Is the Sea of Galilee's recent water level rise dangerous?

While rising water levels is monumental, Israel turns to desalination as its source for drinking water, and the lake’s water quality has taken the forefront of environmental concerns.

People enjoy and bath in the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret) next to the city of Tiberias on June 23, 2015.   (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
People enjoy and bath in the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret) next to the city of Tiberias on June 23, 2015.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Lake Kinneret, Israel’s northernmost and only freshwater lake, has inspired much awe and curiosity throughout the country’s history, and its fortune seems to have become intertwined with those of the people dwelling along its shores.
With a recent and rapid rise in the lake’s water levels, much excitement has been sparked: after almost 20 years of steady decline, two wet winters have given the Kinneret the comeback Israelis have been waiting for.
The lake has risen at a rate of around a half a centimeter per day this spring. It has reached -209.19 cm., just 39 cm. shy of spilling over its banks and flooding Tiberius, according to a report from Israel’s Water Authority on March 25.
The lake’s level neared its symbolic upper red line last April as well, indicating full capacity. The Deganya Dam, at the southern tip of the lake, was almost opened to let out water into the Jordan River. With a similar rise as last year, the dam could be opened in the coming weeks.
Prof. Steve Brenner of Bar-Ilan’s Geography and Environment Department said that the southern Jordan River’s flow is mainly wastewater, and that “any natural flowing water in the Jordan River is positive” and could help clean it out. If enough water was allowed to flow, it might even reach the shrinking Dead Sea.
A flowing Jordan River has the potential to attract tourists, improve agriculture in the Jordan Valley, generate hydroelectricity with its descent toward the Dead Sea, and produce a viable solution to Jordan’s lack of fresh water, which could motivate the country to maintain good relations with Israel.
Today, more than a quarter of Israel’s total water consumption comes from desalination plants, instead of pumping from the Kinneret, Brenner explained. This greatly relieves the stress on the Kinneret’s water levels. The last four years have brought rainfall exceeding the region’s seasonal average, reaching 140% in February, the Israel Meteorological Service reported.
Why is the lake’s water level so significant? What is causing the sudden and unexpected rise? And what could be the implications of fully opening the dam for the first time in 26 years?
The Kinneret was formed 24,000 years ago, originally from the Sedom Lagoon. The lagoon was an extension of the Mediterranean Sea that traversed the Zevulun, Jezreel and Beit Shean valleys, and filled the Jordan Rift Valley (a depression created by the separation of the Arabian and African tectonic plates), according to an article by researchers in Israel’s Open University (Shloval and Zlotkin). Eventually, tectonic movement cut the lagoon off from the sea, forming the Lisan Lake, which extended 300 km. from the Kinneret down to the Dead Sea.
The massive lake dried up due to climate changes, and dwindled down to the modern-day Kinneret, Jordan River and Dead Sea formations. While the Dead Sea ceased to receive enough water in the desert, the Kinneret collected runoff from perennial rainfall, maintaining the lake’s depth and replenishing it with fresh water.
Major rivers flowing from northern regions and the Hermon, including Meshushim, Amud, El Al, and Yehudia merged with the northern Jordan river to carry rainwater through the Hula Valley, filling the Kinneret in the winter months.
Early in the country’s history, the Kinneret became Israel’s prized possession, offering successful agriculture and aquaculture industries, supplying the country with drinking water, attracting tourists with its religious sites, and Zionists to settle its shores in the kibbutz movements.
Kibbutz settlers built the Deganya Dam to control Kinneret water levels in the 1930s. The Hula Valley swamp was drained in the 1950s and replaced with kilometers of farmland. To supply enough water for the growing population, the country began pumping its drinking water from the Kinneret through the National Water Carrier in 1964. Fishermen swarmed the Kinneret’s enticing fishing hub for their livelihood.

HOWEVER, MERELY two decades later, these anthropogenic changes Israel made to the Kinneret took effect, according to a 2019 study published in Science of the Total Environment. The southern Jordan River, cut off from fresh water, began carrying sewage along its route, destroying the river and its banks. The Dead Sea shrunk dramatically without the river’s flow. Agricultural diversions in the Hula Valley decreased river flow to the Kinneret, and brought runoff laden with toxins from manure and pesticides into the lake.
The water level dropped, and the once clean water became polluted. Pumping more drinking water out of the lake than what flowed in caused lake levels to further plummet. A lower volume in the lake allowed for some saline springs, previously held beneath the lake bed with the fresh water’s weight and pressure, to mix and increase the Kinneret’s salinity. The local fish population was decimated by overfishing and decreased water quality.
The Kinneret’s function as a feasible water and fish supply was threatened. During a severe drought, the lake fell to its lowest recorded level of -214.8 m. in 2001 and the country feared for its survival.
It wasn’t just the level that was concerning. Moshe Gophen, former director of the Kinneret Limnological Laboratory, documented his shocking findings in his book, A Different Kinneret.
“I realized that under low water levels, the water quality is better,” he explained. “The explanation is very simple: lower river discharge and water inflow means lower imports of pollutants from the drainage basin.”
Israel faced a dilemma on how to it could increase the water supply while keeping the Kinneret unpolluted.
After extensive efforts, the country constructed five seawater desalination plants as alternative water resources, and redirected much of the Hula Valley’s agricultural waste and runoff away from the Kinneret well through the 2000s. Suggestions such as pumping desalinated water into the Kinneret and redirecting saline springs away from the lake were considered.
Israel’s rehabilitation efforts and recent above-average rainfall may have restored the Kinneret to its former glory, but too much of a rise in the lake could have other repercussions.
Gophen’s main concern remains the Kinneret’s water quality: if the water’s salt and pollution concentrations are too high, it cannot be used for drinking water, fishing, or any recreational activities.
“When it was necessary to pump a million cubic meters of water and distribute it throughout the state of Israel, a low water level was worrying,” he wrote. “However, I’m saying, you need to look at the water quality as well... If there are strong rains, powerful flow in the rivers, and lots of water coming in, then a lot of pollutants come in with it. What does a low level mean? When there’s no water, no strong flow in the rivers, and no pollutants, then the water quality is better.”
Based on this logic, Gophen suggested the Water Authority allow the lake to flow constantly. He explained that the “stay time... the time required to replace all the water in the lake given the amount of incoming water and volume of the lake” should be decreased, so the lake can constantly rid itself of toxins and replenish with fresh and running water.
With the Kinneret approaching its capacity, the Water Authority may be forced to open the Deganya Dam in any case, to prevent flooding in Tiberias. The renewed flow could improve water quality, prevent flooding, and even benefit the Jordan River.
As promising as the situation sounds, Brenner said there were many political and financial factors that could make such an endeavor impractical. Though the Kinneret is no longer Israel’s sole water source, it is still crucial for the country to ensure its stable levels as a safety net, in case any of its five desalination plants malfunction or are targeted in an act of terrorism.
To keep both the Jordan River flowing and the Kinneret stable, desalinated water might need to be pumped from the Mediterranean Sea. This project could be too costly and inefficient for Israel, especially if part of the water is redirected to Jordan for that country’s personal use.
The rise in the Kinneret’s water level is certainly monumental, but as the country turns to desalination as its main source for drinking water, the lake’s water quality has taken the forefront of environmental concerns. Environmental, political, and financial factors must be considered in deciding the best way to ensure Israel’s water remains clean and usable.