Monday, March 07, 2011

The Danger of Salt Intruding into the Panama Canal

*also published in The Panama News

No se puede exagerar la urgencia de revisar todos los aspectos de este proyecto de inmediato. Sus repercusiones se extenderán mucho más allá de las fronteras de Panamá. No es demasiado tarde para mejorarlo... si actuamos ya.

The urgency for reviewing every aspect of this project immediately cannot be over-emphasized. Its impact will extend well beyond Panama's borders.
It is not too late to improve it... if we act now.

Comité ProDefensa del Lago Gatún -- Gatún Lake Defense Committee

El Comité ProDefensa del Lago Gatún aboga por una ampliación realmente responsable y sostenible del Canal de Panamá, que usa sus recursos valiosos efectivamente y los deja sin daños para el beneficio de esta y de generaciones futuras. (Visite The Gatún Lake Defense Committee advocates for a genuinely responsible and sustainable expansion of the Panama Canal, where its valuable resources are used effectively and left undamaged for the benefit of this and future generations. (Visit

The Danger of Salt Intruding into the Panama Canal
Bert G. Shelton, Research Scientist and Professional Engineer
Leila R. Shelton-Louhi, Economist and Ethics Consultant
25 February 2011

The purpose of this document is to describe why increasing the intrusion of saltwater into the Panama Canal as a result of its expansion is not desirable, and to outline how the process can be efficiently and sustainably avoided.

Background on the salt-intrusion issue is given as it relates to today's waterway. An explanation is offered of why – because of how salt works its way “uphill” through locks – Gatun Lake's salt concentration will exponentially increase if the locks planned for the Panama Canal expansion are built and begin to operate.

Lessons learned from the existing Panama Canal salt-intrusion records – which provide a wealth of information about what does and what does not work with respect to managing it – have been drawn upon. An independent projection of the magnitude of the salt-intrusion problem the current expansion plan will create is presented, along with viable modifications to that plan that – for the same cost and using even less water – improve service reliability, plus increase the capacity added, without inducing excessive levels of salt-contamination.

Included is an overview of how an issue this serious was handled in order to gain public approval for the expansion project. Motivations perceived to be behind choices made for this project, and the lack of official concern for the negative impacts to third parties and the environment created by this project, in its present form, are discussed within the context of other damaging actions that continue today in Panama unimpeded, and even supported by questionable and unpopular changes to legislation.

This report is intended to serve as a call to influential people to intercede and bring about urgently required improvements to the Panama Canal expansion.

-Background to the Salt-Intrusion Issue- 

Since the Panama Canal opened in 1914, salt has been intruding up its locks at both ends into the freshwater lakes that ships sail upon to cross from ocean-to-ocean. Canal administrators became aware of a problem with salt-intrusion relatively soon after it opened, when potable water produced at the purification plant next to Miraflores Lake began tasting salty.

The intake to the Miraflores plant had to be moved to a location above the Pedro Miguel locks, specifically to the level of Gatun Lake at that end of the canal, where salt-contamination levels were insignificant.

Recognizing that the salt-intrusion process was an issue that needed to be understood, the canal's US administration established a salt-intrusion monitoring program. From then on, until the canal was fully transferred to the Republic of Panama, salt concentration measurements were taken at selected locations throughout the waterway. The status of that program is presently unknown.

The realization last century that salt-intrusion could potentially raise canal salt concentrations to such levels that could turn the waterway into a migratory pathway – for sea creatures to cross from one ocean to the other – prompted studies of how the meeting of different species could affect their survival. The Smithsonian Institute studied the issue for years with reports indicating that preventing that scenario was paramount.

The differences in salt-concentration measurements noted at each end of the canal, besides confirming that salt was entering through the locks at each end, suggested that salt accumulation was a function of the layout and operation of the locks, plus the mitigation methodology present at each of those ends.

-Differences in Intrusion Rates- 

At the Caribbean end – commonly referred to as “the Atlantic Side”, and where the three-step, two-lane Gatun lock unit is located – the recorded data shows that salt concentration levels within Gatun Lake have been rising steadily throughout the canal's many decades of operation, increasing at rates low enough to not pose a threat.

On the other hand, the levels in Miraflores Lake on the Pacific Side – located between the two-step, two-lane Miraflores Lock unit and the one-step, two-lane Pedro Miguel Lock unit – rose relatively quickly, but salt-intrusion has seemingly been confined to that lake itself. That small lake's presence – bolstered by its own small watershed and spillway – limits salt accumulation and creates a barrier that keeps that salt from passing onward through Pedro Miguel Locks to reach Culebra Cut, the arm of Gatun Lake crossing the Continental Divide.

Differences between existing lock layouts at each end of the Panama Canal, in combination with measurement records, are sufficient to determine not only how the process works, but what will and what won't work to control it.

With that knowledge, a projection was prepared for the expansion's currently selected lock layout. Its estimate of what will happen to the canal's freshwater Gatun Lake – if that layout is actually built and begins to operate – is quite damning.

-Layout of Current Lock Selection- 

The locks now planned – one set to be located at each entrance to the canal – are, in essence, enlarged one-lane copies of the three-step Gatun Locks, with three “recycling” tanks, referred to as the side-tanks, added alongside each step.

The selected lock layout together with its most appropriate operating mode, in terms of using the least water, form possibly the worst combination to use in the Panama Canal with respect to the salt-intrusion issue. This is unconscionable considering what can be achieved with engineering that addresses this issue.

Additionally, by opting to expand using a lock layout similar to the one on the Atlantic Side – a known saltwater pump – instead of using a layout similar to that on the Pacific Side – known to control salt-intrusion – Miraflores Lake will be bypassed. This eliminates one of this lake's key functions which is to serve as the Pacific Side salt-intrusion barrier.

Changes have already been made that reduce Miraflores Lake's effectiveness. A portion of the canal's operating water supply, that also serves to mitigate salt-intrusion today, has been permanently eliminated!

-Saltwater Movement & Controls- 

Knowing how ships and water interact in locks is key to understanding how salt-intrusion through locks occurs.

When a ship enters a chamber, it forces water out. The only place for that water to go is around to the back of the ship. The example that follows – of ships exiting in series, i.e. one after the other, from a set of locks – illustrates why salt intrudes when ships go down locks on their way to sea, not when they go up locks headed into a freshwater canal.

-Salt Enters When Ships Exit-

Consider what happens in a typical set of locks, with three contiguous steps, that is located between a freshwater canal and the ocean. As Ship 1 exits the lowest chamber – the one at the ocean end of the lock unit – seawater rushes in behind it to replace the volume it occupied.

The seaward gates of that lowest chamber are then closed and water is let in from the one above – the middle chamber – where exiting Ship 2 waits. That operation simultaneously raises the lowest chamber's water level and lowers that of the middle one. The process stops when their levels match.

Then the gates between those chambers open and, as Ship 2 pushes into the lowest chamber, a volume of the brackish water – equal to what the ship displaces – is forced from the lowest chamber into the one above, i.e. “uphill”.

That process is again repeated when Ship 3 in the uppermost chamber is lowered a step and moves ahead, forcing the brackish water into the uppermost chamber from which that ship left.

As Ship 4 enters the uppermost chamber, it displaces salty water into the freshwater canal. What Ship 4 and the subsequent ships in the series inject into the lake is what the salt-intrusion issue is all about. The salt content in the water that Ship 4 forces into the lake will be the lowest of its series; the salt content of the water injected into the lake will rise with each ship exiting after it.

Eventually, as a result of the intrusion process, the canal and ocean salt concentrations equalize.

How much salt intrudes into a canal system is dependent on the layout of its locks and on how they are operated, as illustrated by the Panama Canal.

Today's Panama Canal locks contain two lanes in every unit. As previously described, Gatun Locks is a unit with three contiguous steps. Between it and the two units on the Pacific Side is man-made freshwater Gatun Lake, the largest in the world when the canal was built. Miraflores Locks also have contiguous steps. In its case, two instead of three, while Pedro-Miguel Locks have only one. Between these two units is the protective body of water, known as Miraflores Lake.

-Effect of Operating Choices-

By good fortune, it was too costly to make Culebra Cut wide enough to permit continuous two-way traffic through the Panama Canal when it was originally built. Were it not for the limitations created by “the Cut”, the worst operating sequence in terms of salt-intrusion – transiting a lane continually in one direction – might have been adopted in order to use the time and water spent in reversing lanes to transit a few more ships.

Culebra Cut forced a somewhat less efficient transit pattern – in terms of time and water-use – to be adopted. Today ships enter at both ends during the earlier half of the day using both lanes and exit during its latter half, also by way of both lanes. This pattern brings in less salt than lanes continually dedicated to one direction of traffic, because salt concentration in the lock chambers must build up again each time the ship exiting sequence through a set of steps resumes.

Miraflores Lake was originally included in the canal's design to serve as a water “bridge” over active faults which ruptured during the French canal-building attempt. Later it was also found to serve as a barrier on the Pacific Side, shielding Gatun Lake from salt intruding at that end.

-The Miraflores Lake “Shield”- 

Salt-concentration measurements show that Miraflores Lake's water has stratified. Unlike the saltwater in a chamber that mixes well during filling and draining operations – once it is in Miraflores Lake – the heavier saltwater tends to settle to the bottom in the absence of similar mixing.

Thus, the lake has a layer of very salty water at the bottom with a layer of fresher water on top. Near the Pedro Miguel Lock unit that freshwater layer is apparently thick enough that ships entering and exiting those locks interact primarily with it. Consequently, not much saltwater ends up in that unit's chambers.

At the rate water is drained from Miraflores Lake to operate the Miraflores Locks, salt in the lower layer is not able to diffuse fast enough upwards for the water that gets into the Pedro Miguel lock chambers during ship transits to have much salt in it. Water for Miraflores Locks is extracted at a level near the bottom of the lake and the lake is continually replenished with freshwater by way of rivers and the Pedro Miguel lock operations at the far end of the lake in a way that does not induce mixing with the deeper saltwater layer.

Bypassing Miraflores Lake entirely adds unnecessary and avoidable risks to the Panama Canal system while eliminating all of the protective benefits it provides today.

Today's expansion plan, it would appear, simply ignores a century's worth of data.

-Magnitude of the Problem-

At the Panama Canal the less-than-desirable one-way ship exiting pattern is interrupted with the daily lane reversal which repeatedly resets the salt concentration build-up process created by that problematic operating sequence.

Nonetheless, what is injected into Gatun Lake via the Gatun Locks on the Atlantic Side has resulted in a slow, but steady increase in salt concentration near them. That has occurred despite those locks not being operated in their most contaminating way, and despite releases of that contaminated water through Gatun Spillway – located just to one side of them – flushing it to sea with excess freshwater in quantities rivaling the volume today's canal expends to transit ships.

In other words, the spilling or release of about five times as much water as what originally brought up that salt through Gatun Locks is not quite enough to fully flush out all of what intrudes.

-Calculating the Volumes- 

To arrive at that figure of five (5) times, recall that saltwater is introduced for the most part during the ship exiting process. Exiting ships at Gatun use up one-quarter of all the water used to transit ships, and that quarter brings in salt. On the other hand, the equal quantity of water used to raise entering ships at Gatun expels some of the contaminated water.

Each of those quarters of the transit water represent one-eighth of all the water that enters the canal from rain. If one-eighth removes salt through Gatun Locks, and four-eighths flushes it through Gatun Spillway – or through the power plant at that same location – then more than half, or five-eighths, of the total water input to the canal is involved in salt removal; and, that falls short of being enough.

Salt is extremely hard to get rid of once it gets into the canal system.

Note that because Miraflores Lake controls salt-intrusion at the Pacific Side of the canal, operations at that end are not relevant to this calculation.

If this expansion is not modified and if the side-tank locks are built and put into operation, a significant portion of the water – that today serves to flush salt from the canal – is going to be used instead to transit more ships through a third set of locks.

This would make things worse by throwing today's Panama Canal system further out-of-balance, not to mention that half of the water the selected future third set of locks use will be bringing more salt in, and both ends of the canal.

As excessive quantities of salt begin intruding at both ends of the canal, the Miraflores water purification plant – that supplies Pacific Side canal areas with potable water – and the canal's Atlantic side plant at Mount Hope, as examples, are going to lose their supply-line. This bodes very poorly for not only canal area operations, services, and residents, but also for the cities of Panama and Colón.

-Prognosis for Potable Water Supply- 

Panama City has been without reliable potable water service since about December 7, 2010 when its own water plant – which gets its freshwater supplies from Madden Lake as opposed to Gatun Lake – effectively collapsed following unusually heavy rains causing turbidity that overtaxed and failed key equipment.

Problems at the Madden Lake filtration plant – reported a year-and-a-half ago to the then newly-inaugurated President – continued unattended – and apparently worsened – until the high turbidity levels in the lake caused its collapse. Managerial ineptitude is being alleged.

Even more disturbing is the perception, now being voiced on radio programs in Panama, that the mismanagement of water supplies may not be due to ineptitude.

Apparently, the plan now is to transfer management of the troubled Madden Lake purification plant to the Panama Canal Administration (ACP), whose plants weathered the storm unscathed. Reasons heard cited for this transfer of the Madden Lake plant to the ACP were that the organization is experienced in that business, plus management of Madden Lake waters does, after all, correspond to it.

If the thesis of this report on salt-intrusion dangers to the Panama Canal is correct, and Gatun Lake becomes salty, the ACP's only choice for the continued operation of its water purification plants – which today obtain their water from Gatun Lake – is to get water from Madden Lake.

It appears that the way is being paved for quietly transitioning into that eventuality.

Given the ACP's own water needs and the needs of its clients, and considering all the expertise it has at its beck-and-call, that such a critical issue – as an interruption of its potable water supply – could take that organization by surprise, is inconceivable.

Water is an important part of the ACP's business, and it is big business.

Nonetheless, a risk of having no backup supply for the entire canal region is being created by the current expansion plan.

If all purification plants end up drawing their water from Madden Lake, they will all have to be upgraded to handle that lake's high turbidity rates. However, that will not exempt them from being shut down during another extreme weather event.

Unless Gatun Lake's freshwater is protected, the consequences of the next interruption of potable water service will be far worse than the one now being experienced.

-Speedy Salinization-

It has been independently estimated that the two new one-lane side-tank lock units will together input 2.5 times the salt input by both lanes of today's Gatun Locks. That estimate is based on an average of six (6) ships entering each of the two new locks in the morning and exiting in the evening versus the nine (9) ships that enter and exit daily on average through each lane of today's canal.

When the new locks begin to operate, excess rainwater – that now takes away salt when released – will be used to raise and lower ships, bringing in salt. That increase in quantity of salt intruding, and that decrease in the rinsing process, will result in about an eighteen-fold (18x) increase in the rate at which Gatun Lake salt-contamination is rising.

When the planned subsequent expansion adds another equally contaminating lane and Culebra Cut is widened to permit continuous two-way traffic, Gatun Lake – officially or not – is going to be renamed Gatun Sea.

-Salt-up Rate Estimate Basis-

The calculation upon which the cited salinization estimate is based for the proposed expansion lock layout is, in principle, fairly simple.

Consider that a chamber of a side-tank lock will be filled three-fifths of the way with salty water from its side-tanks. This water had been drained from the chamber itself during the previous operating cycle and stored in those tanks. Only the remaining two-fifths of the fill water – that comes from the chamber a step above – will be less contaminated. More salt in the mix means more will be pushed into the lake when the next exiting ship moves into the top chamber.

By reducing the dilution of the saltwater introduced with each exiting transit, the salt concentration in the water reaching the lake through side-tank locks will be greater. This is augmented by virtue of repeatedly “recycling” brackish water through the side tanks.

The amount of salt reaching the lake per transit will be further amplified by the fact that the new locks and the ships that will transit them are much bigger than those of the original locks.

With a working knowledge in calculating and combining ratios, it is straightforward to re-confirm the magnitude of the problem by setting up a pair of spreadsheets to simulate the two cases. One spreadsheet would be for a three-step lock layout with recycling tanks and the other for one without tanks. By following the progression of the mixing ratios up the steps, the relative concentration of what is injected into the lake by each ship in the sequence is determined.

From what is known of the planned design, it would appear that water flowing between chambers and tanks will flow in and out of the bottom of the chambers where salt concentrations would be expected to be the greatest due to saltwater being relatively denser. However, when water flows into a chamber in this way its upwelling action does a pretty good job of mixing the contents, so it is reasonable to assume that the mixture in the chamber will be fairly homogenous.

If this design is built and operated, results of investigative efforts lean heavily towards the likelihood that Gatun Lake will rapidly and very noticeably salt up, as occurred at Miraflores Lake. Only Madden Lake will be left to supply potable water to Panama City, Colón and canal areas.

Official efforts to downplay the salt-intrusion issue prior to the referendum strongly suggest this expectation is shared.

-Pre-referendum “Magic”- 

This report cites information about the dangers of implementing the side-tank locks which was available well in advance of initiating the Panama Canal expansion project.

Prior to the referendum in Panama that resulted in the go-ahead vote for expanding the canal, Delft Hydraulics, a reputable Dutch company, had been contracted to evaluate the project's salt-intrusion issue. Their report concluded there would be a salt-intrusion problem unless the recycling tanks were flushed at regular intervals to counteract their tendency to increase the concentration of salt in the mixture working its way up the locks.

Considering that the tanks are in the design to reduce the amount of water used by the locks to transit ships, having to periodically rinse them cancels at least a portion of their water-saving benefit. The time to perform the rinsing itself effectively reduces the number of transits.

With the potential expansion of the watershed threatening to become a major political roadblock leading up to the referendum, the Dutch report further highlighted the existing shortage of water availability for this design.

As a result, with a claim that a re-evaluation had been necessary, the Dutch report – that seemed logical and correct to independent reviewers – was excluded from those the project took into consideration. That report, allegedly invalidated due to a lack of certain inputs, was replaced by an ultimately more favorable assessment prepared by others able to meet the high-paced schedule set by the declared urgency of the project.

Many other strategies were used to obscure, discredit or downplay anything perceived to threaten the project with delays.

-Fanciful Deceptions-

Discussions on the subject that ensued, heard primarily on the radio, included several outlandish claims. In more than one program aired, water used to operate locks was equated to water flowing down a river.

This commentary alone suggested that deception was afoot. While most people know that saltwater does not travel up river, most do not know that shifting water in and out of lock chambers is nothing like water running downstream.

On several occasions spokesmen for the Panama Canal answered questions on the subject by stating the reason the present-day canal “does not have” a salt-intrusion problem was because “it has three steps”. One stated in a meeting that the ACP didn't really know why it worked, that it was “magic”. Clearly being referenced was the “third” step at Pedro Miguel, above which salt-intrusion is negligible.

Thereafter the third step was called the “magical” step more than once. Implied was that – given the new locks would have three steps – salt-intrusion would not be an issue. The deception was being honed.

A preposterous claim heard on radio, made by someone announced as a canal spokesman, was that recycling tanks actually reduced salt-intrusion.

The objective was to obtain project approval votes. As was privately expressed more than once by “supporters” of the project, each vote cast by a listener who believed any of these claims neutralized one cast by someone more knowledgeable.

As the referendum date approached, the ACP even denied existence of any salt-intrusion issues in its official publications. The campaign of denial was pervasive and effective.

Ironically, what is planned bypasses the very feature that effectively makes the original canal's Pedro Miguel step – to use the chosen descriptor – “magical”.

Nonetheless, systems of locks can be configured that avoid such a calamity and, at the same time, significantly increase transits in comparison to what is planned.

-Solutions to the Challenge- 

The Panama Canal can be expanded without creating the salt-intrusion risks the current expansion plan creates, with even more capacity and greater service reliability for its customers. Independent assessments continually confirm that for the “magic” – invoked by ACP representatives during the referendum – to work, and stop excessive volumes of salt from reaching Gatun Lake, requires changing the current plan.

Without question, there must be a sacrificial body of water – like Miraflores Lake – between lock steps at each end of the canal to successfully ward off the salt-intrusion demon. And, those bodies of water must be properly managed, in order to keep them functioning optimally.

Another significant benefit – of up to 50% more transits through the Panama Canal – can be achieved when these bodies of water, combined with the best alternative lock systems for this canal, are operated efficiently. This also minimizes the quantity of saltwater involved in the intrusion process.

-More Transits, Better Water Use- 

The opportunity to serve up to 50% more clients a day – with lock systems that require about the same effort to build and that use the same volume of water to provide more transits – is being disregarded, presumably in order to soothe complaints from a few customers.

While Miraflores Lake and the Pedro Miguel Lock step do not reduce the number of ships that can be transited through the canal each day, some canal clients have complained about the extra “canal residence time” that solitary lock step adds to a transit.

Apparently, eliminating their perceived “inconvenience” – which at most amounts to a handful of hours in canal waters – is being valued far and above the environmental damages to come from building a lock unit with three contiguous steps at each end of the Panama Canal.

And, what should be even more unacceptable for world commerce, is that those 50% “could-be” clients being rejected forever by this Panama Canal expansion choice will have to spend weeks – not a handful of extra hours – to circle around South America to get to the other ocean.

More competitive alternative locks – comprised of the very same components arranged and operated differently to increase efficiency and decrease salt-intrusion – could serve those clients now left without passage.

It wouldn't cost any more to have that additional capacity and the reliability a second lane provides.

What is more, benefiting from reduced water use, both lanes could have larger chambers.

These alternatives take advantage of both the lane-reversal technique – that disrupts the salt concentration buildup occurring in the chambers when ships exit in series – and the salt-intrusion preventing sacrificial lake.

-How the Alternatives Work-

A two-lane lock layout – with a sacrificial lake separating two steps at each end of the canal – operated efficiently, not only maximally disrupts the salt-intrusion process with every ship, it uses less water per transit than the ACP's single-lane side-tank system.

The simplest two-lane version – with no recycling tanks – would cost about the same to build and would use about 13% less water to operate. That would permit it to handle about two (2) more transits a day without the risks inherent to the current plan. As a bonus, when there happens to be extra water, this simplest system could handle up to ten (10) more.

Add two recycling tanks to each of the four units of this two-lane option – increasing its cost by about 20% – and the system could handle twenty (20) transits a day with the same water the chosen side-tank lock system will use for twelve (12).

Both the simplest two-lane lock layout and the one with two tanks, when operated efficiently, will maximize transits and reduce salt-intrusion because the seaside chamber will always have a ship in it. Less salt content reaches the waterway at the top of the step because the amount of salt in that chamber is minimized. In addition, the lake between lock steps blocks the progress of the salt that does manage to come up through the lower step.

The single-lane planned for the expansion today cannot compete with this. In order to operate efficiently and maximize its transit capacity, it maximizes salt-intrusion.

By contrast the two-lane alternative, when efficiently operating and maximizing transits, minimizes intrusion.

Plans already unofficially underway to build a second lane just like the one being considered for the expansion today would be a disservice to the Panama Canal, its users, investors, and the environment.

This scheme is unacceptable given how much less water-efficient single-lane lock units are in comparison to lock units with two lanes and considering the danger of contamination they add. It makes no sense to build one lane on a swath of land as wide as what an equally-priced, higher capacity two-lane design would occupy, and then carve out another equivalent swath to build a second similarly inefficient and salt-contaminating single-lane of like cost in quick succession.

The only reasonable choice for the Panama Canal is to make the change now to more suitable two-lane locks.

Given that concrete has not as yet been cast, and that all the channels being dug now would still be needed, nothing significant is lost. Yet, a lot will be irretrievably lost in the long run if that change does not happen now.

Compared to the one-lane planned – or even two of the same design – a more efficient two-lane system requires fewer components to access more water-saving techniques that allow for more transits, while reducing wear-and-tear and time spent shifting water.

In addition to the water-saving techniques built into them, each two-lane lock unit can also take advantage of the water-saving opportunity offered by the lake between steps which is also the system's salt-intrusion “shield”.

-Intrusion Shield Design- 

The sacrificial lakes between locks have to include – as is the case in Miraflores Lake – a mechanism by which to input excess freshwater and simultaneously drain salty bottom waters to ensure the stratified layer of salt in each lake is adequately depressed for the salt-intrusion “shield” to function.

That “rinsing” of the small lakes can be tied to periods of excess rainfall, when volumes that cannot be stored are otherwise released at Gatun Spillway. The flows into and out of those lakes could easily be used to produce power, which would also produce revenue.

To recap, changing to a two-lane expansion will multiply service reliability, avoid damaging the environment, and eliminate other serious risks created by the current plan not addressed in this report. Fifty percent (50%) more clients can be served although every ship will be in canal waters a few hours longer than some clients might wish. All in all, shippers will save a lot more time and money plus enjoy the increased variety and size of vessels which would be able to fit through the expanded Panama Canal system.

The value of a change to better locks – in benefits to consumers, canal area inhabitants, and the environment – is incalculable.

-Institutionalized Environmental Disregard- 

Future success of the Panama Canal expansion – in any form – is, paradoxically, under continual threat in Panama. Studies have warned for decades of the importance of protecting its watershed, yet no effective actions appear to have been taken to do so.

Laws protective of the canal watershed – based on recommendations of an official study involving international experts – were essentially annulled immediately after approval for expanding the Panama Canal was won via the referendum. This allowed business and housing projects into that critical recharge zone, seriously diminishing its function.

Since then numerous other questionable projects have been approved, along with additional changes to legislation. Their effects make protecting Gatun Lake's freshwater even more crucial.

Besides employing tactics prior to the referendum, such as misrepresenting the salt-intrusion issue – in order to improve the likelihood of gaining the project's approval vote – as previously described, Panama has seemingly taken a solid stand against self-sustainability, which threatens others as well.

-Collateral Effects and Impacts-

For example, over 85 hydroelectric projects – granted water rights using highly questionable and even illegal methods – have tied up most of the country's rivers. Impacts to agricultural production along affected rivers are already being noted.

Most recently, unpopular modifications to mining laws have been passed that will facilitate the start-up of open-pit mining that will encompass about 45% of the total surface area of Panama.

That move jeopardizes world-renown wildlife sanctuaries, creatures already on the endangered list, and the Meso-American Biological Corridor as a whole, not to mention remaining freshwater resources. Such mines sterilize vast areas, which – on the narrow Isthmus of Panama – translates to a threat of total annihilation.

Original inhabitants of Panama are already being forced off of their ancestral lands, where most of the mines are to be located. Their traditions, customs and methods of sustenance are already being systematically obliterated. Propaganda promoting racial hatred, presumably to turn the uneducated masses against the natives and gain popular acceptance of the mining plan, is on the rise.

To those actions – all detrimental to the environment and the agricultural capacity of Panama – can be added the reduction of old-growth forests from about 50% coverage to about 10% – much caused by misapplication of “reforestation” funds – over the last two decades. Clandestine gold mining reportedly afoot in most of the country's remote rivers on the Caribbean coast is also damaging resources.

All of the above illustrates why it is more than a perception that in Panama there is a continuing desire to reap short-term benefits as quickly as possible.

In the case of the canal, salt-intrusion problems do not diminish the planned expansion's projected income stream. From that perspective, there is no benefit in doing anything about salt-intrusion. Given that steps to properly resolve it would have caused “unnecessary” delay, it is clear why the problem was obscured.

In general, long-term environmental protection incentives continue to be set aside in Panama not only without the consent of the people, but despite their increasingly vocal protests which have begun being repressed with violence.

It would be unwise to accept, at face value, claims that all was thoroughly assessed in determining how the Panama Canal should be expanded and that the best solution was chosen.

-Apparent Motivations- 

The physics behind the salt-intrusion process is too basic, and comparisons like those presented in this report too easy to devise, to have gone unrecognized by engineers developing the project. Yet, the subject remained unaddressed prior to the referendum, skirted with claims of its complexity. Why the smoke and mirrors?

The seeming lack of attention paid to knowledge gained over the centuries with respect to identifying effective lock designs and methods of operating them, in combination with the effort expended to downplay the salt-intrusion issue, strongly suggests that the true objective is to move the expansion as quickly as possible to and through the “money-making” construction phase.

A growing perception, confirmed by even Panamanian politicians calling the expansion a “disaster”, is that the real plan was to hastily piece together a marketable lock layout, cleverly promote it via an expensive worldwide propaganda blitz in order to gain desired construction loans, and get on with building it to “spend” that money as quickly as possible.

For such a scenario, the quality of the end-product is irrelevant.

Not many project outsiders with real knowledge of major projects even smaller than this one could believe the 5 to 6 billion dollar project price estimate being officially declared. A so very “low-balled” price-tag suggests a less-than-serious interest in a truly successful expansion.

Set within a background of a less-than-exemplary record with respect to global environmental challenges with which all nations are struggling, where by manipulation and against the wishes and desires of its people Panama's natural resources are being concessioned-off – all at once – and at fire-sale prices, the Panama Canal Expansion Project today appears to be all about receiving the commission for brokering major deals and, disappointingly, not about creating a product beneficial to the global economy and to the environment and society in the long-term.


The Panama Canal is a piece of global infrastructure that impacts more than just the shipping industry.

Unnecessary risks created by the way the Panama Canal is being expanded today will reach well beyond the coasts of Panama. They can be avoided, including the undesirable threat of creating a migratory saltwater pathway due to excessive salt intruding into freshwater Gatun Lake.

Independent studies and experiences at the Panama Canal to-date give us the knowledge needed to configure a lock layout that maximizes service capacity and reliability, while minimizing salt-intrusion. A truly optimized system – configured from the same proven components, built for the same money and on the same site – would yield far greater returns by using water resources more effectively.

Considering that this project is being funded by taxpayers of many developed nations, the right and responsibility of making decisions concerning the Panama Canal should transcend Panama's borders to include Panama's duty to the global community.

Citizens of the world, including Panamanians, should feel free – better yet compelled – to demand accountability from their leaders to ensure that what is built in Panama is worth the price they will pay.

Given that this major modification to the Panama Canal was initiated without a proper design selection phase – particularly inappropriately for an engineering project of this magnitude – the “chosen” design along with its operational choices were never independently verified by qualified experts with impeccable credentials.

When the rushed and undemocratic referendum process – put in place to comply with treaty requirements for obtaining project approval – is viewed together with the sudden changing of laws that had protected the canal watershed from development, this expansion takes on the appearance of a sophisticated con devised to transfer wealth quickly rather than to produce a serious canal upgrade. That even Panama's own engineering society was excluded from involvement, and key politicians have called the project a “disaster”, does nothing to dispel that perception.

A lot of trade within the western world, and between it and the orient goes through the Panama Canal. Consumers worldwide will end up subsidizing higher tolls if inefficient new locks are built.

To avoid converting global investments into losses, no concrete should be poured until real engineering is done.

*also published in The Panama News

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sadly, nobody cared. So, "Gatun Sea" it will be :O(