EIN GEV, Israel: Not long ago, when Ein Gev swimmers put their towels on the grass by the sea of Galilee.
Today, they place their umbrellas 100 meters below, on a sandy beach that has emerged due to the shrinkage of the iconic body of water.
"Every time we arrive, we feel a pain in our hearts," said Yael Lichi, 47, who visited the famous lake with his family for 15 years.
"The lake is a symbol in Israel. Whenever there is a drought, it is the first thing we talk about. "
In front of Lichi, wooden boats with Christian pilgrims on board sail through calm waters, among groups from all over the world who visit it.
The Sea of Galilee, where Christians believe Jesus walked on water, has been shrinking for years, mostly due to overuse, and environmentalists are raising the alarm.
Plans are being planned to resuscitate the freshwater body known to the Israelis as the Kinneret and to some like Lake Tiberias.
For Israel, the lake is vital, long been the main source of water in the country. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz provides its daily water level on its last page.
His shrinkage has been a source of deep concern. When two islands recently appeared due to falling water levels, it received widespread attention in Israeli media.
Since 2013, "we are below the red line," in addition to "salinity increases, fish have difficulty surviving and vegetation is affected," said Amir Givati, a hydrologist at Israel's water authority.
The level is only 20 centimeters (less than eight inches) above the record low in 2001 – except that at that time 400 million cubic meters (14.1 billion cubic feet) a year were pumped for irrigation.
"This year we pumped only 20 million cubic meters, but the lake is in a bad state," Givati said.
Add to this the 50 million cubic meters that Israel sends to neighboring Jordan as part of the peace accords.
Its unique characteristics go beyond its religious significance.
It is 200 meters below sea level, located north of the Dead Sea, the Jordan River between them.
Both the Dead Sea and the Jordan also suffered from overuse.
Galilee covers about 160 square kilometers (60 square miles), approximately the size of Liechtenstein.
In the water ministry, the blame for its condition is put on five years of drought.
But "climate factors alone are inadequate to explain the record record of the Sea of Galilee," Michael Wine, Alon Rimmer and Jonathan Laronne, researchers at Ben Gurion University in Israel, wrote.
Irrigated agriculture, pumping and diversions are the main culprits, they say in an analysis.
Israel built a national aqueduct in the 1950s, in the years after the country's birth, when it was in search of nation-building and sought to "make the desert bloom," as the first pioneers said.
The aqueduct carried water from the lake to the rest of the country.
"Lake Tiberias has been used as a national reservoir," said Julie Trottier, a specialist in water issues between Israelis and Palestinians.
An artificial canal provided water westward to the Mediterranean coast and to the Negev desert in the south, she said.
This system has not been in place for about 10 years. Now, most homes in the west of the country use desalinated water from the Mediterranean, while farms are irrigated with treated and recycled water.
But eastern Israel has no access to desalinated water, said Orit Skutelsky of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.
Farmers in the region depend on rivers that provide 90 percent of the lake's entrance.
Dozens of bombs remove nearly 100 million cubic meters (3.5 billion cubic feet) a year from these sources, whose flow has declined and is no longer sufficient to supply the lake, says the researcher.
Several miles from the beaches of Ein Gev, at the foot of the rocky hills, huge nets cover the banana trees whose leaves wither with the surrounding dry vegetation.
"We call it the banana valley," said Meir Barkan, tourism director of the Ein Gev resort.
"When they started planting trees, there was no water problem and the banana is the only fruit you get all year long."
But without desalinated or recycled water, farms are the protagonists in the "competition for resources between nature, agriculture and tourism," said Eran Feitelson, a professor of geography at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
For Lior Avichai, an agronomist at the Zemach Nisyonot research center, the solution is not "to kill agriculture and the local economy," but to use less water.
Authorities suggest that the region receive desalinated water through the aqueduct.
Skutelsky said that to better manage the ecosystem, water should be sent upstream and then left to flow naturally.
But "that would be very expensive," Skutelsky said.
Menahem Lev, 59, spent 39 years of his life on the lake as a fisherman.
In his open palm, he shows a fish of St. Peter freshly taken from his nets, slightly larger than his hand.
"The solution can only come from the government – or from heaven," he said.
It points to the semi-abandoned dock that pilgrims' boats can no longer reach, forcing visitors to land on the bank.
"I'm really embarrassed when tourists see the lake in this state," Lev said.