Israel’s only major freshwater lake may disappear
Last updated October 14, 2018.
“Set sail on the beautiful Sea of Galilee with an inspirational time of praise and worship.” from a brochure for ‘Christians United for Israel’ founder John Hagee’s 2018 tour of the Jewish state.
“The Kinneret will never go back to what it was, and in 20 years it won’t be there at all, it’ll be a swamp.” Israeli water official (who asked to remain anonymous) quoted in Haaretz February 01, 2018
For thousands of years the region’s fresh water heart was Lake Kinneret, (aka the Sea of Galilee) fed by streams from the Syrian and Lebanese mountains to the north, that cross into what is now Israel, then merge to became the short upper Jordan River which discharges into the north end of the lake. At its south end, the lake drains into the lower Jordan which continues south about sixty miles as the crow flies, until it reached the lowest point on earth, the Dead Sea. From there water’s only exit is straight up by evaporation.
The Upper Jordan river is formed by three streams: the Banias, Hatzbani and Dan which rise out of Syria, Lebanon, and Israel respectively. Until the 1950’s these streams, along with springs, contributed to Lake Kinneret and to a large lake and marsh in the Huleh Valley a few miles north of Lake Kinneret. Back then, Lake Huleh had water buffalo, wild pigs, deer, leopards, and endless flocks of migratory birds resting along the flyway between Europe, Asia and Africa. Huleh was about five and a half square miles with another twelve square miles of swamps around it. It was the Lake Okeechobee of the region.
There was even a fishery. The first Zionist colony there, Hulata, was founded in 1935 as a fishing village. But the place was thick with malaria mosquitoes so, as American soils conservationist Walter Lowdermilk wrote in the 1940’s, “Great quantities of kerosene are poured on swamps at the beginning of each malaria season…”
Swamps are carbon sinks for plant matter and trees. That carbon remains stable as long as it stays wet. When it dries out the carbon tends to catch fire through spontaneous combustion; then it burns, burns, burns. In the 1950’s Israel, encouraged by Lowdermilk along with other American experts, and supported financially through the Jewish National Fund, drained the Huleh valley for farmland, annihilating the rich environment and wildlife.
It seemed like a good idea until the peat began to burn. Pesticides and salts built up in the soil. Crops declined. In the 1990’s part of the valley was reflooded and Israel dug a small man-man lake which has helped some of the environmental problems.
These days the Israeli Water Authority blames global warming for plummeting water levels in Lake Kinneret and the depleted Jordan river. No doubt climate change contributes but Kinneret’s dwindling future is mostly due to bad management.[see update at bottom of page for pending research release that affirms this]. The Israeli government continues to authorize Jewish farmers north of the lake to erect earthen dams across the Dan, Hatzbani, and Banias, some without even escapement piping to let part of the water through, effectively stopping most of the river. Water in the dams goes for irrigation and/or fish farms during the long hot summers while all the downstream environment bakes in the sun.
Lake Kinneret (aka Lake Tiberius, aka Sea of Galilee)
Israel’s largest and only natural fresh (but getting saltier) water resource
Desalination technology cheers Israel’s spirit but Lake Kinneret permeates its psyche. Dropping water levels are a pretty good indicator of how soon the Jewish state will lash out at someone. The lake looks big but its surface area of 166 square kilometers (64 square miles) belies a shallow bed that once had an average depth of only 25.6 meters (64 feet) when the lake used to fill up. In the center was a bowl that went to 43 meters (about 141 feet) deep. Even back then, the Kinneret contained only about four cubic kilometers (less than one cubic mile) of water.
Large lakes and reservoirs around the world are described in terms of where the lake surface is in relation to sea level. For example, when Nevada’s Lake Mead water database shows the lake level at 1,082 feet; that’s not the depth of the lake, it’s how high Mead’s surface is above sea level that day.
At full pool, Israel’s Lake Kinneret surface is at -208.8 meters (-685 feet). That is, 208.8 meters below sea level. The Israelis call that full surface elevation the “Upper Red Line.” Just 4.8 meters lower (-213 meters) is the “Lower Red Line.” Some Israeli news articles refer ‘the red line’ without saying which one they mean. That can be confusing but since the lake hasn’t filled to the Upper Red Line in more than a decade they usually mean the Lower Red Line. When the lake surface drops to this level pumping from the lake is supposed to stop. This lower Red Line was initially set at -212 meters but when the lake level kept going below it the government simply changed the designation to -213 meters. As of mid-October, 2018 the lake has been below the Lower Red Line, where scientists say long-term, potentially permanent damage can occur, for over 15 months straight.
At -214.87 meters is the “Black Line.” At this level severe potential exists for irreversible environmental damage. On October 14,2018 Lake Kinneret’s water level was 14.6 inches above the Black Line. An adult standing on the intake pipes that deliver water from the lake to Israel would be calf-deep.
Until recently the Black Line was where the lake surface went lower than the intake pipes so water couldn’t be pumped in bulk from the lake. In 2018 Ahiya Ravid of Ynet News reported on a new, 2 foot diameter, 600 foot long extension pipe Israel’s government had just added to the Kinneret’s intakes. Israel was still pumping 100 million cubic meters from the lake—enough to drop the level by 60 centimeters. It would appear that the extension was installed to allow Israel to suck the lake down below the Black Line. You can follow along with Kinneret’s fortunes at the Israelinfo weather website here: https://forecast.israelinfo.co.il/kineret and see a graph of lake levels for the past 11 years here: http://www.savethekinneret.com/
The environmental danger is that weight of Lake Kinneret’s fresh water holds down saline springs sequestered in pockets under the bottom of the lake. As the lake gets shallower there’s less weight resulting in increased salt water intrusion/mixing from below. Making things worse, in the 1950’s the new state of Israel carried out a massive drilling project by boring more than 60 holes around the western side of the lake. Why they did it is unclear but at least 28 holes were actually drilled into the lake bed. Thus perforated, some of the salt springs began discharging vigorously into the lake. The state tried to plug some of the holes and then built a diversion canal, that’s still in use today, to carry some of the most salty water around the western shore of the lake where it’s dumped into the lower Jordan River to send the problem downstream. As salt levels increase, lake water used for agriculture increases salt deposits on farm land. Also, salts from newly exposed shoreline are blown across the land, or back into the lake, increasing salt build-up in both.
Israel claims it doesn’t pump water from the Kinneret when the lake goes below the Lower Red Line but allowing farmers and others to keep taking water from its sources when the lake is below the Lower Red Line amounts to the same thing. Despite the risk of permanently ruining the lake, Israel still draws source water for irrigation, fish farms, to flush filters in the water system, and to have enough water for tourists to take pictures and kayak, though they may have to get out and drag the kayaks in places because the stream is too shallow.
Fluctuations of a couple meters is one more thing to upset the lake’s hammered environmental balance. In 2012 speculation was that the leech population exploded in the lake because of a die-back of snails that ate leech eggs. The snails had died because of the lake going up and down. The leeches were so abundant that year that waders standing in the water for two minutes could sometimes walk out with hundreds of leeches attached. They weren’t big sausages like Humphrey Bogart waded through in The African Queen but still, it was bad PR for tourism.
In summer the lake can drop by more than a centimeter per day due to evaporation from combinations of: 1) Heat: Because it’s so far below sea level Lake Kinneret summer days hover around a 100 degrees Fahrenheit for weeks at a time. Months go by with no rain at all. 2) Wind: Lake Kinneret is famous for high winds caused by combinations of lake to shore winds, strong Mediterranean sea breezes and katabatic winds from surrounding mountains sinking into the valley. 3) Large surface area.
Throughout history fish were abundant and fishermen hauled them in by the hundreds of metric tons per year. In the early 1990’s fish stocks collapsed. Potential causes are diseases introduced from fish farms, over-fishing, and water quality degradation in the lake from over pumping. Managers blamed over-fishing and by 2010 had closed the lake to all fishing. Biologist, blogger, and Lake Kinneret fish expert, Ruth Landau presents a solid alternative hypothesis. She feels that over-pumping is the culprit in the fish kills. Lower water in shallow parts of the lake releases more nutrients from sediments: fecal coliform, chlorophyll, etc. Turbidity goes up which exacerbates algae blooms, which lowers oxygen. Landau also blames lower water on exploding Lake Kinneret sardine populations which then crash and die back, furthering the drop in water quality as they rot. She maintains that the Lower Red Line should have been enforced at -212 meters.
Israelis tried to mitigate the algae problems by introducing Asian silver carp to the lake. This was nominally successful but in 2013 the government, apparently by accident, mixed up silver carp with Asian bighead carp which eat the zooplankton that eat the algae. That probably made matters worse. At some point even salt and gunk tolerant fish like tilapia and carp give it up and die. In the foreseeable future the Sea of Galilee and its surrounding environs could go the way of California’s Salton Sea and it could go fast. Salinity in the Salton Sea was 44 parts per thousand in 1997. Now, just 20 years later, it’s 59 parts per thousand and malodorous funk billows of rotting fish from massive tilapia die offs have traveled the breeze all the way to Los Angeles one hundred-sixty miles away.
As Kinneret drops, the spiral of algae blooms, lower oxygen, increasing water temperature, and fish die offs will intensify. A day will come when Israeli children, like kids around the Salton Sea, will get asthma and nosebleeds from salts blown over nearby fields from drying, exposed lake bed sediments.
On the political front, hardly a week goes by without Israeli politicians or their supporters accusing Palestinian supporters, groups or countries of, “Crossing a Red Line” inevitably coupled with accusations of anti-Semitism. All the while they ignore the country’s most dangerous Red Line, the Lower Red Line of Lake Kinneret. They have no solutions and nothing to offer except predictable mumblings about rejuvenating the lake with fresh water that everyone paying attention knows they haven’t got. A dead Kinneret will have far-reaching consequences, not least of them being for the country of Jordan with which Israel has water commitments that include sending Jordan 50 million cubic meters per year that presently comes from the Kinneret.
Industrial Fish Farming’s role in declining water quality
Lake Kinneret provided fishing families with a living since pre-Biblical days. At least four of the disciples were Kinneret fishermen. There was the fishery in Lake Huleh to the north, fisheries in the Mediterranean, and in the Red Sea. Rather than trust their luck out on those waters, Zionists in Mandate Palestine began fish farming as early as 1927. Fish farms became a surprisingly big deal and the bigger the farms the bigger the problems. Here are some milestones:
1927/28. Jewish colonists in what would become Israel imported the first shipments of carp to try fish farming.
1934 experimental fish farm established at Acre.
1936—39 Commercial fish farms operating around Acre.
1945 A toxic algae breakout damages fish stocks.
1948 By 1948 Israel had 9,610 acres of fish farms and grew 71% of fish Israelis ate.
1950’s Israelis added blue tilapia and mullet to diversify fish farms.
1969 Added rainbow trout to raceways in colder waters of Dan stream. Added silver carp to eat algae in fish pens.
1970’s Experimented with raising European eels and giant river prawns.
1980’s Water shortages and economic woes drove many small fish farmers out of business. Israelis continued to experiment with different species and maximum density output.
1998-2001 Koi herpes virus breakout dropped carp production.
2003 aquaculture and mariculture produce 20,777 metric tons for market.
2000s Israelis experiment with increasingly intensive fish farming methods to maximize production. Methods include covered ponds, oxygenated (ozone infused) ponds, piping water in ponds one to another, giving fish chemicals/hormones to shut down gonads so fish put that energy into gaining weight faster.
2009 A previously unknown pathogen, tilapia lake virus, breaks out in Israel. Tilapia mortality reached over 80 percent causing Israel’s tilapia production to drop 85 percent by 2016 killing both fish farm stocks and wild stocks in the Sea of Galilee.
2016 By 2016 the virus has spread to multiple countries on three continents causing alarm because tilapia is one of the most widely farmed fish in the world.
2017 Israeli paper Haaretz runs article titled, “Israeli innovation could feed world with bigger farmed fish” with a nice picture of a large tilapia for a graphic.
2017 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) issues alert over lethal tilapia lake virus.
Fish farms aren’t on most people’s environmental radar. Farms promote themselves as responsible alternatives to commercial fishing of wild stocks. But fish escape, even from land locked pens during heavy rains and floods, and when they do they compete with wild stocks, eat the young of wild stocks and infect wild stock with diseases. That’s why fish farms are banned in Alaska where I live.
Farmed tilapia in particular aren’t worth the risk because they lack the levels of Omega-3 fatty acids (the good cholesterol) that fish species like salmon have. In addition, many fish farmers around the world douse their pens with hormones and antibiotics, and feed them stuff that would put you off farmed fish forever.
Tilapia are the fish equivalent of hot dogs. People eat them because they’re cheap, bland, and filling. Growers love tilapia because they’re cheap to raise for market, and they survive living crammed in ponds with poor water quality that would kill other fish. It’s all about increased yield.
Increased yield is the mantra of industrial farming whether it be fields or fish pens. More product, more turnover, more money, on less land, less water, less expensive feed. Business booms until it all collapses. During disease outbreaks, farms pumping water pond to pond can quickly infect the whole operation.
Update: After posting this section I came across an article by Judy Sigel-Itzkovitchwhich in Breaking Israel News that describes an upcoming publication of Science of Total Environment-due out in February, 2019- in which researchers from Ben Gurion University, Michael L. Wine, Alon Rimmer, and Jonathan Laronne, make the case that the Kinneret’s decline cannot be explained by climate change alone. The article is: Agriculture, Diversions, and drought shrinking Galilee Sea.
(*Graphic at top by artist Kari Dunn http://kdunnart.weebly.com)
Baseline Recognition 4: Israel’s only major freshwater lake may disappear: Selected Sources
06.25.2016 Dams are drying out the Jordan River YNet News by Amir Ben David. Israeli Water Authority lets Jewish farmers build earthen dams across the primary streams that are the Jordan’s headwaters in north Israel before the Jordan gets to Lake Kinneret/Sea of Galilee: the Dan, Hatzbani, and Banias. This has been going on for years. This year farmers built a dam with no pipe (which was supposed to be required for some water escapement). This is drying up the Jordan. [Israelis blaming drought for water levels in Lake Kinneret at the same time they’re inundating their fields and water table with water that historically flowed to the lake.]
03.29.2001 Over Israeli objections, Lebanon opens pumping station on river LA Times/Reuters In 1964 Syria was going to divert the Banias river away from the Jordan river (and Israel) and towards the Yarmouk river. Lebanon was going to build a canal from the Hasbani to the Banias in a project that would divert 20 to 30 mcm/year from the Jordan. Israel attacked the workers with tanks and jet planes to stop the diversion. In 2001/2 Lebanon installed two small water projects along the Hasbani to supply water to two villages impacted by drought. Ariel Sharon called that cause for war. Israel subsequently invaded Lebanon and destroyed the pump stations during the second Lebanon war.
(date? oldest citation in power point was 2006) Salinity in Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee)-Its History, Environmental Challenges, and Management Alon Rimmer, Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Laboratory presentation https://wrrc.arizona.edu/sites/wrrc.arixona.edu/files/WRRC Brown Bag-Salinity in the Sea of Galilee.pdf Salinity fluctuations in the Lake over time. Talks about the “massive’ drilling project in and around the lake in the 1950’s.01.29.2018 Israel is approaching a severe water crisis Haaretz by Ora Cohen. “The Kinneret will never go back to what it was, and in 20 years it won’t be there at all, it’ll be a swamp.” source close to the [water] planning process who asked to not be named.
10.06.2011 Lake Kinneret water level inching towards the Black Line. Arutz Sheva by Cha’na Ya’al. In 2011 Lake Kinneret started the summer 16.9” above the [lower] Red Line. At summer’s end water was 16.9” below the [lower] Red Line. Meaning that at that point the surface was only 56.9 inches above the Black Line in the first week of October, 2011. [In the second week of October 2018, the lake is 15 inches above the Black Line.]
06.22.2018 Kinneret water levels dropping yet again. Ynet news by Ahiya Raved.
03.17.2017 State unveils a 10-year plan to restore habitat and control toxic dust storms along the Salton Sea’s receding shoreline. Los Angeles Times by Louis Sahagun.
10.03.2017 The Salton Sea: A brief description of its current conditions, and potential remediation projects. The Salton Sea Authority.
06.28.2012 Kinneret invaded by leeches. Haaretz by Eli Ashkenazi.
01.23.2013 Lake Kinneret water-A Damaged Treasure. by fisheries and Lake Kinneret expert, Ruth Landau.
08.15.2013 Tilabia of Lake Kinneret-A Damaged Treasure. Lake Kinneret blog, by fisheries and Lake Kinneret expert Ruth Landau.
01.29.2017 Israeli innovations could feed the world with bigger fish Haaretz by Ruth Schuster. Bigger Tilapia through chemical neutering. (No discussion about what effect eating that might have on developing human gonads.)
[as of October, 13, 2018 online] FAO of the United Nations Fisheries and aquaculture topics. Israel. Geographic profiles, topics. Fact sheets. In: FAO fisheries and aquaculture department. Includes, inter alia: This paper gives the early history of Israeli fish farms from 1927.
2004. The emergence of koi herpes virus and its significance to European aquaculture. Bulletin of European Association of Fish Pathology 24 (6) 2004. by Olm Haenen.
05.26.2017 FAO issues alert over lethal virus affecting popular tilapia fish.
04.2017 Jensen, MD and Mohan CV, 2017. Tilapia lake virus (TiLV): Literature reviews. Penang, Malaysia: CGIAR research program on Fish Agri-food systems. Working paper: Fish-2017-04. Tilapia Lake Virus (TiLV) literature review 05.2011 to 04.2013. TiLV isolates found in farmed and wild stocks in Sea of Galilee, Jordan Valley. Upper and lower Galilee and elsewhere.
06.29.2017 Israeli innovation could feed world with bigger farmed fish Haaretz by Ruth Schuster. Stopping gonad development causes fish to put the energy into adding body weight instead. It’s an idea that’s been around for decades but the article implies the Israeli’s are onto something new. They are experimenting with various chemicals that disrupt hormones in fish brains that induce gonad development. What effect eating those fish would have on humans, especially children, is not addressed in the article.
04.05.2016 Virus killing one of the world’s most farmed fish, Israeli study finds. Times of Israel by AFP. 2009 virus breakout in Israel causes brain swelling in tilapia. Both commercial fish ponds and wild stocks in the Sea of Galilee are affected. Tilapia yields crash by 85 percent. As if 2017 tilapia lake virus is in Egypt, Thailand, Columbia, Ecuador, and Israel.
Update: 09.17.2018 Sea of Galilee nears dangerous Black Line due to agriculture, water diversion Breaking Israel News by Judy Sigel-Itzkovitch. After posting this section I came across this article which describes an upcoming publication:
February, 2019 Agriculture, Diversions, and drought shrinking Galilee Sea Science of Total Environment, vol 651,part 1. (the journal’s site says, “ this issue is in progress but contains articles that are final and fully citable”) by Ben Gurion University researchers Michael L. Wine, Alon Rimmer, Jonathan Laronne.