Panama Canal Authorities Say Expansion Benefits Economy without Environmental Harm

By Andrew Donovan

PANAMA CITY, Panama – Nearly 100 years after its completion in 1914, the Panama Canal is now more than a year into an expansion project that is expected to have major implications for Panama’s future.

The greatest physical improvements in the canal’s history will add new locks at both ends of the waterway as well as new access channels and a widening of the canal where it cuts through the mountainous Continental Divide. The $5.25 billion project, on schedule for completion in 2014, is expected to produce significant economic returns for the Central American country. 

Some environmental experts have raised concerns about the project, but the Panama Canal Authority says it is taking steps to prevent any potential harm.

Oscar Vallarino, director of the Environment Division of the Panama Canal Authority, said that not only is the canal’s income estimated to increase by five times to $6 billion in 2025 from $1.2 billion in 2005, but that the money the canal gives Panama each year is expected to grow to $4 billion from $500 million in 2005.
“That’s eight times more,” Mr. Vallarino said. “This would be a different country.”

Indeed it would.

But critics of the expansion worry about just how different Panama might become environmentally.

Some experts worry that increased saltwater intrusion – also known as salinization – may occur in nearby freshwater bodies such as Gatún Lake as a result of the new locks, making the water unsuitable for drinking and severely reducing the country’s supply of potable water.

University of Panama biologist Ariel Rodriguez said water quality has already suffered in Mira Flores Lake – the other freshwater body connected to the canal.  The expansion project, he said, could increase salinization in Gatún Lake “a lot.”

“With the expanded canal, there will be two new enormous saltwater entrances,” Professor Rodriguez said. This, he said, appears to provide “a greater and more direct entrance for salt to leave the sea and enter the freshwater of the canal than with the system of current locks.”

Professor Rodriguez said the water supply to Panama City is already becoming tainted and that contamination will only worsen as construction continues with extensive underwater dredging and blasting.

The canal authority says it does not anticipate any problems. But Mr. Vallarino said that several precautions are being taken to reduce the threat, including the use of a saltwater intrusion alarm system and a net to mitigate contamination from dredging.

“Some people don’t understand how the canal operates,” Mr. Vallarino said. “The thing about salinity is, if you don’t understand all the different levels and how it works, the first thing you think is that there’s going to be saltwater intrusion. We’re monitoring that. We don’t expect it, but if there happened to be some intrusion, we will find out right away. We could control that.”

In addition to the salinity monitors, there are 46 stations throughout the canal’s watershed, and more than 60 sampling points where water quality and quantity are monitored, Mr. Vallarino said.

“We do all kinds of analyses every year,” he said. “Right now, the water is very good. Last year’s index of water quality study says that the water is excellent.”

Professor Rodriguez disputes the quality of the water. “The salinity is an environmental problem,” that the authority “has not acted to remedy,” Professor Rodriguez said. The authority ““does not want to speak of measures of mitigation of the salinity with the proposed locks, given that this alone would elevate costs by at least an additional $3 billion.”

Professor Rodriguez, and others such as Stanley Heckadon, a staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City, also worries about the water supply in the canal. Uncertainty surrounding the supply makes up one of the most critical questions Panama will face over the next generation, Mr. Heckadon said.

For its part, the canal authority says it plans to increase water collection. It says it is going to permit the level of Gatún Lake to rise so that more water can be retained in the rainy season.  As it deepens the canal’s channels, the authority says, it will create a larger catchment area and permit larger boats with more cargo to pass through. 

Finally, Mr. Vallarino said, water-saving basins are to be constructed at both ends of the new locks, allowing for 60 percent of each passage’s water to be reused. What the canal authority calls “reuse water reservoirs,” will save roughly four million gallons of water with each ship movement.

“We’ve done many studies on the canal,” Mr. Vallarino said. “By doing these things, we estimate that we won’t need additional water for the running” the canal or for meeting the needs of an increase in population over the next century.
Two of the four phases of the expansion project have been completed, Mr. Vallarino said. Once the expansion is completed, the canal will be able to handle the largest of ships, increasing annual tonnage in 2025 by an estimated 80 percent to 500 million from the current rate of 280 million, Mr.Vallarino said.

Mr. Vallarino said the canal authority is prepared to increase spending to head off any new environmental threats that may develop.  “It’s very important,” he said. “The Panama Canal Authority has a mandate by law, by constitution, to guarantee the security, quality and quantity of the water in the watershed.”


Photo Courtesy Panama Canal Authority

The Panama Canal from the air.

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