[MQP] The Panama Canal expansion impacts: Connecting us to the future

Sponsor: National Science Foundation IRES Grant
Panama Canal Authority
Student Team: Abigail Brakenwagen
Carly Giannini
Brigitte Perera
Adrienne Weishaar
Abstract: Since 2007, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) has been carrying out an expansion project in order to accommodate larger vessels and increased traffic through the Panama Canal. This report addresses the following project goals: 1) provide land management reports for areas surrounding Lake Gatun; 2) suggest an alternative range structure for navigation; 3) improve the water quality stored on ACP tugboats; and, 4) provide preliminary designs for a new spillway. Collectively, the results from these projects have positive impacts on the environment, sustainability, efficiency, and safe transit of the Panama Canal to assure global operations.
Links: Final Report

Executive Summary

The Panama Canal began operations in 1914 to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, revolutionizing world trade. At the time of construction, it was the largest civil engineering undertaking in the world, and in 1997 the American Society of Civil Engineers named it as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World (ASCE, 1997). To accommodate larger vessels and increase the number of transits through the Canal, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) began a $5 billion expansion project in 2007, expected to be completed in early 2016. This project increases the capacity of the existing Canal by adding two new passages for larger PostPanamax vessels. The expansion project has economic, environmental, health, and social impacts throughout the Canal. This report addresses four projects based on these impacts relating to land use, navigation, water quality, and spillways in the Panama Canal.

Reclamation of Lake Gatun and Surrounding Areas

The first project studied the use of land surrounding the Canal, specifically around Lake Gatun. Since 1999, when the Canal Zone was returned by the United States to the Panamanian government, the occupants of this land have remained. Most of the residents around Lake Gatun and other Canal Zone areas were workers from the U.S. and decided to stay in Panama. The ACP is attempting to reclaim this land and implement measures to protect and manage it, primarily because of its proximity to the Canal. This project sought to assist in the management of this land by meeting the following objectives:

  • Study land areas, current use, and existing policies and regulations;
  • Investigate similar types of land management reports;
  • Develop a framework for a carrying capacity study of Lake Gatun; and,
  • Design a shoreline management plan for Lake Gatun.

In 2013, the ACP formed the Project for Conservation and Recuperation of Areas of the Canal (CORA for its name in Spanish), under the Vice President of Corporate Affairs. This initiative was primarily focused on the land surrounding Lakes Gatun and Alajuela up to a sea level elevation of 100 feet and 260 feet (30.8 meters and 79.2 meters), respectively. These land areas are called the Cota 100 and 260. The land around Lake Gatun was of greater concern, and due to the increased water level from the expansion project, 14 residences had to be displaced. Currently, 1% of the Cota 100 is occupied, both by authorized and unauthorized users.

This project created a framework for a carrying capacity study as well as a shoreline management plan for Lake Gatun. These reports were written following extensive research on land management reports, and compiling information about the lake and its surrounding land. The land immediately surrounding the Canal is known as Type 1 Land under Panama’s Agreement No. 102, which states that it can only be used by the ACP for Canal purposes. However, there are unauthorized cases of occupation, and the CORA Project team aims to cause as little disruption as possible. It is also important for the ACP to look at how these occupations, as well as other uses, are affecting the lake environment. The shoreline management plan details the current state of Lake Gatun.

The goals of the CORA Project are to implement taxes and required certifications for users of the land. This has already begun with the tourism presence around the lake and the next step is to create taxes for residences, which is the recommended course of action in terms of unauthorized occupation in the Cota 100. Additionally, it is recommended that the ACP uses the carrying capacity scope of work as a bid package and hire a subcontractor to complete the study. At this time, the shore is being managed in the areas of occupation, and if that is the main concern of the CORA Project, a complete shoreline management plan does not need to be implemented. However, it may become important to manage this area more closely after the Canal Expansion becomes operational and traffic increases in Lake Gatun.

Alternative Design for Range Towers Used as Navigational Aids T

he second project regarded an alternative design for range towers used for navigation in the Panama Canal. Mariners use navigational aids for safe transits on and through bodies of water. Visual aids to navigation are dependable and often preferred by mariners. The most common visual aids at the Panama Canal are buoys and ranges. This project focused on range towers because they are fixed structures. Range towers are visual aids that help ships navigate through narrow channels by aligning them with the centerline of a body of water. With the widening of the Canal, the centerlines have shifted, requiring new range towers to be constructed. The ACP is currently replacing and updating all of the ranges in the Canal with latticed steel structures. These skeletal structures are located throughout Lake Gatun, aiding ship navigation through a series of Reaches (narrow straightaways in the Canal). Reaches are difficult to navigate and challenging to access, making construction of towers tedious. To improve efficiency, the purpose of this project was to evaluate the potential use of an alternative structure for the range towers. In doing so, the project addressed the three following objectives:

  • Determine the benefits and limitations of existing range tower designs;
  • Select an alternative tower design for ranges; and,
  • Evaluate the feasibility of the selected range tower.

The existing range towers in the canal are latticed and composed of galvanized and stainless steel. These materials are highly durable and do not require special coatings, so maintenance costs are low. These towers are open to the harsh Panamanian environment with high temperatures and heavy thunderstorms. Some towers are unprotected, have been looted for parts or defaced, and are exposed to environmental damage. This project researched an alternative structure with similar capabilities that is easily constructed and has protection.

The alternative structures considered in this project were concrete lighthouses and glass reinforced plastic (GRP) towers. Both structures are used worldwide in ranges and to mark inland waterways. However, GRP towers were chosen for their modular design and shape to increase efficiency and reduce potential damage. The GRP towers were compared to the existing latticed steel structures to evaluate their feasibility in the Canal. It was concluded that GRP towers are likely the most suitable replacement for latticed steel towers; however, these preliminary results were based on product descriptions from GRP manufacturing companies. This project recommends a further analysis be completed to compare the two structures pertaining to costs and structural capabilities. The GRP towers are considered a viable alternative structure and the ACP should replace the existing structures with GRP towers as necessary.

Assurance of Drinking Water Quality on Tugboats

The third project assessed the potable water provided to and aboard the Panama Canal tugboats and designed a Drinking Water Management Plan to improve the current drinking water quality. Once the Canal expansion is completed, tugboats will not only guide vessels through narrow channels of the Canal, but also through the new locks. In early 2015, tugboat engineers and crews expressed concerns regarding the quality of the water supplied on the vessels. This project was conducted alongside the ACP Water Quality Division and addressed the following three objectives to improve the water quality stored on the Panama Canal tugboats:

  • Establish the quality of water at intakes where tugs receive fresh water along the Panama Canal;
  • Launch a diagnosis of potable water in each tug; and,
  • Prepare a safe drinking water management plan to improve the current water quality.

To assess the potable drinking water quality supplied to and stored on the Panama Canal tugboats, this project adapted the framework for safe drinking water quality established by the World Health Organization in the Guideline to Safe Drinking-Water Quality (2008). This framework is composed of five main parts; health targets, system assessment, monitoring, management, and surveillance. Health targets are the established water characteristics and guideline values that represent the desired water quality. A system assessment determines whether the drinking water supply system from the source to the point of consumption can deliver water of a quality that meets the established health targets. After a system assessment, the project must identify control measures that, when effectively implemented, regulate and minimize deviation from the health targets. Management pertains to the procedures that will result in the ability of the drinking water system to effectively and routinely meet health targets. Surveillance is the continuous action of assessing the drinking water system to ensure effectiveness and further improve the drinking water quality.

This project established health based targets regarding turbidity, residual chlorine, total coliforms, and Escherichia coli. Water was collected and analyzed from five tugboat landings and two Panama Canal tugboats. Results suggested that water provided at the landings met the targets, but water stored on tugboats failed to meet turbidity and residual chlorine standards. After inspecting the potable water tanks on the tugboats, the presence of rust was identified, which would contribute to the high turbidity and low residual chlorine levels in the water. In conclusion, this project recommended the cleaning and epoxy painting of the interior walls of the water storage tanks. Additionally, the project designed a Drinking Water Management Plan, outlining methods, scheduling, and documentation to improve the current drinking water quality on tugboats.

New BEC Spillway Design

The fourth project detailed the preliminary phases and design of a new spillway for the Lake Gatun region. If a lake or reservoir created by a dam contains excess water, this surplus is typically released through a spillway which is a passageway that carries the water to a downstream location. Due to the rise the water level of Lake Gatun, the existing Gatun Spillway was deemed insufficient to be able to discharge the amount of water necessary in the case of a probable maximum flood. Because Gatun Spillway does not have enough hydraulic capacity to release water safely, the ACP began the BEC Spillway project in 2014 by hiring a Colombian firm, INGETEC, to provide preliminary designs, schedules, and cost estimates for the project. In order to assist in the planning of the new spillway, the project objectives are:

  • Research different types of spillways to ensure the best design is chosen;
  • Revise INGETEC’s technical drawings sent to the ACP for approval and check for points of conflict; and,
  • Devise possible routes for excavated material to travel from the spillway site to offshore disposal sites.

When considering the construction of a spillway, there are several factors involved such as location, type, and soil erosion. The location of a spillway is determined by environmental considerations of how the spillway will affect people and ecosystems in the area, as well as soil types and seismicity. If the proper type of spillway is not chosen for the area based on geological features, then the structural integrity of the dam and spillway are in jeopardy. Erosion is a major hazard for spillways because the high velocity of the released water can cause damage to the surrounding area.

After researching various types of spillways, the ACP and INGETEC decided that a stepped chute spillway is the best option for the BEC Spillway due to geological constraints. In order to confirm the soils present within the proposed site for the spillway, INGETEC drafted AutoCAD drawings of borehole locations. Revisions were made to these drawings when borehole locations conflicted with an existing building or road. Once corrections were completed, the ACP requested the examination of excavation methods and techniques. Since the spillway site is an island created by the existing Gatun Locks and the new Third Set of Locks, construction vehicles are unable to be utilized for excavation and transportation of materials. After studying drawings of the site, it is recommended that the best excavation routes to the disposal sites are to sink large, steel pipelines in Lake Gatun to carry the material to its destination. Moreover, it is recommended that the ACP conduct more research on how to transport concrete and other materials to the site. Currently scheduled to begin in 2017 and reach completion in 2019, the new BEC Spillway will help to ensure that Lake Gatun remains the safe, sustainable water source for the Panama Canal locks.


These four projects provided the ACP with additional information and recommendations suggesting improvements on projects created as a result of the Panama Canal Expansion Project. Each individual project encompassed social, economic, environmental, and other design constraints that helped to conceptualize their future impacts. The projects intend to impact and ensure the sustainability, efficiency, and continuation of safe transit through the Panama Canal.