The Dead Sea is dying, goes the conventional wisdom: The water level of the fabled salty lake is dropping nearly 4 feet a year. Less well known: Part of the lake is actually overflowing, threatening one of Israel's key tourism destinations.
Israel is feverishly campaigning to have the Dead Sea — the lowest point on earth and repository of precious minerals — named one of the natural wonders of the world. At the same time, it's racing to stabilize what it calls "the world's largest natural spa" so hotels on its southern end aren't swamped and tourists can continue to soak in the lake's therapeutic waters.
Without intervention, "in five to 10 years, (the water) would flood the hotel lobbies, no question," said Alon Tal, one of the researchers the government has commissioned to find a solution.
The Dead Sea is divided into a northern and southern basin, which are located at different elevations, largely disconnected and miles apart. That means the rising waters of the southern basin cannot simply pour into the shrinking basin in the north.
Heavy industrialization is what's causing the waters on the southern basin to rise. Chemical companies have built evaporation pools there to extract lucrative minerals from the lake. Millions of tons of salt are left annually on the floor of these pools, causing the water to rise 8 inches a year.
Israel's tourism and environmental protection ministers are endorsing Tal's most expensive proposal: A complex $2 billion plan to chip off the salt buildup on the part of the lake that's rising and send it by conveyor belt to the northern end that's dropping.
They're also demanding that Dead Sea Works Ltd. — the multibillion-dollar Israeli industry that mines the mineral-rich waters — foot the bill.
"As the polluters, they should pay," said Roee Elisha, associate director of the Dead Sea Preservation Government Company Ltd., a branch of Israel's Tourism Ministry.
The Dead Sea, which is linked to the sites of the biblical Sodom and Gomorra, runs more than 60 miles through Israel, the West Bank and Jordan. Its minerals have been sought after since ancient times: The pharaohs were embalmed with the lake's natural asphalt lumps, and Cleopatra is said to have used its skin-rejuvenating salts and mud.
Today, the lake is one of Israel's top tourism draws. Half of the 3.45 million tourists to Israel paid a stop there in 2010. Almost 200,000 stayed in the 4,000 hotel rooms along the lake. Locals flock there too, with more than 630,000 — or almost one in 10 Israelis — spending time at Dead Sea hotels last year.
Dead Sea tourism revenue totaled some $300 million last year, propping up an industry that accounts for thousands of jobs in a part of the country that otherwise offers limited employment opportunities.
Current efforts to preserve the Dead Sea as a natural treasure shine a spotlight on how extensively the lake has been exploited by modern industry — and how it paradoxically also depends on industry for its survival.
Israel's Dead Sea Works and Jordan's Arab Potash mine Dead Sea waters for potash and other minerals, exporting them worldwide for use in fertilizers, cosmetics, cars and laptops.
The southern basin now in danger of flooding nearly dried up before the chemical companies intervened. In the 1960s, Dead Sea Works dug a 10-mile canal to pump saltwater from the lake's northern basin into its nearly parched southern end, turning it into a network of evaporation pools.
That pool is where the bulk of the Israeli hotels lie, and where tourists bob in filmy water so heavy with salt and minerals that they float.
But as the water rises, it encroaches on hotel beaches, where blobs of salt stick out near the shores and the salty floor sparkles in the turquoise waters. At one beach, stairs leading to the lake have become half-submerged, and a sun umbrella permanently affixed to the edge is now deep in the water.
Dead Sea Works says it will foot some of the bill to dredge the salt from the evaporation pools and send it north, but is negotiating its share with the government, said Noam Goldstein, the company's vice president of infrastructure.
Environmentalists accuse the company of profiting at the expense of the ecology. Its factory of smokestacks, pipes and levers looms at the tip of the lake, and its tractors sit high atop snow-white piles of potash.
The company counters that without it, tourists in Israeli hotels would have nothing to swim in — the hotels sit on the banks of their evaporation pools.
The salt dredging proposal still awaits a final government approval.
It's the exact opposite problem at the Dead Sea's northern basin, where the water level is dropping and a barren, pockmarked moonscape has replaced sandy beaches.
Old boardwalks that once led into the lake now stand in the middle of empty land. At one beach, bathers must ride a trolley to the lake's edge.
Israel, Jordan and Syria are responsible for the northern Dead Sea's dramatic shrinkage: They have redirected the Jordan River and its tributaries for drinking water, drastically reducing the amount that used to flow into the Dead Sea. The Israeli and Jordanian industries also pump out water from the sea for their evaporation pools.
The World Bank is studying a decades-old proposal to replenish the northern Dead Sea's waters by channeling water through a canal from the Red Sea, more than 100 miles south. With costs estimated at up to $15 billion and the environmental side effects unpredictable, the Red-Dead canal is unlikely to be built any time soon.
In the meantime, Israel's cabinet recently announced it would invest $2.5 million to market the Dead Sea in the international New 7 Wonders of Nature competition, which ends in November.
Gura Berger, project manager for the Tourism Ministry's Dead Sea public relations campaign, says winning the contest could help revive the lake and be a major boost to area tourism.
"We want the Dead Sea to be considered a wonder of the world, so there will be an interest to protect it," Berger said.