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All’s well at the Canal
By Franklin Castrellón
The rainy season started on May 15 with a delay of almost a month, normalizing transit operations through the Panama Canal.
Due to the drought, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) announced on May 8 water-saving measures to maintain the availability of water for human consumption and industrial use in the metropolitan area of Panama and the Canal.
The cost-saving measures suspended hydraulic assistance to ships during ejection from the locks, and increased lockage scheduling in tandem, or two small ships at the same time in the same chamber.
Water injection to lift the sterns of vessels leaving the locks helps them move faster.
“The water saving measures were implemented in the lockage from May 7,” said Jorge Espinosa, director of the Water Resources Section of the ACP, who noticed that although the drought had spread for ten days, as anticipated, “it had not been a critical situation for the Panama Canal.”
“Currently the situation is typical of the rainy season for the Panama Canal Watershed at this time of year,” said Espinosa. “In the short term rainfall is expected to continue as normal,” the manager of Water Resources told The Bulletin newspaper.
On May 21, Gatun Lake, the main source of water for the Canal and consumption in the metropolitan regions of Panama, was maintaining a level of 84.36 feet (25.72 meters), within the historic average guide curve, observed by Espinosa.
Alhajuela Lake, which serves as an auxiliary source for Canal operations, had a level of 217.67 feet (66.36 meters), well within normal for this time of year.
The brief drought, exacerbated by high summer temperatures, not only threatened the operations of the Canal, but the capacity of hydropower generation, water sources for drinking water plants and grass in the pastoral areas of the provinces of Herrera, Los Santos, Cocle and Veraguas.
The anomalous situation has prompted the government to take urgent measures to save energy and spend $3 million to mitigate the damages of the drought in these four provinces. The official start of the rainy season on May 15 had the effect of relieving the fears of further damage to livestock and rationing the supply of water and energy.
Increased availability of water
For his part, the ACP administrator, Jorge Quijano, said, “The implementation of the Master Plan and the Panama Canal expansion program, which raises the level of Gatun Lake 45 cms. and the dredging of Gatun Lake and Gaillard Cut to increase the depth of the channels by 2.1 meters, have allowed the Canal to maintain maximum allowable draft today of 12.04 meters for transiting vessels, even during an extended dry season, as happened this year.
“These works will ensure enough water, not only for the expanded Canal operations, but for human consumption,” he added.
All these works are to increase water storage capacity to ensure the reliability of the drafts of post-Panamax vessels and supply purified water, at a cost of approximately $400 million, noted the administrator.
Also within the regular investment program is included the design of a new landfill and system to mitigate flood risks in the case of rapid swelling of rivers that feed the lake. The control of lake levels is vital to protect the facilities and equipment of the Canal and, consequently, for safe, efficient and uninterrupted operation.
Questioned about the future risk of a prolonged drought, the ACP official said there was no “problem with the availability of water, at least during the first years after the canal expansion”.
He said another aspect to take into account once the expanded Canal is in operation is that the new locks are designed to save water. “The Panamax locks, with water saving basins, use 7% less water than the current locks,” he said.