Effective May 28 the maximum authorized draft for vessels transiting the canal’s Neopanamax locks will be 43 feet, down from 50 feet at the beginning of the year.
The Panama Canal is planning to further reduce the maximum draft for ships transiting the waterway during what a spokesman said was an “unprecedented dry season.”
On Friday, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) said it will reduce the maximum authorized draft for vessels transiting the canal by a foot based on the present and projected level of Gatun Lake. Gatun Lake provides the water used to raise ships in the locks that cross the Panama isthmus.
Effective May 28, the maximum authorized draft for vessels transiting the canal’s Neopanamax locks, which were added in June 2016, will be 43 feet tropical fresh water (TFW), down from 44 feet currently and down from 50 feet at the beginning of the year.
The reduced drafts means some ships may have to load less cargo. For example, Hapag-Lloyd told American Shipper on Friday that “The Panama Canal Authorities regularly announce update draft for locks, which are subject to the water level of Gatun lake. From March to end of May, we expect a cargo deadweight reduction on our SWX vessels of around 5 to 6 percent.” The SWX service is between the West Coast of South America and North Europe.
The May 28 reduction is the latest in a series of draft reductions ACP has announced since Jan. 4 after precipitation registered in the Panama Canal watershed during December was approximately 90% below the historical average, causing water levels in Gatun and Madden lakes to drop below the expected levels.
When water levels are high at Gatun Lake (85 feet or more), the maximum allowable draft for canal transits using the Neopanamax locks is 50 feet TFW according to the ACP’s Vessel Requirements publication.
The drafts are specified for tropical fresh water because Gatun is a freshwater lake, fresh water is less dense and provides less buoyancy than sea water, and warm water is less dense and provides less buoyancy than cold water.
ACP said the maximum authorized draft for ships transiting the Panamax locks also will be reduced to 38.5 feet on May 28, down from 39.5 feet currently.
Carlos Vargas, the vice president of environment and water for the ACP, told the Associated Press, “These low levels in the Panama Canal are the product of four or five months of almost zero precipitation. It really has been the driest dry season we’ve had in the history of the canal. The flow of rivers to the lake is down 60%.”
The drought is related to the El Niño phenomena, which some scientists say are becoming more intense.
ACP notifies vessels of any change in draft four weeks in advance so they can plan accordingly.
The canal noted that it has in place a number of water conservation measures. These include water-saving basins for the new Neopanamax locks, which recycle 60% of the water used per transit. Other measures consist of the closure of the Gatun hydropower station, not using hydraulic assist at the locks and encouraging tandem lockages in which two ships move through the locks together.