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The water in Lake Kinneret yesterday hit its lower "red line" of 213 meters below sea level - below which further pumping could damage the water quality.

As a result, the Water Commission plans to announce an emergency water conservation plan this morning.

"Even before I came here this morning, I was in a bad mood," said Shuli Chen, the Water Commission official who has been measuring the Kinneret's level for the last eight years, a moment before opening the meter box in the Rimonim Galei Kinneret Hotel in Tiberias. He was almost certain of what the meter would show - and indeed it did.

When the country's main water source hits the lower red line at the beginning of July, with the worst of the summer still to come, it is not just Chen who has reason to worry. Granted, Israel has been in this situation before: Seven years ago, Chen pointed out, the lake was at its lowest level since measurements began by the end of the summer - 214.87 meters below sea level, or 1.87 meters below the current level. But this year as well, the level is expected to fall to 215 meters below sea level by summer's end, and the country's other two main water sources, the coastal and mountain aquifers, are in equally bad shape.

"We need to pray for a serious [rainy] winter," Chen said grimly. "An average winter won't suffice. If there is not a serious flow of water into the Kinneret this winter, our situation will be very bad."

Water experts define the problem simply: Demand for water outstrips supply.

But this problem has other consequences as well: It affects the Kinneret itself. About a week ago, for instance, a previously unknown species of algae suddenly appeared on the lake, looking like greenish stains overlaid by foam. It disappeared a few days later, as suddenly as it had come. But researchers are still puzzling over why it appeared to begin with.

"Until the mid-1990s, the emergence of [different] algae could be accurately predicted based on the season," said Dr. Tamar Zohary, head of the Kinneret Limnological Laboratory at the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute. Since then, however, the lake has become more unstable and less predictable.

Another indication of the lake's growing instability is the sudden influx of leeches on some of its beaches in recent years.

Researchers attribute this instability primarily to human actions - such as pumping - that have caused rapid and extreme fluctuations in the Kinneret's level. Once, the difference between the lake's highest and lowest level of the year was only about 1.5 meters. In recent years, however, this difference has sometimes been as high as six meters.

"That's a serious difference for a system that has grown used to stable fluctuations," said Zohary. "A wide range of levels is terrible for the lake. It creates stress on the ecological system."

For instance, researchers believe that rapidly changing water levels are behind the recent onslaught of leeches: The fluctuations have caused the water's quality to deteriorate, which in turn has led to a decline in the population of snails that eat the leeches' eggs, so more leeches are being born. Man has also affected the lake in other ways - for instance, through pollution and fishing.

Chen says that Israelis' fixation on the Kinneret's water level is unique. "There are thousands of lakes in the world, but only the Kinneret is the focus of so much interest, with people following every centimeter of fluctuation in the level," he said.

So far, however, this interest has yet to translate into a serious national effort to heal the lake's ills.