Drought Brings Second Round of Panama Canal Draft Restrictions

Mike Schuler
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April 5, 2016

Photo: Panama Canal Authority

The Panama Canal Authority (ACP) has announced a second round of draft restrictions for all vessels using the waterway as this winter’s strong El Niño continues to bring dry conditions to the region.

The new draft restrictions build on the first set of restrictions announced by the ACP in late March and scheduled to become effective later this month.

Under the new restrictions, the maximum authorized transit draft will be set at 11.74 meters (38.5 fee) Tropical Fresh Water (TFW) for vessels beginning April 29, 2016.

The Panama Canal Authority notes that the new restrictions will apply to vessels loaded after April 1, 2016. Vessels loaded to drafts over 38.5 feet on or before April 1 will have the restriction waved, subject on safety considerations, the ACP says.

All vessel arriving with drafts over 38.5 feet after April 29 may be allowed to transit depending on the level of Gatun Lake at time of transit, otherwise these vessels will be required to trim of offload cargo in order to pass through the waterway.

The ACP implements draft restrictions in 15 cm. (6 in.) intervals at a time, with each new restriction announced at least four weeks in advance. The first round of restrictions set a maximum draft of 11.89 meters (39.0 feet) Tropical Fresh Water (TFW), effective April 18, 2016, according to the ACP. 

The preventive measures are due to low water levels in the Gatun and Alhajuela Lakes caused by drought in the Canal Watershed due to this winter’s El Niño, which typically brings dry conditions to the region.

Stakeholders fear that continued low water levels in Gatun Lake could pose a long-term challenge for the ACP as it prepares to unveil its $5.3 expansion project on June 26, ushering in a new era of bigger – and deeper draft – ships transiting the waterway.

So for now the ACP continues to pray for rain, really the only solution for eliminating any draft restrictions as soon as Gatun Lake levels return to normal.

“These temporary and preventive measures will be taken due to an anticipated climatic variability event related to El Niño, a climate phenomenon resulting in periodic warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean.

“When this occurs, El Niño changes the pattern of rainfall in many regions of the planet. In this case, it has triggered a drought in the Canal Watershed, causing the water levels of Gatun and Alhajuela Lakes to fall substantially below their average for this time of year,” ACP explained in an earlier statement.

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