Panama Canal Announces Second Draft Restriction

Gatun Locks (file image, 2014)

By MarEx 2016-04-05 18:38:39

The Panama Canal Authority (ACP) has issued a second draft restriction to take effect at the end of April, which will reduce the maximum tropical freshwater draft of transiting vessels to 38.5 feet, down from the standard 39.5 feet. 

The Authority says that the draft restrictions are due to unusually dry conditions caused by a strong El Niño, the worst since the 1997-1998 season. During an El Niño year, the pattern of rainfall changes in many areas; in Panama, it has triggered a drought in the Canal's watershed, causing the water levels of Gatun and Alhajuela Lakes to fall substantially below their average for this time of year. It takes approximately 50 million gallons of freshwater to complete one transit of the existing locks. 

The Authority said that it is possible that the maximum draft will be further reduced, in additional six inch increments, and that ship operators will be given advance notice. The measures will remain in place until the water level in Gatun Lake returns to normal. 

The Canal nearly had to implement a draft restriction late last year, but managed to avoid it thanks to additional rainfall and improved operational efficiency. In the past, it has also had to interrupt normal operations due to flooding, and observers have suggested that increasing frequency of severe weather events could hamper its traffic volume in the future.

The long-delayed Panama Canal Expansion is scheduled to open in a ceremony June 26; its operations also depend on water flows from Gatun Lake. However, the design of the new locks is intended to be more efficient, using reserve basins that will save 60 percent of the water used in each cycle.