The past winter's meager rainfalls and sharp rise in domestic water consumption have brought Israel to the most acute water crisis in the past decade.

The country's main water sources are expected to drop below the safe minimum levels by the end of the summer, which threatens the water quality. The Water Authority will have to take conservation measures while drilling for water in an effort to increase the supply.

The Water Authority's operating committee is to meet next week to discuss the crisis.

The Water Authority's Hydraulic Service predicts that the levels of Lake Kinneret, the western Mountain Aquifer (Yarkon-Taninim) and Coast Aquifer will plunge below the safe minimum by the end of the year. The Kinneret's surface is expected to drop to 214.2 meters below sea level, more than a meter below the safe minimum.

The deficit in the water balance (amount of water pumped out compared to rainfall) will reach 410 million cubic meters by the end of the year, almost twice as much as last year's deficit. Altogether, the past four years' accumulated deficit is almost a billion cubic meters.

The Kinneret is 60 centimeters lower today than it was last year and more than three meters lower than four years ago. Last month - the last main winter month - the Hydraulic Service's monitoring stations did not register a single significant rise in any of Israel's streams.

Dropping water levels endanger the water quality, mainly in the coast and western mountain aquifers. The lower the fresh water level, the more sea water or salt water enters the aquifers from deep in the ground. The water being drilled along the coastal plain, from the Dan region to Hadera, has already been contaminated by salt. In some places, sea water has penetrated as far as a kilometer inland.

On top of the paucity of rain, domestic water consumption is rising by 4 percent a year. "Among other things, the dry winters increased the water used for gardening," says Tami Shor, Water Service's operation manager.

Domestic water consumption is expected to reach an estimated 796 million cubic meters by the end of the year, 134 million cubic meters more than it was at the beginning of the decade, she says. This amount is almost equal to the production of the Ashkelon and Palmahim desalination plants, wiping out the two plants' contribution in less that ten years.

The Water Authority intends to drill for groundwater in the Hula area and east Galilee, and to funnel it to the Kinneret and the National Water Carrier, respectively. It will also allow the desalination plants to increase water production," Shor says.

The authority will take measures to reduce water consumption in private yards, local authorities and farming communities.

"We'll raise water rates for gardening and enforce regulations forbidding watering gardens from November to April, and allow watering only from 7 P.M. to 7 A.M. the rest of the time," she says.

"The water crisis is entirely our own doing," says water expert Dr. Peretz Dar, whose water- saving plan was shelved by the Water Authority several years ago. "The government allocated funds for desalination plants but failed to allocate the resources for conservation. We could have reduced consumption by 10 percent and covered a large part of the accumulated deficit in the Kinneret and aquifers," he says.