ACP uses discretionary savings tubs for eco-efficient operation

The availability of potable water in the interoceanic region is the key, not only to meet the water needs of the population and economic activities, but also for the safe, efficient and reliable operation of the Panama Canal.

Due to the effect of climate change on the rainfall regime, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) introduced the use of water saving tubs in the new locks.

On the first anniversary of the enlarged Canal, ACP administrator Jorge Quijano said: “In this first year of operation of the new Neopanamax locks, the Canal has developed its learning curve for eco-efficient operation with the use of water saving tubs”.

This includes managing their use in periods of rainfall scarcity (the Niño Phenomenon) and during periods of excessive rainfall (the Niña Phenomenon).

Gatun Lake dam.

Gatun Lake dam.

Each of the two new Neopanamax locks – Agua Clara, on the Atlantic and Cocolí, on the Pacific – has three steps, or chambers, and each chamber has three water saving tubs, totaling 18 tubs. If the tubs are employed, 60% of the water used by the same locks will be saved that would have been used without the use of tubs. And if compared with the original locks, the saving is 7%.

Although water is saved when using tubs, ships take longer to cross each lock. “A lock without the tubs can save approximately half an hour for the traffic in each lock, or 20%, which translates into greater traffic capacity,” said Quijano, who warned that since the design was made, it was recognized that greater use of tubs meant longer locking time and

“due to this reality, different combinations are used of the tubs to optimize the operation, depending on the priority of the moment,” He explained that “In some transits, tubs are not used for the purpose of studying their effect (water consumption vs. locking time and efficiency), but on other occasions the 18 tubs are used to study the variation of locking time versus water saving”.

He added that “sometimes intermediate stages of operation are used”, such as tubs in two of the three chambers of both locks, or a lock using tubs and the other not using them”.

As a general policy, during the months of high precipitation (usually from October to December), surplus water that could exceed the safety limit is discharged due to lack of storage capacity. In these conditions, the use of the tubs is suspended, which generates greater efficiency in the transit time of the ships.

Given the importance of water, the ACP has implemented the following measures to optimize the use of the resource:

  1. Design, construction and operation of three-level locks, requiring much less water than if they had been built on a single level;
  2. Development of optimal procedures depending on multiple variables;
  3. Permanent monitoring and action required by the Water Resources Committee, with weekly reports to the administration;
  4. Closure of the Gatún hydroelectric plant during periods of low precipitation;
  5. Establishment of water conservation programs in the locks;
  6. Discharges by the Gatún landfill in the rainy season for flood control;
  7. Use of Gatun generation turbines to keep lakes at a safe level.

Future Availability

Quijano revealed that, as part of the studies that led to the National Water Security Plan (November 2016), three areas with water potential that would be developed as multipurpose reservoirs have been identified. These are Bayano-Rio Indio, Azuero and Veraguas.

The Ministry of the Environment hired the ACP, for its vast experience and technical resources, to assess the potential of these areas, including technical, social, economic and environmental assessments, and pre-investment studies. Depending on whether the issue is adopted as a State agenda and recommendations are executed, Panama and the Canal must have sufficient water availability in the foreseeable future.

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