The Sea of Galilee Is Finally Completely Full — and Empty

After almost 30 years in which the shrinking lake retreated further and further from the shore, it is now overflowing its banks. Yet the coronavirus lockdown means no one is here to enjoy it

Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
The Sea of Galilee from the air, April 2020. The heart fills upon seeing it, but simultaneously contracts with sorrow at the emptiness around the lake.
The Sea of Galilee from the air, April 2020. The heart fills upon seeing it, but simultaneously contracts with sorrow at the emptiness around the lake.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

The Sea of Galilee is overflowing its banks. That’s not a euphemism, it’s fact. Rahel the Poetess described a palm tree whose roots are “wading in the waters of the Kinneret” – the Hebrew name for the lake, and exactly that is actually happening, after almost 30 years in which the shrinking lake retreated further and further from the trees on the shore.

It’s a lovely sight. The heart fills upon seeing it, but simultaneously contracts with sorrow at the emptiness around the lake.

In the middle of the Passover holiday week, with the lake full, there wasn’t a soul in sight.
In the middle of the Passover holiday week, with the lake full, there wasn’t a soul in sight.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Meanwhile, even if last week’s showers turns out to be the last rain of the season, the lake is “full”. Which means, as of writing, that it’s just six inches (15.5 centimeters) from the “upper red line” – the point at which facilities on the shore start to be flooded. On the eastern shore, in the parking area between Kibbutz Ha’on and Kibbutz Ein Gev, the water reaches the metal gate. I’ve never seen it so high.

Yet strolling along the shore, wearing mask and gloves of course, even stranger is the fact that in the middle of the Passover holiday week, with the lake full, there wasn’t a soul in sight. Usually you’d have to elbow for room to pitch a tent but now, the beaches were empty.

The intense tourism at the Kinneret has provoked much complaint over the years. I myself have written about their noise and litter, but these weeks they are very much missed. The lake is beautiful and the water birds seem to be enjoying the quiet, but it’s a sad quiet, an emptiness that feels unsettling, as the people of Israel stay home in self-isolation because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the borders are closed to incoming tourism.

'The lifeguard station is where it should be. Things look orderly and logical.'
'The lifeguard station is where it should be. Things look orderly and logical.'Credit: Gil Eliahu

Idan Greenbaum, chairman of the Jordan Valley Regional Council who also heads the Kinneret Urban Union, expresses mixed emotions. “A full Kinneret is a blessing. The view is so beautiful now,” he says. Even the water quality has improved: the influx of rainfall lowered the lake’s salinity, he says. As for the tourists, he is confident they’ll come to see the full lake as soon as they can.

“Now the beaches are going back to where they’re supposed to be,” Greenbaum says. “The lifeguard station is where it should be. Things look orderly and logical.” At Ginnosar beach, for example, as the water level receded, the boats couldn’t reach the dock, which had to be extended. “This problem has now been resolved naturally; we’re back in place and obviously there is great joy in that,” he continued. “On the other hand, we thought that this Passover we’d break visitor records. That was the plan. We planned for a campsite here. We put a lot of effort into it and nothing happened. That’s sad for us. The weather is great and suddenly we have the whole Kinneret to ourselves. It sucks.”

An empty water park on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, seen from the air, April 2020.
An empty water park on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, seen from the air, April 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

A blessed winter, finally

Hydrology experts project that the water level in the Kinneret will reach its peak in early May, following what has been a blessed winter, from the perspective of precipitation. In Safed, for example, 913 millimeters of rain were recorded, versus an average of 718mm. Rain that falls in Safed flows through the stream Nahal Amud into the Kinneret, which is just one source.

The water level in the Kinneret hasn’t been this high since the early 1990s. In the last two winters, 2018–2019 and 2019–2020, the water level rose by 6.2 meters. It helps that in the summer of 2019 its level dropped at the most moderate rate ever measured since records began. It is also crucial that water is barely being pumped from the lake any more for irrigation or drinking: Israelis are getting most of their potable water from desalination plants.

At the southernmost end of the lake is Degania Dam, which feeds into the Jordan River. The dam was built in the 1930s. In modern times, it is only opened when there is no choice because we lose water from the lake to the Jordan. It’s only opened when the lake is completely full, which has become ever rarer. The last time it was opened was in 1995 which is a quarter-century ago. Then the Kinneret had reached 44 centimeters below the upper red line and the dam was opened for nine days.

A boat docking next to the Kinneret Cemetery.
A boat docking next to the Kinneret Cemetery.Credit: Gil Eliahu

The big question is whether Degania Dam going to be opened again this year. Giora Shaham, director of the Water Authority, said last week that based on the authority’s forecasts he doesn’t think it will be fully opened. “We are already releasing a slight stream of water, but we’ve been doing that for years to help revive the Jordan River,” he explained.

Indeed the Jordan River has suffered. A century ago, the flow in the southern Jordan River was about 1.2 billion cubic meters of water a year. In 2015, it was 97 percent lower, at just 40 million cubic meters. Almost all its water was diverted for drinking and irrigation. In addition, towns along the river – Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian – all dumped partially treated or raw waste into the water. The diversion and pollution of the water led to ecological collapse. More than half the wild flora and half of its original fauna along the Jordan’s banks have been lost, experts estimate. The river’s contraction is also causing the Dead Sea to shrink, since the Jordan River is its main source of water.

Any time the Degania Dam is opened, releasing water into the Jordan River, is a step with political and environmental implications. Opinions are perennially divided: Is it a “terrible waste” of good quality water? Or is it necessary to help save the environment along the river’s banks?

Kinneret
Credit: Gil Eliahu

Greenbaum is on the side of not wasting good water unnecessarily, explaining that there is a constant, controlled release of water through the dam, around 3,500 cubic meters a day. “Opening the dam wide could damage and flood farms in Israel and Jordan,” he says, adding that some areas along the border are mined and would also be affected. Given that communities have been built and fields cultivated along the river over the past 100 years, Greenbaum fears that the river might not even have the capacity to handle the flow if the dam is opened.

“It’s a game of centimeters,” says Dror Pevzner, who is responsible for waterway waterbed rehabilitation at the Environmental Protection Ministry. “The Kinneret is still rising by two centimeters a day. They are trying to avoid opening the dam, but we need to realize that before opening, logistical preparations have to be made.”

One obstacle is Alumot Dam, two kilometers downriver from the Degania Dam. “It has three sources of water: from the Kinneret that passes through the Degania Dam, wastewater from the treatment plant at nearby Bitaniya, and water from the saline water carrier that circumvents the Kinneret to avoid salinating the lake, and which return to the Jordan River at Alumot. The Alumot dam is made of earth. It’s already operating at its maximum capacity. If the Degania Dam is opened, the Alumot Dam will be flooded.”

There is however a huge difference between the amount of water entering into the Kinneret now, and the amount of water allowed to “seep” out in order to avoid completely opening the Degania Dam. Around 30 cubic meters are entering the lake per second while only around one cubic meter per second is being released.

The beautiful sight of the full Sea of Galilee.
Rahel the Poetess described a palm tree whose roots are 'wading in the waters of the Kinneret.'Credit: Gil Eliahu

Also, if Degania is opened, the water flowing into the river will be relatively saline, which isn’t good for the animals and vegetation living along its banks. “The river system hasn’t been operating as a natural system for years,” Pevzner explains — since the Degania Dam was built. “Flooding ‘reboots’ the stream... As an ecologist I’d be pleased if the system would return, even just for a while, to function in its natural state. In that respect I’d be pleased at a flood, but it’s clear that, as with a forest fire, damage could also ensue.”

Opening both the Degania and Alumot dams would impact the entire river all the way to the end point: the Dead Sea, Pevzner says. “In many ways, without God forbid harming people or property, we wish it would happen,” he says.

A turtle appears

The road from Tiberias to Tzemah crosses the Degania Dam. On one side you see the river: it looks green and clean. On the other side is the dam. If and when the dam is opened, it should be an amazing sight. Meanwhile the rush of the limited amounts of water being released can be clearly heard.

The Kinneret seen from its eastern shore.
The Kinneret seen from its eastern shore, April 2020.Credit: Gil Eliahu

From Degania I travel southwest to the Alumot Dam. Water flows there through two huge pipes. I go further south, turn to Beit Zera, circumvent the kibbutz from the north and arrive at the riverbank near a pedestrian bridge over a lovely section of the Jordan River, which was rehabilitated some years ago. The river is narrow and twisty in this section.

Usually the place is thronged with hikers. This time I see from afar one woman sitting on a folding chair on the bank. I pass to the other side. The area is blossoming, with clouds of yellow daisies and white wild carrot. A large flock of storks flies over me. I sit for a moment on the bank, in the total quiet, and think how beautiful it is here. On the rock across from me, in the middle of the channel, is a turtle.

But then I suddenly feel that the quiet is somehow oppressive. I’ve never missed the company of other hikers so much.

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