Draft Limits Set for Expanded Panama Canal Locks

Panama Canal drought
A cargo ship is seen in the Panama Canal in Panama City August 10, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

The Panama Canal Authority has published the initial draft restrictions for neopanamax vessels ahead of next month’s opening of the expanded Panama Canal at a level significantly below the advertised draft limits.

The limit was set following months of drought in the Panama Canal watershed that has reduced the water level of Gatun Lake and has already caused two rounds of draft restrictions for vessels using the waterway.

The maximum allowable draft for vessels transiting the new Neopanamax locks has been set to 12.8 meters (42 feet) Tropical Fresh Water. The Panama Canal Authority (ACP) says the draft limits, effective as of June 27 when the expanded locks will open to commercial vessels, are based Gatun Lake water level projections and weather forecasts for the weeks ahead.

Earlier this month, conditions actually allowed the ACP to postpone a third round of draft restrictions set to enter into force on May 9 for the existing waterway, however those restrictions are now expected to become effective as of May 25. The third round of restrictions set a maximum transit draft of 11.59 meters (38 feet), down six inches from the limits currently in place.

The draft limits and ongoing drought in the Panama Canal watershed are an increasing cause for concern for shippers, and rightfully so considering the published draft limit of the new locks has always been 15.20 meters, significantly deeper the new posted limits.

The drought has been blamed on this year’s strong El Niño, which has historically brought dry conditions to the region. Luckily, El Niño is currently rapidly weakening, and forecasters are now calling for an increased chance of La Niña in the second half of 2016, which is known for bringing cool and wet weather to the southern portion of Central America.

But unless they get rain, the ACP warns that more restrictions for both the existing waterway and new Neopanamax locks could be on the way. An update draft limit is expected to be announced at least 4 weeks prior to the opening of the new locks. 

More Reading: Panama Canal Draft Restrictions Hamper Waterway’s Big Ship Vision