Changing rainfall patterns and historic low water levels at the Gatun Lake have led the Panama Canal to announce a series of new measures from February onwards, aimed at sustaining an operational level of water.
The canal authority hopes that the changes, which will be implemented from February 15, will provide reliability in water levels and transit schedules to customers while it focuses on finding a long-term solution.
Despite water-conservation measures, this past year’s rainfall was 20% below the historic average and the fifth driest year in 70 years.
It follows several years of lower than average rainfall coupled by a 10% increase in water evaporation levels due to a 0.5-1.5°C rise in temperature.
Without fee and operational changes, the canal’s water levels are projected to drop to levels that would affect the Neopanamax and Panamax locks, noted the canal authority.
The measures include a freshwater surcharge, which will be applied to all vessels over 125 ft in length overall (LOA) that transit through the Panama Canal.
In addition, a variable fee ranging from a 1-10% of the vessel’s toll will be applied depending on Gatun Lake levels at the time of transit (i.e. if the lake has a higher level, the percentage will be lower and vice versa).
The Panama Canal will adjust the number of daily reservation slots available to 27, replicating the total offered during lane outages. The waterway will also require that each vessel pays its booking fee in full no later than 48 hours depending on the booking period.
Neopanamax vessels will have eight slots which is unchanged while there are slot reductions for smaller vessels.
A handling service fee will also be applied to all visits for transit at the time they are created in the system. The fee will be deducted from the vessel’s tolls invoice once the vessel begins transit.
The processing fee will be US$5,000 for vessels 91 ft in beam and over and US$1,500 for vessels over 125 ft LOA, but less than 91 ft in beam.
The canal authority hopes that the new measures will allow it to better anticipate the number and type of ships transiting the waterway, and therefore allocate water resources accordingly.
In order to plan accordingly, customers will be provided with real-time data on current and projected levels of Gatun Lake, available maximum drafts, and number and types of transits when requesting transits or making reservations.
The official lake levels will be published daily, as well as forecasted for the following two months.
The decision to adopt such measures was taken following an evaluation of the impact of techniques already instituted to save water used in the canal’s operations.
These include cross-filling lockages, a technique that sends water between the two lanes at the Panamax Locks during transits and saves an amount of water equivalent to that used in six lockages each day.
Other ongoing measures include suspension of power generation at the Gatun Hydroelectric Plant, elimination of hydraulic assistance at the Panamax Locks, tandem lockages, which involve two ships transiting at the same time, when vessel size allows and lastly, use of water-saving basins at the Neopanamax Locks.
The canal will also expand its investment programme to include projects focused on addressing the sustainability of the water supply in the medium and long-term.