring boats and signs ban diving from the pier. The precaution is wise because the water is a couple of hundred yards off, and the marina has had to clear away thickets of weeds and to pave a road across the former lake bottom so trailers can carry boats to the water.

At a lakeside promenade in Tiberias, the Roman capital of Galilee and a popular Israeli resort, a walled-in harbor is now little more than a puddle littered with debris. Piers for tourist ships stand high and dry, replaced by distant floating docks.

Since 1998, the last normal year, the sea has dropped almost 20 feet. Though it was always subject to considerable seasonal and periodic changes, the current average level is the lowest ever recorded. The reason is a combination of drought and overuse. The result is a crisis when officials speak in public, a catastrophe when they speak in private.

Though the 64-square-mile lake would hardly make a splash in Minnesota, it bears a name and an importance surpassing many a great lake. It is Israel's only sizable body of fresh water, supplying 27 percent of the fresh water used by the arid country and a significant portion of neighboring Jordan's.

For Christians throughout the world, it is the biblical sea on which Jesus walked, whose waves he calmed, on whose banks he preached and performed miracles, from whose fishermen he recruited disciples. Before the current violence dried up tourism, busloads of pilgrims came to visit the site of Capernaum, the tranquil Mount of Beatitudes and the site of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes at Tabigha.

Worst in a century

The immediate cause of the current situation was a drastic shortage of rainfall in the winter of 1998-99. But Doron Markel, the official in the state Water Commission responsible for the monitoring the lake, says Israel was already consuming more water than it had.

He said that "1998-99 was the worst winter in a century, but the crisis was long building."

"We kept the consumption stable through the 1990s," he said. "But in 1998-99, of the 400 million cubic meters we usually take from the Kinneret, only 95 million was restored."

The crisis was not limited to the Sea of Galilee. The River Jordan, which flows into and out of it, slowed to a trickle in some stretches below the lake, all but drying up one source of the rapidly shrinking Dead Sea.

Worse, the aquifers that are the two other principal water sources for Israel also fell to new lows, finally compelling Water Commissioner Shimon Tal to authorize letting them drop below "red lines" that had been regarded as the lowest safe levels.

The crisis forced Tal to curtail water for Israeli agriculture by a third. Some products requiring considerable irrigation, such as citrus fruits, were abandoned by many growers.

The most important consequence of the drop, however, has been to provide a severe prod for Israel to move quickly to develop alternate sources of fresh water.

Like all residents of this arid region, Israelis are raised to respect water. The slogan "haval al kol tipa" -- regret for every drop -- is instilled in every citizen, and water is expensive. But experts have warned for years that conservation and allocation would not be enough to meet the needs of a growing population.

"The water supplies of Israel have reached their gravest crisis ever," Tal warned last year. "The crisis is the result of years of over-utilization of water resources as well as inadequate development of additional resources."

With the current crisis, the message has taken hold. Israel has reached an agreement to import water from Turkey, and three major desalination plants are planned on the Mediterranean coast, with the capacity to meet a ninth of Israel's current needs. The cost, however, is high, and they are not expected to be ready for two years.

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